What's the Difference Between the Protagonist and the Main Character?

main character definition protagonist
The main character of your story will attract the most star power when it comes to casting. But are they the same as the protagonist?

When you're writing or researching your screenplay you come across lots of different definitions. People want to assign all sorts of monikers to the characters within your story. You'll no doubt hear about the main character, protagonist, and hero. Frequently, these are all the same person inside the story, but they are not interchangeable definitions. 

Today we're going to show you what sets apart each of these terms and give you a few examples to show you how it differs from the other people in the story. 

So without further ado... 

What's the Difference

Yes, there's a difference between these terms. Let's break them down: 

The Main Character Definition

The definition of the main character is the character who the story is mostly about or the point of view of the story. Often the main character has their name in the title of the movie or TV show. Like Michael Clayton, Shrek, or Veronica Mars.  This isn't the ONLY way to ID the main character, but it's certainly an obvious one. And it speaks to the idea that the main character is going to be central to this story. 

main character definition protagonist

What are some main character synonyms? 

The central character, principal, or hero are often seen as synonyms. 

But remember, the hero of the story can be different than the main character. 

Protagonist Definition

The word comes from the Ancient Greek, "protagonistes." It literally means, “the one who plays the first part.” The opposite is an antagonist. 

What sets the hero of the story apart? 

According to John August, the hero of the story is the person you hope to see "win." They're who you root for. That means your hero within the story can be subjective. It could be someone in only three scenes within a movie mostly about someone else. So you can have a supporting protagonist. 

The main character vs protagonist

The protagonist of a movie or TV show is usually defined as the person who changes over the course of the story. Now, I know what you're thinking, all these words and definitions sound similar...

But they're not the same thing!

Sure, in movies like Superman or The Santa Clause all three terms wind up being the same person, but as John August poses, what about movies like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

main character definition protagonist

Charlie is clearly the main character and the hero, but he's not the protagonist. He doesn't change. Willy Wonka changes over the course of the film. It's Wonka's arc. What's amazing about screenwriting is the freedom to have these titles be different characters. 

Never try to force this all to be one character, follow your theme and let the story suss itself out. 

Let's look at a few more examples to really iron out the differences. 

Examples from Film and TV

It's not just Willy Wonka, think about other movies that have different people in each role. ConsiderThe Shawshank Redemption. The main character in Shawshank is Red, but the hero in the movie is clearly Andy Dufresne. We want Andy to get the freedom he deserves. But Andy also doesn't change at all. He's always an innocent man striving to break free. 

That means the protagonist is also Red. Red's arc in the movie is tied to his parole hearing. It's accepting why he ended up in prison and saying what he needs to say to get out. 

main character definition protagonist
Which is the protagonist and which is the main character?

Another example of the main character versus the protagonist is within To Kill a Mockingbird

Our main character is our narrator, "old" Scout. She's the point of view of the story, but her younger self is the protagonist. Child scout's arc is learning about humankind. It's a rude awakening. What I love about this movie is that it has multiple heroes. 

The main hero being Atticus Finch. We're rooting for Atticus, seeing the world through Scout's memory, and following Scout as a child. 

This is a layered film that shows you how malleable these terms can be and how they serve your writing. 

main character definition protagonist

What's next? Read more on the topic

A strong hero is the foundation of any story. Here's how to write one that sizzles. Sure, it’s easy to pick out the main character of a story, but they are so much more than who’s on-screen for most of the story. This character is the embodiment of your story’s theme. The person the audience needs to latch onto, and frequently the reason for the story to happen.

So, how can you write a compelling one?

Click the link to learn more!     

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Your Comment


The protagonist is the character whose decisions and actions propel the story forward to the conclusion. The antagonist is the character in opposition to the protagonists goals. Every story is a push and pull between these two forces and when it gets out of balance you have story problems. If your protagonist is only ever reacting to the antagonist, you have a weak protagonist. It's a common screenwriting mistake I see, more often in movies with female or minority protagonists where the story happens "to them" instead of because of them. Understandable perhaps as historically, women and minorities have been less powerful and subjugated by society, so it can be a challenge to dramatize their stories in a way that doesn't cast them as victims.

July 19, 2019 at 4:09PM, Edited July 19, 4:28PM


Protagonist is basically the story's hero and who the audience most connects with. If protagonist and main character are to be distinct characters, the the protagonist is a more essential character.

July 21, 2019 at 10:30PM

Christian Flapton

The protagonist is at the centre of the story, makes the key decisions, and experiences the consequences of those decisions. Thanks for sharing this story.

August 19, 2019 at 4:35AM


IT'S VERY OBVIOUS that,IN THE HUGE MAJORITY OF STORIES,the main character,the protagonist and the hero ARE ONE AND THE SAME PERSON!THERE ARE EXTREMELY FEW STORIES where there is a difference between the main character and the protagonist,so the two ARE BASUCALLY ONE AND THE SAME THING!And IT'S NOT TRUE AT ALL,that "the hero of the story is the person you hope to see win"!That is A HUGE NONSENSE!The hero of a story IS THE PROTAGONIST OF THAT STORY and IT DOESN'T MATTER AT ALL if you hope to see him/her "win"!I ALSO HAVE TO DISAGREE with something that someone said in a comment,which is that "if protagonist and main character are to be distinct characters,the protagonist is a more essential character"!THIS IS DEFINITELY WRONG!On the contrary,if the protagonist and the main character are two distinct characters,THE MAIN CHARACTER IS BY FAR THE MORE ESSENTIAL CHARACTER!Then,IT'S ALSO NOT TRUE what someone else said,that "if your protagonist is only ever reacting to the antagonist,you have a weak protagonist.It's a common screenwriting mistake I see,more often in movies with female or minority protagonists where the story happens to them instead of because of them"!What A BUNCH OF BIG RUBBISH!First of all,if the protagonist is only reacting to the antagonist,YOU DEFINITELY DO NOT HAVE a "weak protagonist",but A VERY STRONG ONE because IT TAKES A LOT OF STRONG TO REACT TO WHAT'S HAPPENING TO YOU and MANY TIMES IN LIFE THINGS HAPPEN TO YOU,NOT BECAUSE OF YOU!So,THIS ISN'T AT ALL "a common screenwriting mistake",but A VERY GOOD AND REALISTIC SCREENWRITING!And THIS DOESN'T OCCUR "MORE OFTEN" in movies with female or minority protagonists!THIS IS ONLY A STUPID CLICHE because THERE ARE PLENTY OF MOVIES with female or minority protagonists where THE STORY HAPPENS BECAUSE OF SUCH PROTAGONISTS!And the protagonist IS NOT "at the centre of the story"!THE MAIN CHARACTER is in the centre of a story!Some people SHOULD REALLY THINK A LITTLE before writing SUCH TERRIBLE NONSENSES!

November 29, 2021 at 11:24AM, Edited November 29, 11:36AM