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In fiction, a false protagonist is a literary technique, often used to make the plot more jarring or more memorable by fooling the audience's preconceptions, that constructs a character who the audience assumes is the protagonist but is later revealed not to be. A false protagonist is presented at the start of the fictional work as the main character, but then is eradicated, often by killing them (usually for shock value or as a plot twist) or changed in terms of their role in the story (i.e. making them a lesser character, a character who leaves the story, or revealing them to actually be the antagonist).
A false protagonist is a red herring in the form of a character. Especially in film and literature, the false protagonist may begin as a narrator. In video games, a false protagonist may initially be a playable character, only to be killed or revealed to be the antagonist. Due to the episodic nature of television, it is possible to accidentally create a false protagonist, when an actor leaves a series prematurely or becomes busy with other projects.
Alfred Hitchcock's film Psycho may be the first film to feature a false protagonist. It opens with actress Janet Leigh as the main character; however, she is killed partway through the film, making the murder far more unexpected and shocking. The death of the character assumed to be the protagonist takes the audience completely by surprise and builds the villain Bates up to be far more fearsome and frightening. Hitchcock felt that the opening scenes with Leigh as the false protagonist were so important to the film that when it was released in theaters, he compelled theater owners to enforce a "no late admission" policy.
- Leigh, Janet. Psycho : Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller. Harmony Press, 1995. ISBN 0-517-70112-X.