Protagonist, deuteragonist, tritagonist
Unless you’ve spent time studying Ancient Greek drama tropes and terminology, the words ‘deuteragonist’ and ‘tritagonist’ may sound like a load of old tosh. And in truth, they’re not used all that often—but they exist in pretty much every story you’ve ever read, to varying degrees of strictness. But let’s start off with that first one, the one we all recognise.
protagonist (noun)—the leading character in a story
Identifying your protagonist is normally very easy. If you’re looking at a movie poster or a book cover, it’s probably the face that’s the biggest and in the middle. Think of your Luke Skywalkers, Harry Potters, James Bonds, Elizabeth Bennetts, Jessica Joneses and Katniss Everdeens.
A protagonist isn’t always ‘the good guy’, however, as many famous stories can attest—Hamlet, Heathcliffe from Wuthering Heights, Alex from the first part of A Clockwork Orange and Dr Sheppard from The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, for instance.
And a story isn’t limited to a single protagonist either—just think of The Lord of the Rings being told from multiple different story angles (Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, Faramir, Eowyn, Merry and Pippin), as well as the more recent A Song of Ice and Fire series, which, despite GRRM’s best efforts, still has enough characters left alive to tell a story (such as Jon, Tyrion, Arya, Daenerys, Sam, Cersei, Jaime, Bran, Theon and many others come and gone—not all of them ‘goodies’).
What defines a protagonist, therefore, does have a lot to do with the story that’s being told. It’s hard to sit down and think who is the main character in The Lord of the Rings. Yes, Frodo probably comes to mind, because he’s the one with the Ring, but in terms of who has the most ‘important’ chapters, that’s not so readily obvious, especially after the Fellowship parts ways. Equally true is the case with A Song of Ice and Fire, where each character follows their own storyline for much of the series, none of which seems to be the ‘most’ important. Yes, you may think perhaps Jon is the ‘main’ character because he’s the one who’s been facing the White Walkers for the longest, but like with Frodo, he shares his chapters with so many others equally.
Which brings me to the deuteragonist.
deuteragonist (noun)—the secondary or second most important character in a story
The role of the deuteragonist is often identifiable as a sidekick-like character to the protagonist. If The Lord of the Rings were simply a story about Frodo and Sam and Sauron, disregarding all the (in my opinion) best bits of the series, then Sam would be the deuteragonist. The sidekick role is the helpful companion, someone who aids the protagonist in their struggle in some capacity—perhaps physically, but often intellectually. Take Dr Watson as the deuteragonist to Sherlock Holmes’ protagonist, for example, or Ron Weasley to Harry Potter, Robin to Batman, Eleven to Mike (in Stranger Things) and Spock to Captain Kirk.
Like with the protagonist, however, it really does depend on the story. Not all sidekicks are substantial enough to be worthy of the label of deuteragonist (think Snowy from Tintin compared with the more substantial Captain Haddock, or Abu from Aladdin compared to the Genie).
Nor are all deuteragonists supportive of the protagonist. Many secondary characters who appear to be the protagonist’s friend or a supportive character actually turn out to be hindering them in some way (out of jealousy is a common reason), or reveal themselves to be the antagonist. As some examples, Iago from Othello, Prince Hans from Frozen and Talia al Ghul from The Dark Knight Rises.
In fact, depending on how the story is told, the deuteragonist could very well be the antagonist in plain sight. In Heat, Robert DeNiro plays a thief (our protagonist) and the secondary character in the film is Al Pacino who plays the detective in pursuit. Similarly, it could be argued that the Joker in The Dark Knight is the secondary character in the film, rather than Rachael or Harvey Dent. Also, Hans Gruber in Die Hard fills this role, as does Hannibal Lector from The Silence of the Lambs and Darth Vader.
Now, to the third of our ‘-ist’ trio.
tritagonist (noun)—the third main character in a story
As with the deuteragonist, the tritagonist’s role in the story is very much a case-by-case situation, depending on the story.
Examples of the tritagonist being a secondary sidekick character could be Hermione from Harry Potter (forming a trio of good guys), as could Jessie from Toy Story with both Woody and Buzz, and both Princess Leia and Han Solo from Star Wars.
Tritagonists, however, can also be the antagonist, the evil that the two main characters (and their lesser friends) must fight against. Think LeChiffe from Casino Royale, Doctor Evil from Austin Powers, Kahn from Star Trek: Into Darkness and Gothel from Tangled.
Of course, stories are so beautifully varied that characters don’t really have to adhere to any of the above ‘rules’ or trends, so if you can’t label characters… well, good!