1. The main character in a work of fiction, as a play, film, or novel.
2. In ancient Greek drama, the first actor to engage in dialogue with the chorus, in later dramas playing the main character and some minor characters as well.
a. A leading or principal figure.
b. The leader of a cause; a champion.
4. Usage Problem A proponent; an advocate.
[Greek prōtagōnistēs : prōto-, proto- + agōnistēs, actor, combatant (from agōnizesthai, to contend, from agōn, contest, from agein, to drive, lead; see ag- in the Appendix of Indo-European roots).]
Usage Note: The protagonist of a Greek drama was its leading actor; therefore, there could be only one in a play. Ancient Greek also had words for the second and third actor. These were borrowed into English as deuteragonist and tritagonist, respectively, but the two terms are generally used only in technical discussions of drama. As early as 1671 John Dryden used protagonists to mean simply "important actors" or "principal characters": " 'Tis charg'd upon me that I make debauch'd persons ... my protagonists, or the chief persons of the drama." Some writers may still prefer to confine protagonist to its original singular sense, but it is useless now to insist that the looser use is wrong, since it is so well established and since so many literary works have no single main character. The Usage Panel accepts the looser use. In our 2004 survey, 86 percent of the Panel approved of the sentence Joyce's Ulysses has two protagonists: Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus. Similarly, 84 percent accepted The novel, written from multiple points of view, has several protagonists. · Some people use protagonist to refer to a proponent, a usage that became common only in the 20th century and may have been influenced by a misunderstanding that the first syllable of the word is the prefix pro-, "favoring." Many readers will therefore find erroneous a sentence like He was an early protagonist of nuclear power. Certainly, most of the Usage Panel does. In 2004, 83 percent rejected this same sentence. Fortunately, words like advocate and proponent are standard in these contexts.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
The American Heritage Dictionary Blog
Check out our blog, updated regularly, for new words and revised definitions, interesting images from the 5th edition, discussions of usage, and more.
American Heritage Dictionary Products
The American Heritage Dictionary, 5th Edition
The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms
The American Heritage Roget's Thesaurus
Curious George's Dictionary
The American Heritage Children's Dictionary
The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots
The American Heritage Student Grammar Dictionary
The American Heritage Desk Dictionary + Thesaurus
The American Heritage Science Dictionary
The American Heritage Dictionary of Business Terms
The American Heritage Student Dictionary
The American Heritage Essential Student Thesaurus