Have you ever learned a new word from a book? Some people use the context clues found in the paragraph to deduce the meaning of an unfamiliar term. If that fails, they turn to a dictionary to provide a definition. If you love books, you probably talk about them after you read them. Did you know that specialized vocabulary exists to describe the characters of a story? Let’s learn the story of one of those terms—protagonist.

In Ancient Greece, the protagonist (from protos, meaning “first,” and agonistes, meaning “actor”) was the lead actor of a play. This actor stood across from a chorus, relating a story by means of questions and answers. Later, the label protagonist was applied to all principal roles, not just in dramas, but also in films and novels.

“This is the person who’s driving the plot. He’s making things happen. He’s the vortex at the center of the cyclone. Without him, you may have an interesting situation, great settings, and a charming supporting cast―but they’re just gonna sit there and look pretty.” ―K.M. Weiland

Let’s use To Kill a Mockingbird as an example. Who tells the story? Jean Louise Finch (Scout), a girl whose father is a lawyer. In the book, Scout relates the story of a case that her father handled when she was just about to start elementary school. She narrates the story in the first person, meaning we hear events from her point of view. As the young Scout gets older in the novel, she communicates the internal and external struggles that accompany that process. Is Scout the protagonist because the story revolves around her and her experiences and is told from her point of view?

Not everyone says yes. Some say that Scout is the main character, but her father is the protagonist. After all, Scout is just a child during the time of the trial. Could she have affected its outcome as much as her lawyer father? In Scout’s case, she is more of an observer than a catalyst behind the action of the plot.

According to the Narrative First website, the main character serves as the eyes of the audience while the protagonist “pursues the goal of the story.” In most cases, the protagonist and the main character are one and the same. But if the main character is not the protagonist, he or she is still involved in the plot and affected by the resolution of the story’s conflict. Why would an author choose to make the protagonist and the main character separate people? According to K.M. Weiland, an author might want to create distance between readers and the protagonist. Distance allows readers to observe the protagonist from an external vantage point, or prevents them from being put off by an unappealing or unrelatable character.

The word protagonist may not appear in the next book that you read, but you can keep an eye out for the character at the forefront of the conflict. Who is your favorite protagonist? If no one comes to mind, why not start reading a new book today? The most fascinating character of your life might be in the next story you discover!

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