The Decoy/False Protagonist: Fooled You!

Gurren Lagann

I kind of stumbled onto this concept while looking for something else.  I don’t actually remember what I was searching for because this was more interesting.  At first, I thought I did it with Beginning of a Hero when I introduced the paladin, but Luke Callindor had shown up first.  It was also clear that he was the hero of the story, which means I haven’t attempted a False/Decoy protagonist yet.  Now, what is this?

A False Protagonist is a literary trick where the author creates a hero that they build up as the main character.  At some point in the story, this character is either eliminated or turned evil to reveal that he/she/it is not the true protagonist.  Various methods of removal include death, memory wipe, disappearance, retirement, crippling injuries, or simply giving up.  This is typical done for shock value, which is why it’s called a trope, but it still works.  Now, the real protagonist could be a supporting character or someone that shows up with a connection later.  Normally, the audience has already met the real hero or at least has heard of them.  This character carries the story to its finale in a way that makes sense, so you need to work on a good transition.

You do have some risks here because people might become so attached to the False Protagonist that they refuse to continue.  An example here is Gurren Lagann, which has Kamina as the hero for the first leg of the story only to be replaced by Simon who proves to be the real protagonist.  This worked because they were friends and Simon stepping into the role felt natural.  Still, I’ve met many people who liked Kamina so much that they stopped watching after he was gone.  Is there a way to counter this?  Not perfectly because you can’t force readers to bond with every character.  Everyone picks their favorites and gamble on those characters getting a lot of page time as well as surviving.  So, a False Protagonist really needs to be done with the idea that you’re going to lose some readers with the transition.

Personally, I find this technique intriguing and keep thinking about how many times I’ve run into it.  Probably not as much as I believe since I read a lot of stuff this is fairly straightforward.  Video games do this a bunch like Metal Gear Solid 2 and Final Fantasy X, which I enjoyed.  Not really sure I could pull this one off either.  Partially because I blog a lot and love introducing characters, so I’d probably ruin it by accident.  The other is that I tend to be fairly straightforward and blunt.  Yet, I could probably pull it off for a few chapters if I put my mind to it.  There is one story where I was thinking of doing that, but the blurb might out me as well as the series title.  Guess there are some tricks I’m simply not designed for.  Wonder if Crossing Bedlam counts since it starts with Cassidy having a team and then Lloyd kills everyone except her.  Eh, I’ll count it for now.

So, what do you think about the False Protagonist?  Have you ever used it or do you think you will?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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29 Responses to The Decoy/False Protagonist: Fooled You!

  1. I think it’s risky as hell. Readers are like baby ducks. We bond with the first character, unless it’s obviously the villain. What works for GRR Martin might not work for the rest of us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Right. It is a big risk, but it does have a history of successes. Not as much as the safer path. I think it involves a lot of setting up of the secondary.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Disney made an old movie called Dragonslayer. Mentor died, and apprentice took on the task. We invested heavily in apprentice, who was the main character. At the end Mentor returned from the dead to kill the dragon. I was so disappointed, because apprentice earned that right.

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      • I remember that one. Terrible way to do it. You need to set up something to carry it over. Gurren Lagan did it right with the decoy hero and real protagonist being friends. They shared in the action with the decoy having a bigger personality. Then there was a permanent handing of the torch. Dragonslayer took the torch back. Not cool.

        Liked by 1 person

    • L. Marie says:

      I was thinking of George RR Martin as I read the post.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It sounds intriguing, but tricky (like boyack said). I also think readers might resent the change quite a lot unless the protag is one you’d like killed off. 🙂

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  3. L. Marie says:

    I’ve never used this tactic. I can’t help thinking of Remington Steele–the old 80s TV show with Pierce Brosnan where the character was more of a “beard.” I also think of Sabriel by Garth Nix where a character is introduced in the prologue and seems to be the main character but isn’t.

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  4. Never tried a false protagonist. I think it might be tricky in that some would hold the author accountable for replacing someone they liked.

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  5. Staci Troilo says:

    I can’t name a specific work I encountered this in because when it happens to me, I cease to bond with any of the characters or the book. It’s a huge risk, one that always makes me angry.

    Scratch that. I can think of one instance. By romance queen Nora Roberts, of all people. And I felt betrayed. (I did finish the series, though I never totally bonded with the true hero.)

    I agree with you that if it’s done intentionally and masterfully, it can work. But I think it’s a huge risk that might not be worth attempting. Writers work hard for reader loyalty, and a gimmick like that could prove costly.

    But if it’s done right… Well, I’m not brave enough to try it. But I can see how it could be epic if it works.

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    • This seems to be a common thought. Yet, it also makes me wonder why I’m always seeing people complain about main characters surviving. I had many requests to kill my main character and replace him halfway through the series to shake things up.

      Maybe the key here is with the reader. There has to be trust that the switch happens for more than shock value.

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  6. I can recall a mentor figure turning out to be evil. As you suggest, it had great shock value and forced the protagonist to re-examine their purpose. I’m thinking of the most recent aninated Green Lantern, where Sinestro is at first a leader who encourages Hal Jordan. But it was always clear that Sinestro was a mentor and not the main character.

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  7. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this post from Charles Yallowitz on his Legends of Windemere blog on the topic of The Decoy/False Protagonist

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  8. V.M.Sang says:

    I’m not sure I’d use it. I have killed off characters, but I don’t really, like to lose them. I get fond of the,, too. Would it be possible for the .’lead’ t be taken over by someone else while the original protagonist is still around and taking parrt?

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    • The original protagonist could be removed in ways other than death. Injury, loss of nerve, loss of spirit, and turning evil are a few options.

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      • Bill says:

        Readers Perspective:

        Not in love with ”false” protagonist so much but have read great books with ambiguous protagonist I loved. I apologize for not remembering the name of the book but the situation was two brothers on parallel paths until they reach a fork and make different choices. I was surprised which (the less obviously from central casting) brother took a path that lead to him becoming the protagonist/hero and very much enjoyed the deeper, less obvious story.

        Short version- unclear/evolving protagonist good, decoy (bait and switch) Very hard to execute well enough to make the juice worth the squeeze.

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      • I’m seeing a lot of people don’t like the idea. Makes me wonder if it’s an older idea that doesn’t work these days.

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      • Bill says:

        Charles

        I think it really depends on the execution. How long readers are allowed/encouraged to believe in the decoy and how the real protagonist has been introduced would make a huge difference. Also it really raises the stakes for the replacement as they WILL be compare. Obviously, the later in the story the true protagonist reveal takes place, the better the reasoning/story needs to be for the change.

        Risk/reward.

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      • Wait too long and it falls flat. So, you need to find that sweet spot between the decoy being established and the decoy becoming the beloved favorite. I’d say you miss your chance if you get to the midway mark.

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      • Bill says:

        That and it needs to serve a purpose.

        Forces the true protagonist to…

        Take up ancause
        Grow/change
        Face a painful truth

        Effectively replacing a catastrophic event that would normally take place at the end of act 1 or 2.

        Teach a lesson about the world, independent of the true protagonist
        Etc…ect…

        There has to be some value to the story of the decoy. Enough juice to have made the squeeze worth it- not a twist simply for twist sake.

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      • What if it’s used to strengthen and enhance the antagonist?

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  9. Pingback: Author Inspiration and This Week’s Writing Links – Staci Troilo

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