Phrases on Fridays: Deuteragonist


I first encountered this esoteric literary term while in the Web conference in Iowa last week. Despite the fact that it took me approximately 26 years to run across it, knowing the definition of this bizarre little word can really help your characterization efforts, particularly in memoir and other long-form nonfiction.

Credit: D Sharon Pruitt,
Credit: D Sharon Pruitt,

Until last week, the only word I knew that began with the sublimely Greek prefix “Deuter” was the book of Deuteronomy, fifth book in the Old Testament and last in the Jewish Pentateuch. It was so named because Deuteronomy is the second recording of Moses’ Law (also known as the 10 Commandments, which originally appear in Exodus), as well as an elaboration on the Law. Therefore, the prefix Deuter means, essentially, “the second instance.”

(More on “deuter-” can be found at Merriam-Webster Online, if you’re just that nerdy.)

What’s a Deuteragonist?

A deuteragonist functions essentially as a second plot-mover in a story, and is more closely associated with the protagonist than the antagonist. Therefore, if you’re looking for a deuteragonist in a story, you’re better off looking at the protagonist’s close circle. To refine my original statement, a deuteragonist is typically a second positive plot mover. 

However, a deuteragonist is not the same as a primary supporting character, because instead of helping the main protagonist finish a quest, achieve an objective or reach their goal, the deuteragonist has his or her own goals in mind (they may not be evil or antagonistic goals; the goals could be morally neutral or even positive).

When there are three main characters who move the plot in positive, yet divergent directions, the third of the trio is called the tritagonist. 

Famous Examples of Deuteragonists offers a comprehensive list of deuteragonists from film, TV and literature. Notable examples include:

  • Booth (David Boreanaz) from Bones
  • Niles Crane (Frasier)
  • Turk (Scrubs) with Elliot as tritagonist
  • Harvey Dent (film version, The Dark Knight)
  • Will (Pirates of the Caribbean 1, 2 and 3) with Elizabeth as tritagonist
  • Jim (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) with Tom Sawyer as tritagonist

Who are some other famous deuteragonists? Do you agree with that Samwise Gamgee is a deuteragonist in The Lord of the Rings or do you think he’s more of a supporting protagonist (I think Gandalf, who is mysterious throughout, is the deuteragonist)? Share your opinion in the comments!