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The False Protagonist: Don't Be Afraid to Fool Your Readers

When Alfred Hitchcock released his seminal film Psycho in 1960, he did more than create a standard for what would later be known as the "slasher flick" genre. He gave us one of the first cinematic examples of a false protagonist—a narrative technique that has been used successfully by writers and filmmakers ever since to challenge audiences' preconceived notions and offer up a surprise twist to the traditional narrative form.

As audiences watched the opening 20 minutes of the movie, Marion Crane (played by actress Janet Leigh) was the film's obvious protagonist. The setting is Phoenix, Arizona, and the date is Friday, December 11th, at 2:43 p.m. The camera pans into an upper-level apartment downtown, where Marion, a secretary taking an extended lunch break, is seen lying in bed after an afternoon tryst with her lover.

The two discuss the circumstances under which they have been meeting and the reason they are unable to get married in order to have more a "respectable" rendezvous—Sam, Marion's boyfriend, is in debt and unable to afford to marry her. The lovers depart with uncertainty over their future, as Marion returns to her job at a real estate office, where she works as a secretary.

The series of events that unfold next show Marion stealing $40,000 in cash from her employer and heading out of town to give it to Sam in hopes that their future would be less uncertain. Despite the criminal act, we see Marion's frustration at the circumstances and experience sympathy toward her (as we would with any protagonist) as she attempts to avoid suspicion.

Actress Janet Leigh plays the role of a false protagonist in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho
Actress Janet Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho

On the second day of her trip, she encounters a rainstorm that makes it difficult for her to see the road well enough to drive. Through the rain, she sees a sign for Bates Motel. Despite not seeing any other cars there, she decides to stop and stay for the night, and soon meets another character—a shy, soft-spoken man who introduces himself as Norman Bates. Marion gets a room at the motel to wait out the storm after discovering that she is only a few minutes away from where Sam is (and perhaps the rest of their lives together).

Forty-seven minutes into the film, after audiences are fully convinced Marion is the protagonist, she is suddenly killed in the iconic shower scene that made Psycho one of the most well-known horror films of all time. In this way, Alfred Hitchcock presents a flawless example of a false protagonist, and how the narrative device can be used to carefully manipulate audiences. It's arguably what made Psycho so appealing and the reason Hitchcock requested that movie theater managers not admit latecomers to the show.

The result of the switch in protagonist (from the audience's perspective) achieves several things. First, it is jarring, and therefore memorable. Beyond the risqué moments in the film that made it stand apart from other movies that had come before it, it became instantly famous among film critics and audiences alike. Everyone talked about it, and in such, Hitchcock's use of the false protagonist made the movie an instant success.

More false protagonists in film

The use of a false protagonist is more commonly seen in film than in literature. One reason it is easier to achieve a false protagonist in film than it is in literature is the use of "star power"—or famous actors/actresses who might attract audiences to a movie but are later killed off early (as is the case with Janet Leigh in Psycho).

Another great example of a false protagonist in film is Scream (1996), another "slasher flick" directed by Wes Craven and written by Kevin Williamson. Barely 15 minutes into the movie, a character who appears to be the protagonist, Casey Becker (played by Drew Barrymore) is killed off, leaving the lesser-known actress (Neve Campbell) in the movie's true protagonist role. This twist was especially jarring for audiences because Drew Barrymore was the most prominent actress seen on the poster for the movie.

In The Place Beyond the Pines, a 2012 crime drama directed by Derek Cianfrance, the character of Luke Glanton (played by actor Ryan Gosling) is seemingly the protagonist of the movie until he is shot in the stomach and falls out of a window to his death early in the film. As the most obvious figure on the movie poster, and the focus of the film's trailer, Luke's role is one of a false protagonist who essentially haunts the rest of the film.

Finally, there is The Godfather, a 1972 crime drama directed by Francis Ford Coppola and based on Mario Puzo's best-selling novel of the same name. The movie offers a false protagonist through Marlon Brando's character, Don Vito Corleone, the aging patriarch of a New York City mafia family. He's also the only character featured on the movie's poster. Even the title of this film is deceiving, as the assumed mafia Godfather, Don Vito Corleone, is shot early in the film and spends most of his screen time in the hospital, eventually dying of a heart attack. His son, Michael (played by Al Pacino), a US Marine war hero returning home from his service in World War II, is later revealed to be the true protagonist. His character arc is the most significant and dynamic one of the film, and by the end, he takes on the role of the patriarch of the crime family.

Al Pacino is the protagonist of The Godfather
Al Pacino in The Godfather

The false protagonist in literature

Although the Marion Crane/Norman Bates protagonist switch is one of the best-known examples of a false protagonist in modern film making, Alfred Hitchcock wasn't the first to use the device in his work. In fact, from a literary perspective, use of the device can be seen as far back as The Holy Bible, particularly in the Book of Samuel.

The Book of Samuel begins with the birth of Samuel and follows his life as a young boy who receives a calling from God. It continues to reveal details of Israel's oppression by the Philistines, the wars that occurred between the two groups, and the moment when Samuel anoints Saul to be Israel's first king.

However, Saul proves to be unworthy to lead the Israelites out from under the Philistines' oppression, and audiences are introduced to David, a young shepherd and musician who eventually defeats the Philistines' most revered warrior, Goliath. This momentous defeat does not occur in the book until chapter 17, making Samuel a false protagonist until the real protagonist—David—is revealed. Not only is David the real protagonist of the Book of Samuel but he becomes one of the most well-known and important characters of The Holy Bible as a whole.

Another false protagonist can be seen in George R. R. Martin's epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. The first novel of the series, A Game of Thrones, introduces the character of Ned Stark, a "protagonist" that appeals to audiences for his bravery and leadership as patriarch of the Stark family and lord of Winterfell, an ancient fortress in the North on the fictional continent of Westeros. Stark's execution near the end of the book makes him a false protagonist of the series, which would continue for seven more books (two of which are yet to be written).

Ned Stark is a false protagonist in A Game of Thrones
Ned Stark in the HBO film adaptation of A Game of Thrones

Creating a false protagonist

If you are a writer and wishing to use a false protagonist as a literary device for your own work, these examples we've discussed are a good start in determining how to do it. However, as noted earlier, there are many more examples of a false protagonist in film than in literature—primarily because it isn't easy to pull off (in both cases, but the latter especially).

A false protagonist is, above all else, an effective method of shocking your audience and ensuring that your story is memorable. In that sense, it's easy for audiences to see it as a gimmick rather than an important facet of storytelling, so use the technique wisely (and sparingly) in your writing for maximum effect. If you craft a protagonist that audiences begin to care about, and then suddenly switch to another protagonist—particularly by killing off the first—you risk losing your readers out of sheer disappointment. So, don't be afraid to do it, as long as you understand the technique (and potential risks) involved.

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