We live in a time where viewers are expecting more originality from their entertainment, whether it be movies, TV series or video games. To account for this change in consumer tastes, content creators are choosing to add more twists and turns to their stories. One of these potential twists is the use of a decoy protagonist. For those unfamiliar with the term, a decoy protagonist is a character who, early in a story, seems to be the main character, before being shockingly killed or otherwise demoted in favor of another, usually less-obvious hero.
While not a new trope, the use of decoy protagonists has become more common in recent years. Let's take a look at some of the best uses of decoy protagonists. WARNING: This article contains SPOILERS for all series, films, and video games referenced.
1. Marion Crane — Psycho
One of the earliest and most famous uses of a decoy protagonist came in Alfred Hitchcock's classic horror film, Psycho. For about the first half of the film, we follow Marion Crane as she suffers through money and work woes, soon stealing money from her boss and taking off to go marry her boyfriend, Sam Loomis. Along the way, she chooses to stop off at the Bates Motel, where she is murdered by the troubled owner, Norman Bates. From here, the focus shifts to Sam and Marion's sister, Lila. While Sam and Lila are the designated "good guys," it is Norman's story that is carried through the sequels, suggesting that he is, in fact, the protagonist — if a villainous one.
Psycho forever changed the way people saw movies, being one of the very first films to insist that people arrive on time, or be forced to wait for the next screening. It remains an iconic film to this day, with the death of Marion Crane its most iconic scene.
2. Finn — Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
When the first major new cast members for The Force Awakens were announced, many assumed that the character of Finn, played by John Boyega, was to be the film's hero. While he was the film's male lead, he was not the main protagonist; that part belonged to Rey, played by Daisy Ridley.
Still, an uninformed viewer may come away from the film's first few minutes, in which Finn helps ace pilot Poe Dameron escape the evil First Order, believing that he is the hero. It would seem a perfect story: a former stormtrooper on the hunt for redemption. In fact, it is a perfect story, it is just not the central narrative of the film. At the halfway point, it becomes clear that Rey is the true protagonist of The Force Awakens, and likely the entire sequel trilogy. Finn will continue on by her side as his own story unfolds.
3. Kamina — Gurren Lagann
For eight funny, action-packed episodes, the character of Kamina drives the action forward in the Mecha-anime series Gurren Lagann. It is Kamina who encourages surrogate brother Simon to pilot the gunmen (Mecha) Lagann. Kamina pioneers the idea of hijacking Gunmen for human use, and forms Team Gurren for the purpose of battling the villainous Beastmen and leading humanity to freedom. Then, he forms a plan to take control of Dai-Gunzan, a mobile base belonging to Beastman General Thymilph. While the plan is successful, it comes at a high price, with Kamina killed during the battle. Simon, along with many of the series' viewers, were left in shock.
Looking back, it becomes glaringly obvious that this was always going to be Simon's story. Simon is the first character we see in the series, and all major events happen from his point of view. This does not, however, eliminate Kamina's importance in Gurren Lagann's story. Right from the start, Kamina seems to know that Simon will ultimately be more important than he, and spends much of his time building the boy's confidence. Kamina is largely responsible for Simon becoming the hero humanity needs him to be, and his memory influences the actions of Simon and many other characters long after his death.
"Listen, Simon. Never forget. Just believe in yourself. Not in the Simon that I believe in; not in the Kamina that you believe in. Have faith in the Simon who believes in you."
4. Mary Alice Young — Desperate Housewives
Any uninformed viewer of Desperate Housewives may find themselves surprised when the series narrator, Mary Alice Young, commits suicide just under a minute into the first episode. The remainder of the first season follows her four surviving friends —Susan, Bree, Lynette and Gabrielle — as they seek answers regarding her tragic death, while also dealing with their own domestic troubles. The following seasons follow this format, mixing various mysteries with the events of the housewives' lives.
Despite her early death, Mary Alice remains an important presence on Desperate Housewives, narrating the entirety of the show, save for two special episodes narrated by other deceased characters. Though usually a quiet observer, Mary Alice occasionally comments on her friends' actions, or foreshadows future events.
5. Link — The Legend Of Zelda: Twilight Princess
Eternally silent Link has appeared as the main character in every game in the long-running Legend Of Zelda series. He embarks on a quest, defeats evil villains, rescues the Princess, and saves the land. The Legend Of Zelda: Twilight Princess, released on GameCube, Wii, and WiiU, mixes it up just a bit. While Link is still the playable character, much of the game's story centers around Midna, the titular Twilight Princess. It is Midna whose character develops the most throughout the adventure, and Midna's act of destroying the Mirror Of Twilight that truly ensures both she and Link's worlds will be safe in the future.
The newest game, Breath Of The Wild, works on a somewhat similar idea. While Link is the hero, the thrust of the story is focused around Princess Zelda.
6. Captain Amazing — Mystery Men
More on the humorous side, but still a good example. While Mystery Men does focus on the same band of amateur superheroes for the entire film, about the first three quarters of it has them working towards the goal of rescuing the "real" hero, Captain Amazing, so he can save Champion City from villain Casanova Frankenstein, played to creepy perfection by Geoffrey Rush. Then, in one of the movie's most horrifying yet humorous scenes, they accidentally kill him. Thankfully, our other heroes' training paid off, and they successfully defeat Casanova Frankenstein themselves.
While he was idolized by Champion City's citizens, Captain Amazing was never a true hero. He organized Frankenstein's release from an asylum simply so he would have someone to fight, and therefore keep his sponsors, so it is entirely his fault that Champion City is in danger in the first place. The unusual band put together by Mr. Furious, The Shoveler and The Blue Raja — incompetent as they are at the beginning — are heroic for the right reasons.
7. Alphonse Elric — Fullmetal Alchemist / Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
This one comes in the form of a running joke throughout the anime Fullmetal Alchemist and its remake, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. As "Fullmetal Alchemist" is right there in the title, many would assume the character with that title, Edward Elric, to be the show's hero. They would be mostly correct in that assumption, but sadly, poor Ed runs into some problems. Edward is almost always seen in the company of his younger brother, Alphonse, whose soul is bound to a large suit of armor after losing his body in an alchemy related accident. Upon meeting the boys, most characters see Al's armor and promptly assume that he is the Fullmetal Alchemist. This prompts increasingly frustrated reactions from Edward as the series goes on, with Alphonse left to gently correct people.
In truth, Edward and Alphonse are dual protagonists of the series. However, if you were to lean towards one over the other, Edward would easily come out on top.
8. Ethan Chandler — Penny Dreadful
Much of the early promotional material for horror series Penny Dreadful was focused around the character of Ethan Chandler, a mysterious gunslinger played by Josh Hartnett. When the series begins, Ethan is the first character we see, and it is through his eyes that we are introduced to the series' other major characters. Much of the action centers around him, and he becomes a moral compass for the group as they seek the whereabouts of Mina Harker. Then, around midway through the first season, things begin to change as we learn the backstory and motivations of Vanessa Ives, the woman who enlisted Ethan's services. The show's focus increasingly shifts to Vanessa, and by Season 2, she has become the central character.
While no longer the central figure of the series, Ethan remains an important character Penny Dreadful's second and third seasons, with his role becoming to protect and then attempt to rescue Vanessa from the clutches of darkness.
9. The Doctor — Doctor Who (Series 4)
I know what some of you may be thinking: How can The Doctor not be the protagonist when the show is called Doctor Who? Well, The Doctor is still the protagonist of the show as a whole, just not the story that it told in the revival's fourth series. In Series 4, The Tenth Doctor is reunited with Donna Noble, a woman he had met previously in the Christmas Special "The Runaway Bride." Donna takes The Doctor up on an earlier invitation to travel with him, and together they visit Pompeii, the planet of the Ood, and countless other amazing places. Along the way, Donna learns and grows as a person. By the end of the series, after obtaining a half-Time Lord mind, it is Donna who foils the plans of Davros and The Daleks.
While Doctor Who is always about the companion's story as much as The Doctor's, Series 4, more than any other, is Donna's story. While she can never remember her adventures with The Doctor, the universe will remember her as a hero.
10. Ned Stark — Game Of Thrones
When the now massively popular Game Of Thrones first began airing in 2011, one character quickly emerged as the hero of the piece. Ned Stark was an honorable man, an able fighter, a good husband to his wife, and a loving father to his children, perhaps especially his bastard son, Jon Snow. He stood for truth and justice, one of the few truly good men in the series. Then, he is executed just nine episodes in.
It became clear from that point on that Game Of Thrones was a different kind of show than those that had come before it, and that no one, not even the "heroes," are safe. It reminded us of this again when Robb, Ned's son and heir, is killed in the show's third season.