Traditionally, a protagonist is the main figure of a piece of literature or drama and has the main part or role. Alternatively, the phrase denotes a primary advocate or proponent for a cause or movement. The main character can be a hero or a villain in a story - it is just the character with the lead role. In literature, the protagonist is characterized by his/her ability to change or evolve.
It should be pointed out that the protagonist is not always the hero of the story, as implied in the Grand Theft Auto games, where they are sometimes called an anti-hero. They may commit crimes of some sort, (which the protagonists of the GTA games certainly do) but he/she is still considered the lead character, and is known to help out his/her friends, allies or close associates, and also known to posses good qualities.
The protagonists between Grand Theft Auto III and Grand Theft Auto IV share similar qualities. Most protagonists either have never been to the city before (such as Claude, Tommy Vercetti, Victor Vance and Niko Bellic) or returning after a long time gone (such as Carl Johnson and Toni Cipriani). The protagonists usually start with nothing, with minimal influence and reputation, having to do odd jobs around for various small-timers, gaining friends and allies (like Maria Latore, Asuka Kasen, Avery Carrington, Wu Zi Mu, and Little Jacob) before moving up the social and economical ladder, attempting to rise through the criminal underworld, although their motives for doing so vary in each game. They eventually start establishing a name for themselves in the town, doing real jobs, making bigger and more powerful friends and business partners, and cutting real deals as their prominence, respect, money, and reputation begins to grow, until they end the game on top of the city, or at least with some powerful business and/or friends. An abnormal protagonist would be Luis Fernando Lopez who has always lived in Liberty City and has already established a name, powerful friends, and is high up on the social and economical ladder at the start of the game. Protagonists (up to Grand Theft Auto V) have a consistent distaste of drugs, and while dealing and working with them, never intentionally use them. However, the three protagonists in the game can use drugs in their safehouses: Franklin and Michael smoke marijuana, while Trevor smokes methamphetamine.
- Main article: Antagonist
The opposite of a protagonist is an antagonist, which is the main enemy of the protagonist and works against the protagonist and his actions. Again, this can be a villain or a hero, though usually a villain.
The main antagonists of the Grand Theft Auto games are usually introduced very early in the story, usually as the protagonist's friend or acquaintance until a major, personal betrayal (like Catalina, Sonny Forelli, Big Smoke, Jerry Martinez and Dimitri Rascalov) these betrayals can be done by not just main antagonists but antagonists in general. They are usually seen, heard, or mentioned throughout the game, moving against the protagonists' plans or goals, while the protagonist continues his quest for vengeance, and will not appear after their betrayal until they are finally confronted and killed by the protagonist at the end of the game, thus removing the protagonist's problems and completing the main storyline. An abnormal antagonist is Massimo Torini, as he makes the fewest appearances (two) of any antagonist in the series.
List of protagonists
(*) - Player's choice
List of Ally Groups
Group reason: Claude maintains a close friendship and working relationship with the Yakuza over the course of the game, but does not commit himself to a particular gang. He also maintains relations with the Southside Hoods, who at the end of the game become one of the few gangs not hostile to Claude.
Protagonist: Tommy Vercetti
Group: Vercetti Gang
Group reason: Tommy founded the Vercetti gang after taking over Ricardo Diaz's empire in Vice City. The actual name "Vercetti Gang" spawned when Tommy bought Kaufman Cabs and Delores tells the employees that the "Vercetti Gang" owns it now, and then the name sticks. Tommy also maintains good relations with Umberto's Cuban Street gang and Mitch Baker's Vice City Bikers gang.
Protagonist: Carl Johnson
Group: Grove Street Families
Group reason: Carl's brother, Sweet, is a leader of the gang and therefore makes Carl second in command. Carl has friendly relationships with the Triad leader Wu Zi Mu, and Varrios Los Aztecas leader Cesar Vialpando.
Group reason: Mike maintains close friendships with some gangs yet has never made a commitment to one. He initially works for the Mafia, yet is allies with Cisco, the leader of the Colombian Cartel.
Protagonist: Toni Cipriani
Group: Leone Family
Group reason: Toni's parents (or at least his mother) were possibly connected in the Leone Family, but how and when Toni joined the family is never revealed. He is close friends with Don Salvatore Leone and is made Caporegime later in the game and keeps his position well into GTA III.
Protagonist: Victor Vance
Group: Vance Crime Family
Group reason: After leaving the Trailer Park Mafia, Vic and his brother Lance, who would become Vance Crime Family Underboss, started the gang to make money for their asthmatic brother Pete and rise up in the criminal enterprise. Victor begins to work for the Mendez' organization and Diaz' organization in order to increase his influence. Victor also maintains good relationship with Umberto Robina's gang. Victor was murdered by a group of hitmen, during a drug deal with Tommy Vercetti in the begining of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.
Protagonist: Niko Bellic
Group reason: Niko works freelance, and even though he befriends several gang leaders he does not commit himself to only one. The Jamaican Posse and the McReary Mob have and will always be allied with Niko due to his friendships with Little Jacob and Patrick McReary. Niko also has a sort of connection with and receives protection from the Gambetti Family after he forms a bond with their leader, Jon Gravelli shortly before his death. He can also have connections with the North Holland Hustlers, if the player chooses to kill Playboy X instead of Dwayne Forge.
Protagonist: Johnny Klebitz
Group: The Lost MC
Group reason: Johnny is the Vice President of The Lost Motorcycle Club biker gang. He also was best friends with Billy Grey, the President of The Lost, until the latter was imprisoned and the presidential torch passed to Johnny. Johnny was later murdered by Trevor Phillips, one of three protagonists in Grand Theft Auto V, for speaking unkindly to him.
Protagonist: Luis Fernando Lopez
Group: Northwood Dominican Drug Dealers
Group reason: Luis works for Tony Prince, who is not affiliated to any specific organization. He is also friends with the Northwood Dominican Drug Dealers' members Armando Torres and Henrique Bardas, and depending on the player's actions, Luis can build up a drug empire.
Protagonist: Franklin Clinton
Group: The Families
Group reason: He owns a house in the gang's area and he was probably born there. He is best friends with Lamar Davis, who is involved with The Families.
Protagonist: Trevor Philips
Group: Trevor Philips Enterprises
Group reason: He lives in a trailer at Sandy Shores. He also operates with Ron Jakowski, and Oscar Guzman if the McKenzie Field is purchased. Trevor deals weapons and drugs.
Group: Crews (Player's Choice)
Group reason: New to the city, the Online-Player is attached to no specific group and does jobs for various types of people, although the player can create their own crew or join somebody else's.
- Niko, Johnny, Luis and Huang have criminal records in the LCPD Database, and each have the crime "Grand Theft Auto" listed.
- GTA 1, GTA2 (Game Boy Color port) and GTA Online are the only games into the series to feature the ability to play as a female protagonist.
- A graffiti design throughout the city in GTA IV suggests that all the protagonists from the GTA III era are deceased, with the names "Claude", "Tommy", "Carl", "Toni" and "Vic" alongside remembrance graffiti. However, this is not necessarily saying they have died (although Victor Vance has been canonically killed), it is possibly just a way of saying that the 3D Universe is over, and the characters will not be featured in the future.
- Victor Vance and Johnny Klebitz are the only protagonists to have a confirmed death. Out of these two, Johnny is the only one to be killed by another protagonist, being killed by Trevor Philips.
- Michael De Santa and Trevor Philips are the first protagonists whose fates can be decided by the player and both can be killed by the same character as well as a fellow protagonist, Franklin Clinton. However, if the player chooses to kill Trevor, Michael will kill Trevor if Franklin hesitates when preparing to kill Trevor.
- Claude Speed is the only protagonist to have an unknown fate. As at the end of GTA 2: The Movie, he is shown getting killed by an assassin, and it is unknown if this is canon to the game.
- Johnny Klebitz, Mike and Claude are the only protagonists who are not able to change their clothing, although during Give Me Liberty, Claude along with 8-Ball were wearing prison clothes, and a second outfit for Claude appears in the PC version of Grand Theft Auto III.
- Carl Johnson and Victor Vance are the only protagonists in the 3D Universe who can swim. All the protagonists in the HD Universe can swim.
- The protagonists of GTA V (Michael De Santa, Trevor Philips, Franklin Clinton, and the Online Player) seem to have a specific color that represents them in the game. Their colors can be seen when activating their special abilities and when switching to them as the screen will tint into their color. Their smart phone theme also indicates towards this, although Trevor's color theme is red, rather than orange (it can be changed).
- Michael's color is light blue.
- Trevor's color is orange.
- Franklin's color is green.
- The Online Player's color is dark blue. Originally yellow as seen in the GTA Online Gameplay Trailer.
- Michael De Santa is the oldest playable protagonist in the series.
- The GTA Online Protagonist can be the youngest playable protagonist in the series (behind Carl Johnson).
- The mothers of three protagonists physically appear (Janet Vance, Adriana Yanira Lopez and Mrs. Philips), though the voice of Ma Cipriani is heard, but so far, none of the protagonists' fathers are seen, or heard in any game.