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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 film 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 film, 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, readers are led to believe that Samuel is the central figure of the book. However, by the sixteenth chapter, the book begins to primarily focus on David.
- The story of Aladdin in the Arabian Nights begins with a wizard undertaking a difficult quest from Morocco to China to recover a powerful magical lamp. Gradually, it becomes clear that the boy Aladdin, whom the Wizard meets in China, is the true protagonist, while the Wizard is the story's villain.
- Robert A. Heinlein's 1940 science fiction short story The Roads Must Roll begins with an orator stirring up a rebellion among the workers of the story's "roadtowns" (wide rapidly moving passenger platforms). The orator enumerates the workers' grievances, gaining their and the reader's sympathy. However, the rebelling workers then callously cause mass death and injuries among commuters, and the true protagonist is revealed to be the director working effectively and courageously to put down the rebellion. By the end, the original orator is depicted as a cowardly and contemptible villain.
- 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, who received top billing among the cast for Season One. 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.
- The light novel Goblin Slayer introduces a Warrior, Mage, and Monk who recruit a Priestess for a goblin killing quest. The three are eaten, poisoned to death, and sexually assaulted to the point of ending up in a vegetative state. The Priestess is rescued by the legendary Goblin Slayer who replaces her escorts as the protagonist. The escorts were featured in promotional marketing material for the novel and its anime adaptation until the first episode was released.
- Juan Rulfo's novel Pedro Paramo initially features Juan Preciado, who is searching for his father as a final wish made to his dying mother, as the main protagonist of the story. Halfway through the novel, Juan Preciado unexpectedly dies in the abandoned town of Comala. The latter half of the novel focuses exclusively on the life of Pedro Paramo, his rise to power, and how his ambition and ruthlessness leads to Comala's demise.
- 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.
- In the action film Executive Decision, the character played by Steven Seagal is introduced as a major protagonist only to be killed at the end of the first act, leaving the character played by Kurt Russell as the film's true hero.
- In Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the player assumes the roles of two alternating player characters, SAS operative Sgt. John "Soap" MacTavish and U.S. Marine Sgt. Paul Jackson, during the game's first act. At the end of the first act, Sgt. Jackson is killed in a nuclear explosion, after which Soap is the sole player character for the rest of the game.
- In Fatal Frame, the player assumes the role of Mafuyu in the prologue. Then after that, Miku, Mafuyu's sibling, becomes the main protagonist.
- In Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, the player initially plays as Solid Snake, protagonist of the original Metal Gear games. However, the majority of the game after that is played with Raiden, with Snake becoming a deuteragonist.
- In Final Fantasy XII, the player start the game playing as a young soldier named Reks. After less than an hour of gameplay, Reks is suddenly killed, and the game resumes play following Vaan, Reks' younger brother.
- In Kingdom Hearts II, Roxas is initially portrayed as the protagonist in the first few hours of gameplay. However, after finding the pod in which Sora has been imprisoned for more than a year, he vanishes, and Sora regains his role as protagonist. Though Roxas continues to appear throughout the game in Organization XIII flashbacks, he does not return to playable status, only being revealed as Sora's Nobody, created from the time that he had become a Heartless in the original game.
- In The Godfather: The Game, scenes introduce a gangster, who works for the Corleone family. The gangster is shown saving his son's life from the resultant fire, after which the player is allowed to control the gangster as the primary character while he defeats the thugs. When all the enemies are defeated, the game cuts to an FMV scene where the gangster is surprisingly shot dead by Barzini thugs. Play resumes with the player in control of the true protagonist of the game: his previously-mentioned son, who wants revenge for his father's death.
- In Star Fox Adventures, one first uses Krystal, but then she is captured by Andross, and Fox McCloud regains his position as main character throughout the game.
- In Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War Sigurd is the main character at first. However, at the middle of the story, he is killed by Arvis, and his son Seliph takes over from him as the protagonist.
- In Xenoblade, Dunban is portrayed as the protagonist during the prologue. However, after he is unable to wield the Monado anymore due to his right arm being severely injured, the character Shulk becomes the protagonist. Dunban later joins up with Shulk and fights alongside him for the remainder of the game as a "supporting main character."
- 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, also known as Ratonhnhaké:ton, who becomes an assassin after his village is burned down.
- In Silent Hill 4: The Room, during the prologue Joseph Schreiber is portrayed as the protagonist, but is later killed by Walter Sullivan. After the prologue the game proceeds to Henry Townsend, who comes to live in the apartment previously inhabited by Joseph.
- In Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony, Kaede Akamatsu is initially portrayed as the protagonist of the game. However, she is later executed at the end of chapter 1, and her role as protagonist is replaced by Shuichi Saihara.
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