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Thread: Question from Rhetoric Literature Week 17 definition of protagonist

  1. #1
    Dear Christy,

    For Week 17 SAP Defining Terms: The definition of a protagonist is a character whose actions and personality are central to the plot and meaning or message of the story.

    From Poetics - an antagonist is a character in the story who function is to provide a negative example of living, active opposition to the protagonist, or both.

    By those definitions, my son asked: Couldn't a protagonist also sometimes be an antagonist at the same time? For example, if the central character/protagonist was a "bad guy" who came to ruin and demonstrated through his negative example that the author's message means "don't do this" or you, too, will come to ruin? Would that one character fit both definitions at that point?

    We thought there was usually a connotation that a protagonist was a central character who generally did what the author portrayed as right and heroic and "good," but the definition of protagonist above seems to not contain a moral component.

    Beth Ann

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Jun 2004
    So. CA
    Hi Beth Ann,
    What a great question for your son to ask! What he is describing sound to me like a tragic hero - not necessarily a villain, but a flawed character who comes to a tragic end due to moral failure. Or sometimes because the "gods" have fated it to be so (Greek tragedy). Maybe Christy will tell us more!

  3. #3
    My goodness, Beth Ann, you DO have a critically-thinking student on your hands, don't you? Good for him!---but I'm sure it's occasionally tricky for you! ;-)

    The answer to that one is FAIRLY straightforward, though also a little complex... let's see if I can explain it!

    "Protagonist" comes from two Greek words meaning "the first (or primary) struggler." "Antagonist," if I'm keeping my Greek roots straight, means "the one who struggles against." Thus the antagonist, almost by definition, is a secondary character whose function in the story is to struggle against the main character (protagonist). So, although a protagonist IS sometimes a character who struggles against himself and provides a negative example (April's tragic hero, for instance), an antagonist BY DEFINITION has to have a protagonist against whom he struggles. So no, a character can't really be a protagonist and an antagonist at the same time. But yes, you can have a protagonist who provides a negative example and in that way is as "villainous" as any antagonist.

    Authors usually include an antagonist when they need to challenge or test a protagonist who has an idealized ("good") personality, and when this happens, the antagonist is almost always a villain (i.e. "provide a negative example") because if the protagonist had bad qualities, his own internal struggle would provide plenty of conflict without any antagonist. I would guess that this is why few tragic heroes have true antagonists---they just don't need any because they themselves are their own worst enemies.

    Now, that's putting the simple case. Obviously things get a lot more messy when the protagonist has some bad qualities and the antagonist has some good qualities, as in The Chosen! Here, I think the way to make sense of it is to ask "Who is the FIRST struggler here, the main character? And who is struggling against him?" That helps to clarify that Danny is the first struggler and his father is (or at least seems to be) struggling against him. It's not really the "villainous" quality that makes a character an antagonist---it is the fact that he's struggling against the protagonist.

    Hope this helps a little bit!


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