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 well-known story of Aladdin in the Arabian Nights begins with a wizard undertaking a difficult quest all the way from Morocco to China in order to recover a powerful magical lamp. Only gradually does it become clear that the boy Aladdin, whom the Wizard meets in China, is the true protagonist, and the wizard turns out to actually be the story's villain.
- 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. In the television adaptation Game of Thrones he was portrayed by Sean Bean, who received top billing among the cast for Season One. Stark is generally assumed to be the series' main protagonist until the final chapters of the novel (corresponding to the penultimate episode of the first season) where he is unexpectedly executed.
- The Light Novel Goblin Slayer introduces a Warrior, Mage, and Monk who recruit a Priestess for a goblin killing quest. The three are eaten, poisoned to death, and sexually assaulted to the point of ending up in a vegatative state. The Priestess is rescued by the legendary Goblin Slayer who replaces her escorts as the protagonist. The escorts were featured in promotional marketing material for the novel and its anime adaptation until the first episode was released.
- 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.
- In Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty the player initially controls Solid Snake, protagonist of the original Metal Gear games. After his fate is left unknown, the game makes the player assume control to Raiden for the remainder of the game while Snake is reduced to a minor role. The game's design document claimed Raiden was envisioned for female players to better empathize with him than they might have with Snake. Hideo Kojima, the game's writer and director, revealed one reason for introducing Raiden was that the frequent use of the in-game CODEC radio that provided the player with valuable information would have made less sense being used by the veteran soldier Snake. Kojima also wanted to introduce a story theme of identity and probe at Snake's popularity among gamers by portraying him as a legendary figure from other characters' perspectives, which required the player to no longer be in control of him.
- The Tekken fighting game series featured Kazuya Mishima (Japanese: 三島 一八) as the protagonist of the original 1994 game who later became one of the major antagonists of the series for each following installment. He participates in the King of Iron Fist Tournament hosted by his abusive father Heihachi Mishima (Japanese: 三島 平八), CEO of the worldwide conglomerate Mishima Zaibatsu. Replacing him as CEO, Kazuya becomes corrupt and engaged in more ruthless endeavors in his pursuit of power. Heihachi eventually regains control and they both remain antagonists in the series. Jin Kazama (Japanese: 風間 仁), Kazuya's son and Tekken's true protagonist, describes their conflict as a cycle of abuse which he seeks to end.
- The Last of Us Part II lets the player control the antagonist Abby during her introduction in the prologue until she kills Joel for unknown reasons. Ellie seeks revenge and is controlled by the player through three in-game days until she encounters Abby again. Their encounter is paused, and the player begins controlling Abby in a flashback, playing the same three days from her perspective and learning her motivation for killing Joel. Upon reaching the point of her encounter with Ellie, the player fights her while in control of Abby. The player then alternates between both characters, culminating in a final battle against Abby while playing as Ellie. The goal of this decision, as stated by the game's creative director and lead co-writer Neil Druckmann, was to make the player hate Abby for murdering Joel, and later empathize with her for her vulnerabilities. Controlling Abby at the beginning of the game before it was clear she was the antagonist was meant to make it easier for the player to connect with her.
- In Assassin's Creed III, the player initially controls the antagonist, Haytham Kenway, for the first third of the game. He is sent to the American Colonies to find artifacts of the First Civilization in order to expand his organization's influence in the Colonies. After it is revealed that Haytham is the Grand Master of the Templar Order, the player's perspective is then switched to Haytham's illegitimate son, Ratonhnaké:ton, also known as Connor, the true protagonist. After being threatened by Haytham's colleagues, who then subsequently burn down his village, Connor has a vision from Juno, and seeks out Achilles Davenport to train him to become an Assassin.
- Christopher W. Tindale (2007). Fallacies and Argument Appraisal. Cambridge University Press. pp. 28–33. ISBN 978-0-521-84208-2.
- Jonason, Peter K.; Webster, Gregory D.; Schmitt, David P.; Li, Norman P.; Crysel, Laura (2012). "The antihero in popular culture: Life history theory and the dark triad personality traits". Review of General Psychology. 16 (2): 192–199. doi:10.1037/a0027914. S2CID 53478899.
- 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.
- Gardner, Jack. "Goblin Slayer Backlash Explained: Why It's The Most Controversial Anime This Season". Screen Rant. Retrieved 12 January 2022.
- Leigh, Janet. Psycho : Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller. Harmony Press, 1995. ISBN 0-517-70112-X.
- Keighley, Geoff. "The Final Hours of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty". Gamespot. Retrieved 1 September 2020.
- "That Time Kojima Deceived Everyone About Metal Gear Solid 2's Main Character".
- "Tekken: Ranking All the Characters". June 2017.
- "The Last of Us 2: How Long do You Play as Abby?". 27 May 2021.
- "Neil Druckmann and Halley Gross Open up About the Biggest Twists of 'The Last of Us Part II'". 22 June 2020.
- "A spoiler-heavy interview with the Last of Us Part 2 director Neil Druckmann". Eurogamer. July 2020.