For instance, in "Silence of the Lambs," the "hero is Clarice Starling, the FBI agent, and the protagonist is the villain, Hannibal Lecter. What is this kind of story format called?

What happens if the protagonist is the "bad guy" or anti-hero? Can that make the antagonist the hero?

  • 2
    Hero and protagonist are synonymous. They are the people that the reader wants to win - the people that keep him reading the book. I believe what you may be thinking of is when the main character is not the protagonist. I have not read Silence of the Lambs, so I can't pass judgement on it, but The Great Gatsby was written this way. Nick, the narrator, is the protagonist. Gatsby, however, is the main character. The novel is about Gatsby. Nick is the one the reader cares about. As for what this format is called, I do not know. May 30, 2015 at 1:44
  • @ThomasMyron in the case of Gatsby, that format is know as a frame. The narrator is not the main subject, but they have a story of their own. Their story is a frame for the main story. The function of a frame may be to provide contrast to or commentary on the main story, which seems to be its purpose in Gatsby. I'm not sure that it is correct to say that Nick is the one the reader cares about. Affection for a character is only one means to building engagement with a story, and perhaps not the one that applies here. People don't rubberneck and accident scene because they care about the victims.
    – user16226
    Mar 22, 2017 at 16:50
  • @MarkBaker Ah, a frame. Thanks for the term. You may be right about Nick not being the protagonist - I haven't read the book in a long time. Mar 22, 2017 at 16:59

3 Answers 3


There is no special name for this format of story. All stories have the same basic elements, (exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, resolution) and they pertain to the protagonist, who is the main character and who the audience is supposed to identify with the most.

The protagonist is the "hero" of their story, but they do not have to be the "good guy" per se. When in this role, they are often called the antihero. Examples are Now You See Me, the Fast and Furious series, and others where the protagonist is the "bad guy".

  • If the protagonist can be the anti-hero, can the antagonist then be the hero?
    – Tom Au
    Jun 3, 2015 at 0:44
  • @TomAu In terms of "good guy/bad guy" then yes. For example in stories where the protagonist is a criminal and an antagonist is the law.
    – jm13fire
    Jun 3, 2015 at 3:42
  • @TomAu I think the confusion comes from your understanding of the terms "hero" and "antihero". The antihero is not a role in the story structure, it is a role for a protagonist to have, or a type of character a protagonist is. In the musical Hamilton, for instance, Aaron Burr is the antagonist of the story, though he certainly isn't a villain or even an anti-hero (in real life or in the story). Rather, he is a bitter rival. Similarly, the villain, King George, is a minor character who, while driving much of the story along indirectly, is not the antagonist of the story.
    – dantiston
    Mar 26, 2017 at 3:33
  • Instead of "hero" we call protagonists "leading characters" in Chinese. I feel "hero" is a confusing word.
    – Zhang
    May 30, 2021 at 10:26

You are mixing up different literary theories.

The concept of the hero comes from a view on literature that is derived from ancient epics. The concept of the protagonist is derived from Greek drama theory.

What is importatnt here is that the hero and the protagonist have nothing to do with each other. They are different approaches at trying to understand how literature works.

A hero is a figure undertaking a quest (Odysseus). Not every narrative has one. The hero's journey is about self-discovery and self-development. He is not necessarily up against anything (Hydra is not Hercules' opponent but a task he has to complete). A hero acts in the context of fate and divine forces.

The protagonist is the primary actor. By default, the hero is the protagonist of his narrative. But a protagonist is not always a hero. He may be fighting an antagonist that is on the same level as he and, unlike fate or the Greek gods, can be overcome.


A protagonist is the character that the audience is meant to most identify with, in Silence of the Lambs that would be Clarice Starling.

Jamie Gumm (Buffalo Bill) is the primary antagonist, the catalyst and opposing force that Starling deals with, and develops from. Lecter would be a split between antagonist and protagonist. While Lecter is by far the most powerful and interesting character, Clarice is protagonist / hero of the story.

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