False Protagonist: What are They and How to Use Them

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 Protagonist: is who we think the protagonist is, but discover that they are not. They either disappear slowly, die, or become the antagonist.

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.

Why would you want to incorporate a false protagonist? They make for great plot twists, comedic effect, and reinforce over-arching themes within your novel or short story.

I’ve come up with three ways that you can dispose of your false protagonist:

The Fade

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.

C-3PO and R2-D2 are a false protagonist

Killed Off

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.



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Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams is a writer and editor for a local marketing agency. She has formerly worked as a writer for the Investing News Network and as an editor for Whetstone, a bi-annually published literary magazine. Aside from writing, Danielle has an unabiding love for all marine life and the outdoors. She loves taking long hikes with her husband and cooking delicious meals in the kitchen.


4 Responses

  1. I like your definition of the false protagonist.

    I’m currently writing a short story where there is a reversal between antagonist and protagonist. The neighbor (who you think is the protagonist) becomes the antagonist.

    However, I disagree with you on one point. In Psycho, Norman Bates is never the protagonist: https://literarydevices.net/protagonist/

    He’s the antagonist, not the hero of the story. After Marion dies, her sister Lila becomes the protagonist, and also her boyfriend, Sam.

    I wrote a short post on Psycho (1960) called “The Consequences of Acting on Impulse.” If you would like to read it, I am open to any feedback: https://christopherjohnlindsay.wordpress.com/2017/07/13/psycho-1960/

    1. Hi Chris,

      I’m glad you found my definition of a false protagonist useful. 😉

      Your story sounds interesting and if you’re ever up for sharing it with someone I’d love to take a look at it and provide feedback if you’d like.

      I totally agree with you about Norman Bates. I had a bit of a time crunch to get the post done on time and had him on the brain. I must have missed my mistake in a quick editing job. Thanks for pointing it out to me! I will be sure to change it.

      I will most cettainly take a look at it. 😉

  2. Hi, Danielle! I’ve nominated you for the Liebster Award, an award which recognises and encourages emerging or established bloggers and their work to be further discovered by others. I really enjoy reading your blog, and I hope you enjoy participating in the Liebster Award. Please visit my post via this link http://laurenmhancock.com/2020/08/05/the-liebster-award-nomination-discover-more-blogs/ and follow the instructions! 😊

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