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).
In film, a character can be made to seem like the main protagonist based on a number of techniques (beyond just simply focusing the plot on their role). Star power is a very effective method; audience members generally assume that the biggest "name" in a movie will have a significant part to play. An abundance of close-ups can also be used as a subliminal method. Generally, the star of a film will get longer-lasting and more frequent close-ups than any other character, but this is rarely immediately apparent to viewers during the film. Alternatively, the false protagonist can serve as a narrator to the movie, encouraging the audience to assume that the character survives to tell their tale later.
Many of the same techniques used in film can also apply to television, but the episodic nature adds an additional possibility. By ending one or more episodes with the false protagonist still in place, the show can reinforce the viewers' belief in the character's protagonist status. Also, because TV shows often have changes of cast between seasons, some series can have unintentional false protagonists: characters who begin the series as the main character but then are replaced early in the show's run by another character entirely. When the series is viewed as a whole, this can lead to the appearance of a false protagonist.
In video games, a false protagonist may initially be a playable character, only to be killed or revealed to be the antagonist. One key way in which video games employ the method that differs from uses in non-interactive fiction is by granting the player direct control over the false protagonist. Since most video games allow a player to control only the main characters (and their success or failure is based on playing skill, not pre-determined story), the sudden demise of the character that is being controlled serves to surprise the player.
- The Book of Samuel begins with Samuel's birth and God's call to him as a boy. At this point, the readers are led to believe that Samuel is the central figure in the book. Though by the sixteenth chapter, the book starts to primarily focus on David.
- George R. R. Martin's novel A Game of Thrones, the first entry in the A Song of Ice and Fire epic fantasy series, features chapters told from the point of view of numerous characters, though the most prominent is Ned Stark, who is generally assumed to be the novel's main protagonist until the final chapters where he is unexpectedly executed.
- In The Ten Commandments, Moses is the main protagonist for the first hour of the film until it switches to the 1920s to focus on the sinful lives of John and Dan McTavish.
- In Bulldog Jack, Bulldog Drummond is the main protagonist for the first few minutes of the film, until he gets into a car crash which leaves his friend Jack Pennington to become it.
- In the 1958 film adaptation of "Dracula", the film initially follows the character of Jonathan Harker, who after venturing into Castle Dracula, is unexpectedly bitten & turned into a vampire. From there, the film focuses on Dr. Van Helsing & his friends (the film's real protagonists).
- Alfred Hitchcock's film Psycho opens with Marion Crane as the main character. However, she is killed partway through the film, making the murder far more unexpected and shocking. Hitchcock felt that the opening scenes with Marion 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.
- Project A-ko 4: FINAL begins with Miss Ayumi as the false main protagonist. A-ko Magami does not appear in the film until 34 minutes, as the film shifts its main focus to A-ko, she bursts out of the floor in her sailor-suited battle outfit during the wedding, as she and B-ko are ready for battle.
- Perhaps the most famous false protagonists are C-3PO and R2-D2 from Star Wars. The film's opening sequence focuses on the two as they struggle to escape from the Tantive IV as it is overrun by Imperial stormtroopers. After they flee the ship on an escape pod to Tatooine, the film shifts its main focus to Luke Skywalker, the actual protagonist of the film.
- The film Arachnophobia opens with Mark L. Taylor's character, nature photographer Jerry Manley, as its focus. However, he is killed a mere ten minutes into the film by a seizure caused by a spider bite, after which the focus shifts to Jeff Daniels's character, Dr. Ross Jennings.
- Halloween: Resurrection opens with Jamie Lee Curtis's character Laurie Strode, who was the main protagonist in the previous Halloween films, only to be murdered by the antagonist (Michael Myers) ten minutes into the film.
- In Star Fox Adventures: Dinosaur Planet, the games opens with the character Krystal. However, she is ambushed and sealed in a crystal just minutes into the game, at which point the game shifts to protagonist Fox McCloud.
- In the Square Enix game Final Fantasy XII, the game opens with a focus on the character of Reks. However, he is killed a few minutes into the game by the evil Gabranth, who is masquerading as his twin brother, Basch, at the time. Soon after, the game's focus shifts to his younger brother, Vaan, the true protagonist of the story.
- The game Kingdom Hearts II begins with the character Roxas as its focal character. However, more than an hour into the game, he finds the pods containing Sora, Donald Duck, and Goofy and vanishes immediately after (as he is actually a part of Sora), prompting the shift to focusing on Sora for the remainder of the game.
- In Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, the game starts with series protagonist Solid Snake. But after the opening chapter, the game shifts to protagonist Raiden. Players were unaware of this shift at the time, as developers kept it a secret by only showing Solid Snake in the trailers.
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- Gordon 1986, p. 18.
- Hibberd, James (June 12, 2011). "Game of Thrones recap: The Killing". Entertainment Weekly. p. 1. Retrieved August 17, 2014.
- Poniewozik, James (June 13, 2011). "Game of Thrones Watch: The Unkindest Cut". Time. Retrieved August 13, 2014.
- Leigh, Janet. Psycho : Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller. Harmony Press, 1995. ISBN 0-517-70112-X.