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 of 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. 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 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. Abnormal protagonists would be Luis Fernando Lopez and Johnny Klebitz who have always lived in Liberty City or Alderney and have already established their name, powerful friends, and high social and economical standing at the start of the game and must defend it from competitors. Most protagonists have a consistent distaste of drugs, and while deal and work with them, never use them.
The opposite of a protagonist is an antagonist, which is the main person working 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, Frank Tenpenny, Jerry Martinez and Dimitri Rascalov) and are usually seen, heard, or mentioned throughout the game, moving against the protagonists' plans or goals, until they are finally confronted in some large-scale showdown by the protagonist at the end of the game. An abnormal antagonist is Massimo Torini; he makes the least amount of appearances than all the other antagonists in the other games (only 2).
Current list of GTA protagonists
List of Ally Groups
Group reason: While Claude does maintain a close friendship and working relationship with the Yakuza over the course of the game, he always acts freelance and never makes a commitment to any gang.
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. She came up with it as an impromptu excuse because the firm apparently has been owned in the past by other gangs & that's all the firm knows (possibly the Mafia or Cartel, as named by Delores) then the name sticks.
Protagonist: Carl Johnson
Group: Grove Street Families
Group reason: CJ's brother, Sweet was a leader of the gang and therefore makes CJ the underboss. CJ 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. He is first seen working for the Mafia, yet is allied 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.
Protagonist: Niko Bellic
Group reason: When Niko came to Liberty city, he has to help Roman with his Taxi firm. 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 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 is/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.
- The four GTA IV Era protagonists (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 Johnny Klebitz and Luis Fernando Lopez) begins the game either new to the specific location, or has returned after a long time away, usually relative to the player.
- Carl is returning to Los Santos after a five year absence (1987 to 1992)
- Toni is returning to Liberty City after a four year absence similar to the player (1994 to 1998).
- Tommy Vercetti goes from Liberty City to Vice City (GTA III to GTA Vice City)
- Claude and Niko have just entered the city as the player has entered the era (GTA III Era and GTA IV Era)
- Johnny and Luis are not new to the city, since the player is accustomed to the city through Niko.
- GTA V's protagonist states he has recently moved to Los Santos.
- Niko, Claude, and Mike are so far the only protagonists of any GTA game to work freelance (not a member of any particular organization). However at some points Luis Lopez, (after leaving North Dominican Drug Dealers) and Vic Vance (before starting the Vance Crime Family) worked freelance aswell.
- Every GTA IV Era protagonist has long sleeved shirts/suits/jackets and cannot have a short sleeved shirts mostly because of the season the game takes place in.
- Claude (in the PS2/Xbox editions), Johnny Klebitz, and Huang Lee were the only three protagonists to not change their clothes in the entire game.