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. In the television adaptation Game of Thrones he was portrayed by Sean Bean, the best-known actor in the cast. 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.
- 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.
- Wes Craven's film Scream opens with Drew Barrymore's Casey Becker. She receives a threatening phone call from a mysterious person, only to be killed fifteen minutes into the film. Barrymore was usually featured in the film's promotional posters as she was the more notable actress from the film at that time.
- Gurren Lagann gives Kamina a large amount of focus. The story is told from his point of view until Episode 8, where a plot twist has Kamina sacrifice himself and delegate trust in his friend Simon, who takes the role as the protagonist. 
- Ga-rei marketed the characters Touru and Natsuki through promotions, protagonists of the first episode until their deaths. Subsequent episodes, present Tsuchimiya Kagura and Isayama Yomi as more central characters.
- The anime adaptation of Attack on Titan revolves around Mikasa Ackerman, and Eren Yeager, whom she protects. Eren is seemingly killed early on, and it appears as though the focus will shift to Mikasa. It is later revealed that Eren survived, and by the end of the first anime season, their roles are drastically diminished.
- In seasons 3 and 4 of Locked Up (TV series), Macarena Ferreiro Molina (Maggie Civantos) is presented as the protagonist but after only 2 episodes passes, she disappears until the end of season 4. 
- In Assassin's Creed III, Haytham Kenway is portrayed as the protagonist during the prologue. However, after initiating Charles Lee into the order, it is revealed that Haytham was actually a Templar master and becomes the game's antagonist. The game then proceeds to switch to Haytham's son Connor Kenway (Ratonhnhaké:ton), who becomes an assassin after his village is burned down. 
- Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty the player initially controls Solid Snake, protagonist of the original Metal Gear games. After seemingly dying, the game infamously 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. He 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 no longer be in control of him.
- The Tekken fighting game series featured Kazuya Mishima (三島 一八) as the protagonist of Tekken 1 and a major antagonist for every following game. He participates in the King of Iron Fist Tournament hosted by his abusive father Heihachi Mishima (三島 平八). Believing he killed Heihachi, Kazuya appointed himself CEO of the Mishima Zaibatsu. Rather than cleansing the company of his father's corrupt practices he engaged in more ruthless endeavors. Even after Heihachi regained control of the Zaibatsu, they both remain major antagonists. Their conflict is described as part of a cycle of abuse which Jin Kazama (風間 仁), Kazuya's son and Tekken's true protagonist, wants to break.
- The Last of Us Part II lets the player control the antagonist Abby during her introduction in the prologue until she suddenly 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.
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- Hibberd, James (June 12, 2011). "Game of Thrones recap: The Killing". Entertainment Weekly. p. 1. Retrieved August 17, 2014.
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- Leigh, Janet. Psycho : Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller. Harmony Press, 1995. ISBN 0-517-70112-X.