Spanning over 16 titles, the Grand Theft Auto series has garnered quite a reputation during its time as one of gaming’s seminal franchises. No matter which entry you visit, you’ll find a sprawling open world filled with high-speed car chases, daring heists, intense gunfights and a huge metropolis to explore. But while carnage and police pursuits are largely Grand Theft Auto’s bread and butter, it’s not the only thing fans rely on Rockstar to provide.
Alongside a fully interactive sandbox, Grand Theft Auto games are lorded for their stories. Across over two decades of releases, the franchise has transformed into a crime saga like no other, telling the tales of an array of ambitious criminals completing seemingly impossible scores, intercepting seedy criminal underworlds and usurping feared crime lords. And as a result, the protagonists of these games have become iconic.
Whether it’s Niko’s silent reflections about the cycle of revenge or Trevor’s uncanny ability to wake up in random places butt naked, GTA’s roster of leading thieves and gangsters have struck a chord with fans, becoming synonymous with both the franchise and the video game space as a whole. So, let’s take a look at the best of the bunch. Below, we’ll rank Grand Theft Auto’s best protagonists, giving you a rundown of the franchise’s most notable playable characters ahead of GTA 6.
10. Vic Vance
A former soldier expelled from the ranks after being framed by his superior officer, shortly after we meet Vic Vance in Vice City Stories, he’s out on the streets with no job or home. Looking for work, he begins to use his skills as a soldier to take the criminal underworld of Vice City by storm, allying with his brother, Lance, and teaming with various crime families to build his empire.
As he does, Vic begins to grow into one of Vice City’s main players, learning to fight for fortune and ascend through the ranks of the metropolis’ various criminal families. A loyal friend and brother, Vic’s sense of morality and honor set him apart from other Grand Theft Auto protagonists. While he understands he has to enter the criminal underworld to survive on the streets of Vice City, he leans heavily on his values as a soldier, helping those around him and remaining faithful to his friends. It makes him a unique Grand Theft Auto protagonist, and one that cares more about doing what’s right than making a quick buck.
9. Luis Lopez
The main character of the Ballad of Gay Tony expansion, Luis Lopez is a former criminal turned bodyguard working for legendary night club owner, Gay Tony. Fiercely loyal and a family man at heart, Luis spends the majority of the Ballad of Gay Tony’s runtime attempting to stop loan sharks from tracking down Tony, who owes a large sum of money to the Ancelotti Crime Family.
Luis is much more than just a bodyguard to his eccentric boss, however, with the pair’s partnership turning into a close friendship. While Tony makes rash, impulsive decisions, Luis grounds his boss, becoming his voice of reason and a key advisor. Although Luis is often overshadowed by Tony’s high-energy persona, his steadfast friendship with his boss and love for his mother and sister make him an endearing lead and a worthy addition to the series’ host of playable characters.
The first protagonist of Grand Theft Auto’s 3D era, Claude may be entirely silent, but his lack of quips or conversation characterize him as an efficient, deadly killer who gets the job done. After his girlfriend, Catalina, leaves him for dead, Claude swears vengeance, teaming with various gangs to track down his former flame and get retribution.
The result is a protagonist that, while not oozing with charisma, has a slick demeanor with a simple goal that’s easy to get behind. Claude is, in many ways, single-mindedly enveloped by his need to get revenge, to the point where he’ll do anything and partner with anyone to track Catalina down. As much as a great performance or a hard-hitting backstory can make a protagonist easy to relate to, that characterisation alone is enough to make Claude one of the best characters in Grand Theft Auto’s roster.
7. Johnny Klebitz
The lead of GTA 4’s The Lost and Damned spin-off, Johnny Klebitz is one of Grand Theft Auto’s best side characters. Driven purely by his oath of brotherhood and loyalty to his gang, the Lost MC, Johnny finds himself in the center of a civil war between the gang’s members after the return of its leader, Billy Grey. Hellbent on recklessly driving the group to destruction, Johnny comes to blows with Billy, stepping up to help his brothers and keep the gang from implosion.
However, Johnny’s sense of unconditional loyalty eventually puts him back in the orbit of his troubled ex-girlfriend, Ashley. Hoping to help his former partner, Johnny’s left in various tricky situations, trying to keep the gang together while getting Ashley the help she so desperately needs. Stretching throughout Grand Theft Auto 4 and into Grand Theft Auto 5, Johnny’s side story is one of Grand Theft Auto’s most tragic, showcasing a deeply loyal leader attempting to hold together a sinking ship before it’s inevitably submerged. His character is proof that GTA is just as good at telling mature, serious side stories as they are silly ones.
6. Franklin Clinton
A street-raised Los Santos repot man with a heart of gold, Franklin is a big fish in a small pond. With ambitions to make a name for himself, he finds himself in the tutelage of Michael De Santa, quickly becoming a career criminal who makes his fortune through everything from petty crime to bank robberies, assassinations and more.
Franklin acts as the more archetypal Grand Theft Auto lead during the events of Grand Theft Auto 5, but that by no means makes him a weaker character. With Michael and Trevor locked in a bitter feud, Franklin often finds himself trapped between both of his tutors, quickly learning that a life of crime comes with consequences. Not only that, but his quick rise to power in the city’s underworld leads to a compelling story about how wealth and influence don’t always give you what you want. In the end, Franklin is one of Grand Theft Auto’s best-written leads and an easy inclusion in the upper echelon of the franchise’s roster of protagonists.
5. Trevor Phillips
The most notorious of Grand Theft Auto 5’s three protagonists, Trevor Phillips is, to put it mildly, an ‘eccentric’ character. A former bank robber and member of Michael De Santa’s crew, Trevor has spent years living in the desert just outside of Los Santos, where he’s formed a small crime syndicate known as Trevor Phillips Enterprises. When we meet Trevor, he decides to head to Los Santos in search of Michael, who he learns faked his death to make a deal with the FIB.
In essence, Trevor is the embodiment of how Grand Theft Auto fans play each game. He’s loud, violent, prone to bursts of destructive rage and acts purely on impulsive instinct. Throughout GTA V’s campaign, his storyline veers from wacky to downright sadistic on a whim, whether he’s eradicating a biker gang because he feels like it or stealing an ambulance full of medicine to appease a hallucination of his mother. But through it all, there’s a strange sentimentality to Trevor. He’ll go out of his way to free an FIB torture victim because he sympathises with him and will move mountains to save his former friend, Brad, out of sheer loyalty.
It all creates one of Grand Theft Auto’s strangest but most intriguing characters, which is quite the achievement for a man that, at one point, can be seen trying to violently flush a dismembered foot down a toilet.
4. Michael De Santa
In a lot of ways, Michael De Santa experiences the standard Grand Theft Auto story in reverse. Living in a luxurious mansion in the Los Santos hills, Michael begins the story enjoying a lavish retirement, spending his days drinking expensive whiskey in a lounger next to his pool. However, after meeting Franklin, his life begins to unravel, reawakening the monster within as he robs banks, murders indiscriminately and quickly becomes a main player in the Los Santos crime scene.
As a result, Michael is one of Grand Theft Auto’s most unique protagonists to date. Whether it’s having to deal with the whims of his spoiled children, appease the special agents threatening to revoke his witness protection deal or use his wealth of knowledge to expertly execute petty crimes, he’s a crook who escaped the criminal world unscathed and is desperate to revisit it. His storyline stands out as Grand Theft Auto 5’s absolute best, especially when taking into account his feud with Trevor and the secrets about his past he’s desperately trying to keep buried.
3. Tommy Vercetti
An old-school gangster through and through, Tommy Vercetti feels like he’s ripped straight from a Scorcese movie. He’s smart, ambitious and has no problem taking down anyone that gets in his way, regardless of how influential or important they are to Vice City’s crime syndicates. In a lot of ways, Vercetti is Rockstar’s take on Scarface’s Tony Montana, earning respect and his place atop the criminal underworld through his ruthless drive to become the most powerful man in Vice City.
Vercetti’s story begins after concluding a fifteen-year prison sentence in Liberty City, making his way to Vice City on the orders of his boss, Sonny Forelli. Sent to oversee a drug deal, Tommy’s life descends into chaos after the deal is ambushed and he’s tasked with reclaiming the money lost during his escape. As he tracks down the cash, we see Tommy’s desire to become more than an attack dog for the mafia, establishing himself with other local crime families and acquiring several businesses around Vice City.
Tommy is a hustler, and his fearless drive to reach the top of the pile makes him one of Grand Theft Auto’s most beloved protagonists. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s voiced by the late, great Ray Liotta, with the Goodfellas actor lending a touch of authenticity to Vercetti’s charming but ruthless persona.
2. Carl ‘CJ’ Johnson
Returning to the streets of Los Santos after his mother is killed in a drive-by shooting, CJ’s story is arguably one of Grand Theft Auto’s absolute best. A street-raised hustler and former member of the Grove Street Families, his story sees him rejoin his brother and attempt to take back the streets from a rival gang known as the Ballas, only to be betrayed and exiled from the city by his former friends.
CJ is not only one of the series’ more charismatic protagonists, but his backstory and motivations in GTA: San Andreas are among the most engaging in the series’ history. Leaving his family and the criminal underworld for good after the death of his younger brother five years prior, CJ enters the story as an outsider, forced to return to street shootouts and aiding corrupt cops to help his family and restore the reputation of his former gang.
Compared to the typical GTA protagonist looking for fortune and fame, CJ’s rise to the top of the Los Santos crime scene is about reputation and a fierce loyalty for his family, making him one of the series’ most likable leads.
1. Niko Bellic
Coming to Liberty City inspired by his cousin’s promise of a land of wealth and opportunity just to sleep on a couch in a tiny, rundown apartment, Niko Bellic is not only the most compelling take on the archetypical rags-to-riches Grand Theft Auto protagonist but the series’ best lead character. An Eastern European immigrant and ex-soldier, he’s haunted by the horrors of war and guided by his determination to seek revenge on those who wronged him by any means necessary.
Niko’s rise through Liberty City’s underworld in Grand Theft Auto 4 is easily the darkest and most morally probing adventure any of the series’ protagonists embark on, acting as a dissection of the American Dream and the constantly revolving cycle of violence. But this more mature story never turns Niko into an atypical, grizzled lead with a single-minded need for revenge. He’s loyal to a fault, witty and introspective, often reflecting on his past and doling out sage wisdom about the futility of violence and conflict.
In a lot of ways, Niko starts out with the insight and clarity most GTA protagonists earn as they conclude their story, and his journey stands as the most unique and gripping of the bunch as a result.
Callum Williams is a freelance media writer with years of experience as a game critic, news reporter, guides writer and features writer.
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