From protagonists to side characters and from heroes to villains, we often think of our characters in terms of the roles they play in the story. There is much terminology used for various roles, often with overlapping meanings, and this might seem daunting to a new student of literature or an aspiring author. An example of this would be the aforementioned protagonist and hero, which on the surface seem synonymous, but are actually denoting two very unique roles in a story that—while they often are merged—are not mutually inclusive.
In this article, we will first explore the historical origins of some familiar and some less common terms from the traditions of Greek drama, then move on to comparing them to modern cinematic and literary terminology. After this, we will explore the different roles characters play in storytelling apart from their prominence in the story. While many of the terms we will be addressing draw from stage and screen, they apply equally to literary theory.
protagonist and beyond: origins in greek drama
We have all heard the terms protagonist and antagonist, but did you know there are actually more -agonists from Greek drama? In early plays, excluding the chorus, there were often only two actors and two chief roles: the protagonist and the antagonist. Over time, the deuteragonist was introduced to provide a foil and a sort of sounding board for the protagonist, with whom they could discuss their experiences. This led to a situation where the antagonist was also often the tritagonist. By the time of Aristotle, Greek plays normally consisted of three actors (again excluding the chorus), each of whom would play multiple characters. They would often be introduced to the stage as their principal character, and their entrance coincided with this character’s role in the story. In order of appearance, this would be the protagonist, the deuteragonist, and the tritagonist. This tradition evolved over time and was codified by Aristotle in his seminal work of dramatic and literary theory: Poetics.
However, what is an -agonist? The suffix derives (in the usual Greek fashion) from another word: agōnistḗs (ἀγωνιστής), which quite simply means “actor” or “competitor”.
One of the two more common of these terms, the protagonist, was the first on stage in a Greek drama. The term combines prôtos (πρῶτος), or “first”, with agōnistḗs to indicate this is the “first actor”. This character plays the primary role in the story, facing the greatest obstacles, overcoming the greatest challenges, and making decisions which move the plot forward or change its direction. In the case of complex stories with subplots (such as in most novels), each subplot may be considered to have a separate protagonist. As mentioned in the introduction, the protagonist is often the hero of the story, but there are some exceptions to this. The primary definition here, heroic or not, is that the protagonist is at the center of the main plot and the persona upon whom the audience should place most of their attention.
Familiar of examples of protagonists include Frodo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings, Luke Skywalker from Star Wars (the original trilogy), and Will Turner from Pirates of the Caribbean (again, the original trilogy).
A less-commonly discussed dramatic term these days (in my experience) is the deuteragonist, or “second actor”. This term derives from the root deuteros (δεύτερος), unsurprisingly by this point meaning “second”. This character plays the second most important role in the story and is often the protagonist’s sidekick, joining them in their journey and aiding them along the way. This character may also be the focus of the protagonist’s goals, such as with a love interest in a romance. In cases where an adversarial relationship is central to a story, the deuteragonist may also be the Antagonist, making these two terms not mutually exclusive. Also, in many modern tales with larger casts, there are often two or more (but seldom many) supporting characters important enough to the protagonist’s journey to share the role of the deuteragonist.
Keeping with our above examples, familiar deuteragonists include Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings, Darth Vader from Star Wars, and both Captain Jack Sparrow and Elizabeth Swan (the aforementioned love interest) from Pirates of the Caribbean.
As one may expect, this term follows the patterns already established, using the root trítos (τρίτος), or “third”, to give us our tritagonist, or “third actor”. Alas, this is where the simplicity ends for our discussion of this role.
Often, the third most prominent character in a story is the antagonist, but in cases where they are given more of the spotlight, and the tritagonist might be an important character supporting the protagonist or the focus of a secondary plot (such as a romance). In many cases, this part of the dramatic hierarchy might be occupied by a robust supporting cast. The exact place of the tritagonist is no longer as well defined in modern literature and cinema. There is so much variation in story structure and propensity for larger casts of characters that strict labeling at this level constrains the creative process more than it provides any structural relevance.
Again, considering our examples: In The Lord of the Rings, the entire rest of the fellowship might be considered tritagonists. Some may say only Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took qualify, relegating the remainder of the fellowship to the role of tetartagonists. In Star Wars, the role of the tritagonist would be shared by Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda (mentors), Han Solo (sidekick and sometimes antagonist), and Princess Leia Organa (it’s complicated). Finally, in Pirates of the Caribbean, I would suggest that Captain Barbossa neatly fills the role of tritagonist, fluctuating between antagonist and ally. However, much of the supporting cast and other antagonists could arguably be included here.
Wait? Tetartangonists? Well, as one might assume, we could take this numbering trend as far as we fancy. Tetaragonist for fourth, pentagonist for fifth, as so on. However, since tritagonist is already pressing beyond the bounds of usefulness, I would argue that any further attempts at hierarchal codification would be unproductive. Therefore, I recommend simply considering the rest to be supporting cast or background characters, both of which will be discussed below.
From counting to countering, the antagonist is not a numbered actor, but rather plays a specific role in the story. The term is derived from the prefix anti- (ἀντι-), meaning “against”. Combined, antagonist means “against the contender”, and this is what they do. The antagonist is either doing everything in their power to thwart the protagonist or are the one who put the situation in place to spur the protagonist to action. Ever foes and rivals, the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist is often central to the plot.
Our examples of this would be Sauron from The Lord of the Rings, Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader from Star Wars, and Captain Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean, to be replaced later by Davy Jones and Lord Cutler Beckett.
From stage to screen and page: Modern casting and literary terminology
While deuteragonist and tritagonist might be terms we don’t see discussed as often, there is a similar hierarchy present and oft discussed in both modern cinema and literature. While the language may have changed, many of the concepts remain the same. As is obvious, the protagonist and antagonist are still common terms, but what about a modern hierarchy of roles? And what parallels, if any, do these have to Aristotle’s hierarchy? In the following section, we will discuss both cinematic and literary terminology for character hierarchies together, as they exist parallel to one another in most cases.
Lead Role / Main Character
It is likely the lifelong goal of every starry-eyed, fresh-faced new arrival to Hollywood to become one of the elites and land a lead role in a major film. This actor is front and center on the movie poster and is featured prominently on the screen, both in time and framing. Likewise, the main character in a book is the soul of many a story, the intrepid spirit who propels the plot forward and tugs at our hearts—the character with whom we create an emotional bond to become immersed in the world beyond the page.
Be this character the lead role in a film or the main character of a book, this persona is almost exclusively the realm of the protagonist. Like the first actor of a Greek drama, the main character faces great challenges and achieves great things, and it is by their will that the plot is ultimately propelled toward the climax. Or, in some cases, they are propelled toward the climax then play a key role in facilitating a change in the story once they get there.
Supporting Cast / Side Characters
Danny Ocean could not have had an Ocean’s Eleven without a supporting cast, much in the same way Frodo Baggins could not have had a Fellowship of the Ring without side characters. Be they sidekicks, mentors, love interests, allies, or enemies, the side characters are those who play an important role in the story, second only to the protagonist themself.
These umbrella terms of modern parlance encompass both the deuteragonists and tritagonists—and sometimes beyond. As mentioned when discussing tritagonists above, modern storytelling has such variance in structure and scope of casting that the language we use to assign hierarchies has broadened to a more fluid terminology. But no matter how large or small a role these characters play in influencing the plot, a side plot, or a character arc, they will play an important role and things would not turn out the same if their presence were lacking.
Extras / Background Characters
If you saw a few moments—muted and with no context—of I Am Legend alongside a few moments of Sex and the City, what would be the most obvious difference? Both are set in New York City, and some digging might even provide frames displaying the same streets and buildings. But there would be one stark difference that makes these two extremely different versions of the same place: The people, or lack thereof.
To create a living world, be it on screen or on the page, that world must be filled with people. Be they commuters in the hustle and bustle of a modern city or farmers working the land of a medieval manor, it is the extras and background characters that fill our worlds and breathe life into them. They are nameless, sometimes faceless, and have no direct impact on the course of the story. But without them, the stage would feel as empty and artificial as a Greek drama lacking its chorus.
From place to purpose: defining what a character means to the story
Thus far, we have focused on the hierarchal positioning of characters in a story. While I have related some of these placements to a character’s function in the story—such as a deuteragonist often being an antagonist, sidekick, or love interest—and discussed antagonist itself as describing function over rank, we have primarily observed the prominence each of these character types has in a story.
Arguably the most important question to consider is what purpose the character plays in the story. This, more often than not, determines the hierarchy; so, it seems I’ve saved the first for last! Here, we will take a look at some of the most common archetypes found in storytelling of all forms and how they fit into the big picture to keep the gears of the plot turning. This is by no means an exhaustive list but should cover the most prominent characters in most stories.
Whether Alexander the Great gathering an army to conquer the known world or Luke Skywalker setting out to save the princess, the hero sets out to overcome a monumental task. Their motivations may vary as much as their challenges and goals, but at the end of the day, they are the one at the forefront of the action and the center of the story. In most cases, the hero will also be the protagonist, lead actor, and main character—though there are some exceptions. Most notably of these would be Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings, who by any definition is a deuteragonist or side character, but who (spoiler warning) is the one who saves the day in the end.
It is also worth noting that volumes have been written on different types of heroic archetypes. Aside from ordinary heroes, there are reluctant heroes, antiheroes, everyman heroes, the tragic hero, the superhero, and so on.
This one is actually less common than the rest of this list, but it is one of my favorite literary devices and is unique enough in its execution to merit further inspection. The supporting protagonist (I use the term lightly as I could not find many sources using it in the same way) is a character from who’s point of view the story is told, but who is not the actual protagonist. On the surface, this person seems to fit that role. They are the one telling the story or over whose shoulder the narrator observes, they are present for all of the major events, and they play an active role in the story. However, they are not the driving force behind moving the plot forward or changing its direction. Rather, they serve primarily as an observer, creating a foil for the true protagonist and serving as a reader’s advocate. This character will always be right beside the protagonist, making them as true a deuteragonist as any there ever were—or at least chief among the side characters.
In my experience, I’ve seen this primarily in serialized detective fiction, used to provide a channel through which the detective can explain their… detecting. Doctor John Watson from the Sherlock Holmes tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is the most prominent example of this. Another favorite of mine is Doctor Trowbridge from the stories of amateur detective Jules de Grandin by Seabury Quinn. Also, Aurthur Hastings narrates most of the short stories and eight of the novels featuring Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot.
Some say every Batman needs a Robin just like every Frodo needs a Samwise. I say not every story needs a sidekick, but they can be massively influential characters on both the plot itself and the tone of a book. In all the examples above of supporting protagonists, these characters were simply sidekicks who also took over the job of providing a point of view. Aside from this possible task, sidekicks serve as foils for the protagonist, sounding boards to discuss what is happening, companions to keep the narrative from feeling too silent and to promote personal growth in the main character, and allies to round out the skills needed to overcome challenges. Again, the sidekick and the protagonist will be attached at the hip, so they will be second only to the protagonist.
Where would Frodo be without his Gandalf? While not every story needs or should have a mentor, they can be instrumental in both propelling the plot forward and providing the protagonist with the means to advance their goals. Be it facilitating the inciting incident or being the source of the big reveal at the midpoint, the mentor is often the one opening new doors so the show can go on. However, they need not be wizened old wizards. Joe the barkeep has seen a thing or two over the years, Nancy down at the farmer’s market knows everybody in town, and the protagonist’s grandfather might as well be a wizard for all the books he’s read over the years! The role a mentor plays may encompass the majority of the book or they may only appear for a brief chapter to impart their wisdom. As such, they can range from a deuteragonist to a minor side character.
While not every story needs a love interest, it never hurts to have one. In some cases, this is the entire point of the story! Sometimes a sidekick and sometimes more like an antagonist (because “Love is like war”—H. L. Mencken), the love interest can range from the protagonist’s goal to something that happily occurs along the journey. A such, the love interest can also range in hierarchal importance from the very top of the list to around the middle (but not the end, or you’re just phoning it in). The love interest can do a lot for the story, from helping overcome the protagonist’s challenges to providing more challenges, or perhaps facilitating a character arc where the main character grows as a person.
Our examples from the section on the -agonists would not have been interesting stories without a Sauron, Emperor Palpatine, or Captain Barbossa (and later Davy Jones and Lord Cutler Beckett). Like the hero and the protagonist, the villain and the antagonist are almost always one and the same. Whether through greed, maliciousness, or a misguided view of reality, the villain has some dastardly plan the protagonist must thwart to save the day. Because of their importance to many stories, villains normally play a secondary role to the protagonist, or tertiary if there is a prominent side character.
Interestingly, just like there are antiheroes, there are also anti-villains: characters who may be likeable in personality and righteous in purpose, but whose methods are objectively distasteful. Thanos from the Marvel Cinematic Universe is one such example of an anti-villain.
Comic Relief and Beyond
Beyond what we have explored so far, there is a wide range of other archetypes with which to round out our casts. From the plucky comic relief lightening the mood of the direst circumstances to the bruiser ready to smash skulls and doors alike, a well-rounded cast not only adds layers of depth to a story but also provides opportunities for greater challenges to be overcome in a variety of ways, for more intricate dialogues, for more romances, and for more secondary antagonists.
A rose by any other name…
We began our journey with the conundrum that there are many literary terms thrown about to label characters, creating a daunting situation for both the new student of literature and the aspiring author to overcome. What we discovered was that while these labels all tell us something different about the character, no character can be properly labeled by merely one of these terms. As with all things in literature—and all forms of storytelling—these labels are part of a toolkit to be selected and utilized when pragmatic for furthering our goals. They should not get in the way of either understanding a story or creating one. Once they become an obstacle, they have outlived their usefulness and should be cast aside. Where a side character can become a hero, so too can an antagonist become a love interest. A sidekick, mentor, and villain can all be deuteragonists. And one person’s protagonist is another’s main character.
Shakespeare wrote it best when Romeo said:
What’s in a name? That which we call a roseRomeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II; William Shakespeare
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title.