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 as 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.
The protagonists between Grand Theft Auto III and Grand Theft Auto IV share similar qualities. Most protagonists are new to town, either returning after a long time gone (such as Carl Johnson and Toni Cipriani) or have never been to the city before (such as Claude, Tommy Vercetti, Victor Vance and Niko Bellic). 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 and Johnny Klebitz 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 have a consistent distaste of drugs, and while deal and work with them, never intentionally use them (This may change however after the release of Grand Theft Auto V, since one of the new protagonists - Trevor to be exact - is prone to violence by his drug addiction).
- 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 in some big event by the protagonist at the end of the game and will be killed thus completing his problems and wraps up the main storyline mission. An abnormal antagonist is Massimo Torini; he makes the least amount of appearances than all the other antagonists in the other games (only 2 mission appearances).
Current list of GTA protagonists
List of Ally Groups
Group reason: While Claude does maintain a close friendship and working relationship with the Yakuza and the Leone Family over the course of the game, he always acts freelance and never makes a commitment to any 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.
Protagonist: Carl Johnson
Group: Grove Street Families
Group reason: Carl's brother, Sweet, is a leader of the gang and therefore makes Carl the underboss. Carl has friendly relationships with the Triad leader Wu Zi Mu, and Varrios Los Aztecas leader Cesar Vialpando.
Group reason: Mike, like Claude, also maintains close friendships with some gangs yet has never made a commitment to one as he is first working for the Mafia yet is allies with Cisco, the leader of the Columbian Cartel.
Protagonist: Toni Cipriani
Group: Leone Family
Group reason: Toni's parents possibly were in the Leone Family (as hinted by his mother in Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories), but it is never given how he joined the family. 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.
Protagonist: Niko Bellic
Group reason: Like with Claude and Mike, 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 Packie 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 Brotherhood
Group reason: Johnny is the Vice President of The Lost biker gang, and is a full on member as well. 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.
Protagonist: Luis Fernando Lopez
Group: Northwood Dominican Drug Dealers
Group reason: Luis works for Anthony Prince, who isn't a part of any specific organization. He is also friends with the Northwood Dominican Drug Dealers' members Armando Torres and Henrique Bardas, and depending other the player, can spend time building up their drug empire.
Group reason: He doesn't haves many friends, which leads him to operate alone most of the time.
- Niko, Johnny, Luis and Huang have criminal records in the LCPD Database, and each have the crime "Grand Theft Auto" listed.
- From GTA III onwards, every protagonist (aside from Mike, Johnny Klebitz and Luis Fernando Lopez) begins the game either new to the specific location, or has returned after a long time away.
- Niko, Claude and Mike are so far the only protagonists of any GTA game to work freelance (not a member of any particular organization).
- Every GTA IV Era protagonist has long sleeve shirts/suits/jackets and cannot have a short sleeve shirt.
- 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 GTA III era is over, and the characters will not be featured in the future.
- All of the protagonists in GTA IV and the expansion packs has had some sort of relation to the armed forces: Niko was once a soldier, Johnny Klebitz's brother is in the armed forces, and Luis Fernando Lopez's father was a marine.
- Niko, Johnny, and Luis are eventually linked to the museum story, Niko and Johnny selling diamonds for Ray Boccino, while Luis breaks the deal while shooting the Jewish Mob.
- Michael is the only protagonist to be married and have children.
- All protagonists are right-handed.
- Luis Fernando Lopez and Huang Lee are the youngest protagonist in the GTA Series to date.
- Michael and Trevor are the oldest protagonist in the GTA Series to date.
- Carl Johnson and Franklin are the only fully African-American protagonists in GTA history.
- Trevor is the only GTA protagonists to take drugs and not by force either.
- Michael, Franklin and Trevor Phillips are the only HD Universe protagonists who are friends.