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 is then removed from the role, 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- For Godzilla, the film and its trailers set up Bryan Cranston's character, Joseph Brody, as the main protagonist. He's the character focused on in the film's prologue, after which his son Ford Brody, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, becomes the focal character. Then Joe dies from sustained injuries 40 minutes into the film, leaving Ford as the main focus.
- In Star Fox Adventures: Dinosaur Planet, the game 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.
- 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.
- In Final Fantasy XII, the player starts out controlling the character of Reks. However, he is killed ten to fifteen minutes into the game, at which point the game shifts to the protagonist, his younger brother, Vaan.
- In Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony, the Prologue and Chapter 01 of the game is played from the view of Kaede Akamatsu, the Ultimate Pianist. However, after she is voted as the culprit and then executed at the End of Chapter 1's Class Trial, the rest of the Game is played from the view of Shuichi Saihara, the Ultimate Detective.
- In “Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War”, the first half of the game is played as the character Sigurd. However, halfway through the game, Sigurd is killed, and his son Seliph inherits the role of protagonist.
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- Leigh, Janet. Psycho : Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller. Harmony Press, 1995. ISBN 0-517-70112-X.