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From Harry Potter to Frodo Baggins to Katniss Everdeen, what makes a character a main character? Is it their journey, their bravery, their heroism? Read along to find out what defines a main character—often also known as the protagonist.

What is a Main Character?

It’s something we hear when talking about books, movies, and, nowadays, it’s even a trending hashtag on social media. Main character syndrome isn’t only a caption for TikTok users, but it’s actually an important plot element in books and films alike. But what is a protagonist or main character?

The main character of a story is the focal point of the plot. They propel the action, is at the center of the climax, and is, typically, the most important character in the story. The protagonist is the hero of the story, who defeats the villain and saves the day. Oftentimes, this character and the protagonist are one and the same; however, there are instances in which these are two different characters. 

For example, in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the 1971 film adaptation based on the Roald Dahl novel, the young boy Charlie is the protagonist, or the hero, of the story, as he is the only child to make it through the factory and wins the grand prize. Willy Wonka himself, however, is the main character. He is the title character, he controls the plot, and the mystery of the story revolves around him.

An example of the two being the same character is evident in the Harry Potter series. Harry is the main figure of his title series, and he saves the wizarding world from the villainous Lord Voldemort. 

Make Your Own Main Character!

The Creative Writer’s Toolkit: Writing a Character Study 

Examples in Literature

  • Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • Kya in Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
  • Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  • David Copperfield in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Examples in Movies

  • Annie Walker in Bridesmaids
  • Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible
  • Ariel in The Little Mermaid
  • Will Hunting in Good Will Hunting

Protagonist vs. Antagonist

What is a character without others to move the story along? Enter: the antagonist. 

While the protagonist is the hero of the story, the antagonist is the villain, or the protagonist’s main adversary. The antagonist serves the important role of keeping the conflict moving, engaging with the hero, and propelling the plot forward. Some famous villains include Cruella de Vil, Darth Vader, Sauron, and Loki. No matter the universe—Disney, the galaxy, Middle Earth, or Marvel—villains exist to keep the heroes on their toes and audiences engaged. So any good story needs both protagonist and antagonist characters!

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Storytelling 101: Character, Conflict, Context, & Craft