The protagonists of the GTA franchise are a big part of what makes even the older games feel so memorable all these years later.

Although each character is freely controlled by the player, Grand Theft Auto protagonists all have their own distinct characterization.

It wouldn’t be absurd to say that some of GTA’s main characters have gone on to become some of the most iconic and beloved protagonists in all of gaming history!

Here’s a list of all the protagonists in the GTA series so far, in release order:

GameProtagonist
Grand Theft AutoSelectable Protagonist
GTA: London 1969 (Expansion)London Mob Selectable Protagonist
GTA: London 1961 (Expansion)London Mob Selectable Protagonist
GTA 2Claude Speed
GTA 3Claude
GTA Vice CityTommy Vercetti
GTA AdvanceMike
GTA San AndreasCarl ‘CJ’ Johnson
GTA Liberty City StoriesToni Cipriani
GTA Vice City StoriesVictor Vance
GTA 4Niko Bellic
GTA 4: The Lost and Damned (DLC)Johnny Klebitz
GTA Chinatown WarsHuang Lee
GTA: The Ballad of Gay Tony (DLC)Luis Fernando Lopez
GTA 5Michael De Santa, Franklin Clinton, Trevor Philips
GTA OnlineCustom Protagonist
GTA 6Lucia, Jason (Unconfirmed)

Next up, let’s delve a little deeper into what makes each main character so great, by ranking them from worst to best.

Of course, bear in mind that a list like this is always a matter of opinion!

All Protagonists Ranked From Worst to Best

The Grand Theft Auto franchise has been home to an incredibly varied cast of characters.

Here’s our ranking of all protagonists in the series, starting with the worst main characters GTA has to offer:

15. GTA 1’s Collection of Protagonists

Although it’s hard to determine the best of GTA’s protagonists, it’s certainly easy to determine the worst of the bunch.

That title goes to the original Grand Theft Auto protagonists, a selection of eight playable characters that were little more than an image players selected at the start of the game.

GTA 1 Protagonists

We’re including the additional London Expansion Packs protagonists in this too, as none of GTA 1’s playable characters impact the game in any meaningful way.

For the record, the original protagonist names are: Bubba, Kivlov, Travis, Troy, Divine, Katie, Mikki, and Ulrika. And we thought GTA 5 having three main characters was a lot!

14. Claude Speed

A close second for the title of the worst protagonist in the GTA series is Claude Speed. Not to be confused with GTA 3’s main character, Claude Speed is the protagonist of GTA 2.

Despite appearing a little more like a fully-fledged character in promotional art, the top-down perspective of the early GTA games leaves us little to get attached to.

Claude Speed in GTA 2 Art

As the singular protagonist of the second mainline title, Claude Speed does at least have a little characterization that wasn’t offered to the selectable characters in the first game. But we assure you, it’s minimal.

While some fans believe that GTA 3’s Claude and Claude Speed are one and the same, it’s worth noting that they have completely separate backstories and even exist in completely separate universes.

13. Mike

Grand Theft Auto Advance is often forgotten when talking about the franchise as a whole, and for good reason.

The Game Boy Advance game was released on the same day as San Andreas, and Mike is certainly no substitute for CJ.

Mike in GTA Advance

Much like early GTA protagonists, Mike is unvoiced, and his limited dialogue is shown as text on-screen. However, the GBA game also resembles GTA 1 and 2 in that it focuses more on gameplay than building its characters.

As such, Mike is a forgettable character in an equally forgettable game.

12. Claude

Although we give Claude a lot of credit for being the first protagonist in Grand Theft Auto’s 3D universe, it’s hard to get too attached to him. After all, the main character of GTA 3 is completely mute, and a silent protagonist is much harder to connect with.

GTA 3 Claude

However, comparing Claude to the other names on this list so far is like night and day. With Rockstar Games developing an incredible 3D open world for the first time, and allowing players to explore it as Claude, the team allows fans to play Claude as whatever type of person they want.

That’s the beauty of a silent protagonist – you’re never out of character when playing as them. However, Claude certainly pales in comparison to the best main characters of the franchise.

11. Toni Cipriani

Toni Cipriani was a big character in GTA 3, which is why playing as him in Liberty City Stories was so interesting. Rockstar managed to take an established mob boss character and show us what he was like before the events of that game.

Toni Cipriani in GTA
Toni Cipriani in GTA Liberty City Stories (Left) and GTA 3 (Right)

In doing so, the developer made Cipriani far more likable and vastly more interesting. However, he’s still far from GTA’s best protagonist.

Toni is a member of the Leone Crime Family who was forced to live overseas for four years after killing a member of a rival gang. When he returns, players control him in his journey to increase the Leone family’s influence, and eventually to the Capo role we know he’ll attain.

10. Victor Vance

Victor Vance first appeared in the introduction to Vice City and later returned as the protagonist of Vice City Stories, which was set two years earlier.

A former soldier who is forced to turn to crime to earn money for his family, Vance is a sympathetic character.

Victor Vance in GTA
Victor Vance in GTA Vice City Stories (Left) and GTA Vice City (Right)

Vice City players will already know how Victor’s story pans out, which adds a new dynamic to him as a protagonist, though the character certainly changes dramatically in the two years following the events of Vice City Stories.

Although Vance leaves his family behind at the end of Vice City Stories, his appearance in the original title reveals that, once again, the protagonist just can’t stay away from a life of crime.

9. Huang Lee

Chinatown Wars is an underrated title in the GTA franchise, despite just falling short of the top five Grand Theft Auto games on Metacritic. In it, players take control of Huang Lee, the spoiled son of a Triad leader, who is seeking revenge for the murder of his father.

GTA Huang Lee Chinatown Wars

Lee’s transformation from a privileged rich kid to one of the franchise’s most serious and driven characters is a captivating one.

What’s more, his cocky and quick-witted nature make for some fun interactions with the other less-intelligent characters that make up Chinatown Wars’ world.

8. Johnny Klebitz

Johnny Klebitz is the first DLC character to appear in this list, having made his debut in the GTA 4 expansion ‘The Lost and the Damned.’

As the Vice President of The Lost MC, Johnny aims to maintain order in the biker gang as it erupts into a full-scale civil war.

Johnny Klebitz in GTA The Lost and the Damned

He is one of the more moral main characters of the franchise, who doesn’t wish to remain in a life of crime and even attempts to leave it.

Unfortunately, when Klebitz reappears briefly in GTA 5, he quickly dies an incredibly underwhelming death. Such is life for a GTA protagonist.

7. Luis Fernando Lopez

Luis is the second of GTA 4’s DLC protagonists, this time featuring in ‘The Ballad of Gay Tony.’ His story revolves around Tony Prince, Luis’s boss and a Liberty City nightclub entrepreneur.

Luis Fernando Lopez in GTA The Ballad of Gay Tony

As a protagonist, Luis is extremely likable. Though he spends much of his time as a foil for his more eccentric boss, Lopez himself is dedicated, smart, and something of a smooth-talker.

With GTA 4 being a darker game, and with this DLC coming hot on the heels of the equally gritty The Lost and the Damned expansion, Luis injects some much-needed humor into Liberty City.

6. Franklin Clinton

Although each of GTA 5’s protagonists are excellent in their own right, we’d personally place Franklin as the weaker of the three.

It’s a tough call though, as every protagonist from here on out is extremely memorable and beloved by most fans.

Franklin in GTA 5

Franklin is certainly the most level-headed of the trio, but it could be argued that playing the straight man makes him a little less exciting than the others.

Despite many of his associates accusing him of the exact opposite, Franklin is loyal to his friends. And although his ambition often gets him into trouble, we’re happy to see the protagonist return in GTA Online as a successful businessman.

5. Trevor Philips

It’s not often that you get introduced to a protagonist by having them murder one of the franchise’s previous main characters. However, that’s exactly the case with Trevor Philips, easily GTA’s most unhinged playable character.

What’s great about Trevor is that he represents the most violent, wild, and crazy side of the Grand Theft Auto community. He’s quick to fly into a rage, and is often a sociopathic and aggressive personality.

Trevor in GTA 5

However, despite his outlandish nature, Trevor is shown to be able to grow attached to select individuals. He has a close bond with Michael, and claims to have mourned for him when he faked his death.

In addition, Trevor often shows a level of respect for those who are willing to stand up to him or for themselves. He’s also surprisingly intelligent, allegedly being the only GTA protagonist to have a college degree.

4. Michael De Santa

Michael De Santa could be seen as the primary protagonist of GTA 5, just like Lucia appears to be the main character of GTA 6. The story begins with Michael faking his own death, and it is his return to a life of crime that drives the plot forward.

He is an introspective protagonist who finds that he’s unable to find happiness, even when getting his hands on the things he wants most. He has self-hatred from his past actions, which leads to an increasingly short temper, and he often flies off the handle in a fit of rage.

Michael in GTA 5

While he loves his family dearly, he’s shown to be extremely hypocritical when it comes to criticizing them for traits he himself shows. He also has strong bonds with his fellow protagonists, despite a strained relationship with Trevor.

Michael is shown to be an expert criminal and heist planner. As a protagonist, he appears considerate where innocent lives are concerned, but his judgment calls usually lead to things not going quite as planned.

3. Tommy Vercetti

Tommy Vercetti is a legendary GTA protagonist, who made history by being the first main character to be fully voice-acted. Even better, his voiceover was done by actor Ray Liotta, known for the likes of Goodfellas, Field of Dreams, Hannibal, and much more.

As such, Tommy quickly became one of the most iconic characters in the entire franchise.

gta vice city tommy vercetti ocean view hotel

It doesn’t hurt that his story of becoming the kingpin of Vice City is an exciting plot that gives the character a chance to shine.

Like many GTA protagonists, Vercetti is quick to anger, but he’s also highly intelligent and not without a sense of empathy. And while he usually helps others only when there’s something in it for him, he’s shown to be loyal and trusting to a select group of associates.

It’s basically impossible for Tommy Vercetti to appear in GTA 6, but we do expect a few nods to the beloved character in our return to Vice City.

2. Carl ‘CJ’ Johnson

Carl Johnson, AKA CJ, is one of the most memorable protagonists in all of gaming history, appearing in the beloved GTA: San Andreas.

CJ is the second-in-command of the Grove Street Families, who works to restore the gang to its former power. What’s notable about the character is that he acts as a turning point for the franchise where its protagonists are concerned.

GTA San Andreas CJ

For the first time, a GTA playable character had a real conscience rather than just being a heartless killing machine. In fact, on several occasions throughout the main story, it’s clear that CJ didn’t want to kill his targets until he absolutely had to.

What’s also interesting about CJ is how he changes over the course of the game. While in San Andreas’ opening hours, he thinks like the gangster that he once was. However, after being exiled from Los Santos, Johnson is forced to adapt, becoming more strategic and cunning with his revenge plans.

Speaking of changing, San Andreas was also the first (and only) GTA game to feature a fitness mechanic that let Carl gain weight or muscle. Some fans are calling for the feature to return in GTA 6, but not everyone is keen on the idea.

1. Niko Bellic

Finally, our number one pick for the best protagonist in the GTA franchise is none other than Niko Bellic.

The protagonist of GTA 4, Bellic is a soldier from Yugoslavia, who moves to Liberty City in order to have a fresh start and live the American Dream.

Unfortunately for Niko, he quickly becomes disillusioned with America, which doesn’t live up to its so-called promises.

GTA 4 Niko Bellic

He soon falls in with the Russian Mafia in an effort to help pay off his cousin’s debts, while also becoming blackmailed by the International Affairs Agency.

Niko as a character may be seen as morally grey, but it’s clear that he feels very protective of his loved ones and will do anything to protect them. That said, having witnessed the horrors of war, he’s as adept at killing as he is remorseful for having to continue down the path of violence.

GTA 4 was the first time a Grand Theft Auto game offered players real choices throughout its story, with consequences that felt impactful no matter which decisions you made.

And, together with some exceptional character writing, this makes Niko Bellic the best GTA protagonist of all time.

At least, until Lucia and Jason make their debut in GTA 6!

author
Managing Editor
With almost a decade of experience in video game journalism, Max is a well-versed writer from Manchester, United Kingdom. His expertise shines in his comprehensive coverage of GTA 6, providing fans with the latest news and developments regarding the highly-anticipated sequel.
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