This quote by TV Tropes sums up the false protagonist beautifully:
So you’ve got your hero. They practically have a giant neon sign over their head that says they’re a hero. It might be subtle, but it’s fairly obvious you’ve found the person who’ll save the day, get the girl/guy, and live a long and hap — what the? Did they just get bitten in half by a mutant T. Rex?
As you might have guessed, we’re about false protagonists today. Let’s dive in and get to it.
What is a False Protagonist?
Let’s start with a definition:
False protagonists have been around for a while. You can find them in The Book of Samuel and modern literature.
The false protagonist isn’t really a character type. They’re more of a literary device that writers use to set up a change in their narratives or a dramatic plot twist.
How They Work
There are numerous ways to get a character out of the way to let someone else take the spotlight once the supposed protagonist falls a secondary character or a sidekick steps into the spotlight and saves the day.
I’ve come up with three ways that you can dispose of your false protagonist:
The fade is simple. You introduce a secondary or minor character and let them talk for the first chapter or pages of your book. These characters then gradually step out of the limelight once the real hero of your tale steps into the picture.
The fade is a common method that writers like J.K. Rowling, Charles Dickens (Oliver Twist), and George Lucas use. Let’s look at Harry Potter and Star Wars for some examples.
In the opening chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, we get the Dursley’s perspective and, in particular, Vernon Dursley. After Voldemort is defeated, Vernon notices the magical community’s happiness, and we get to witness his disdain for it.
As soon as Harry steps into the picture, Vernon gives up his limelight position and steps into his role as a secondary character. He separates himself from Harry and the wizarding world, reinforcing his disdain for the wizarding community.
And the same thing happens in Star Wars. At the beginning of the movie, we have C-3PO and R2-D2 trying to fulfill their mission to deliver a message to Obi-wan Kenobi. However, when R2-D2 and C-3PO encounter Luke Skywalker, they fade into the background as Luke takes over the story.
The second most popular way to get rid of a false protagonist is to kill the impostor off. This can come as a complete surprise to the reader or hinted at throughout a book series. Regardless of how you do it, there is a correct way to kill your characters.
Let’s look at Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones.
Alfred Hitchcock focuses his story on Marion Crane. She ends up stealing money from her employer and drives north to surprise her lover. Unfortunately for her, she checks into the wrong hotel and is never heard from again. Her death allows Marion’s sister and lover to become the real stars of the show.
In A Game of Thrones, Ned Stark is the main character who doesn’t make it until the end of the series. His death, along with many other characters, reinforces many of Martin’s themes to get across to his readers, as bad things can happen to good people. Killing off his character also has the added benefit of creating suspense, as readers never know if their favorite character will make it to the end of the book.
Protagonist as the Antagonist
You can even turn your “protagonist” into the bad guy—this one you do need to set up a little as they did in Disney’s Frozen.
At the start of the film, Princess Elsa could be considered the main character as she was the focus of the opening scenes. It is all about her powers and her fear of controlling them. After Princess Ana confronts Elsa for her hermit-like ways, Elsa loses control of her emotions and power, sending the kingdom into an ice age.
She becomes the tale’s unintentional villain by refusing to accept responsibility for her actions and fleeing to the snow-capped mountains. Because Elsa goes into hiding, Ana steps up as the real protagonist by embarking on her mission to get her sister back and save the kingdom.
False protagonists are there to help us surprise and delight our readers and reinforce themes within a story. You have three ways that you can integrate them into your tale.
Just remember to kill off your characters responsibly and to leave clues for readers about any coming twists. I know it may seem like there were no clues to Marion Crane’s death, but there were signs. She did steal money and had to pay for that somehow, which doesn’t make her ending a total surprise.
Have you used a false protagonist before? Are there other ways to get rid of false protagonists?
Stay safe, everyone.
Until next time.