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 ©2022 by HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.
Indo-European & Semitic Roots Appendices
Thousands of entries in the dictionary include etymologies that trace their origins back to reconstructed proto-languages. You can obtain more information about these forms in our online appendices:
The Indo-European appendix covers nearly half of the Indo-European roots that have left their mark on English words. A more complete treatment of Indo-European roots and the English words derived from them is available in our Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.