Your protagonist and antagonist are your story’s most essential characters, and how you define that relationship can be central to the success of the story.
For example, what would the Harry Potter series be without Harry’s battles with Lord Voldemort? Or what about Peter Pan’s adversary in the legendary and clever Captain Hook? Or the famous detective Sherlock Holmes without Moriarty trying to thwart him?
As the antagonist and antagonist work at odds to each other, that tension helps create the conflict and suspense in the story, and an energy that drives the plot forward. They are therefore both critical to a good story.
What is a protagonist?
In Ancient Greek, the word protagonist means “one who plays the first part”. So, they are the main character, or group of characters, in your story. Their goals, motivations and desires help drive the story forward. Their character arc is central to how the plot unfolds and usually they are the hero that the reader wants to succeed, but not always. They do not necessarily have to be morally good.
The protagonist is usually also the point-of-view character, which means that the readers see the story through their eyes. This alone usually helps garner the sympathy and support of the audience, so they become the emotional heart of the narrative. Although, occasionally, the story about them can also be told through a third person character like in The Great Gatsby with the neighbour actually telling Gatsby’s story.
Famous protagonists in literature include Harry Potter, Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird), Jane Eyre, Peter Pan, Frodo Baggins (The Lord of the Rings), Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables), and Emma.
RELATED READ: How to Write a Compelling Character Arc
Types of protagonists
The heroic protagonist is the traditional “good guy” who has strong morals, seeks to make the right or good decisions, and considers others as he/she goes about achieving his/her goals. There is a selflessness about them that makes them well-loved, revered, and admired. They include characters like Batman, Beowulf, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Odysseus, King Arthur, Superman, or Bilbo Baggins. Bilbo from The Hobbit is an excellent example of an ordinary person, or hobbit, who finds himself on an adventure of a lifetime that will ultimately save many.
These protagonists go against traditional heroic qualities in that they may be dishonest, arrogant, greedy, self-interested, or lacking morality. They can be somewhat unlikely heroes, but they are usually relatable because they are either struggling to overcome these qualities or because we understand the challenges they face.
Famous examples in literature include Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby), Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights), Edward Rochester (Jane Eyre), Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind), Severus Snape (Harry Potter series), Shylock (The Merchant of Venice), and Norman Bates (Psycho)!
Sometimes, readers can be led to believe a character is the protagonist only to find out later that they are not. At some point, the false protagonist is removed from the plot, usually by killing them. This changes their role in the story, making them a lesser character. It is a jarring technique designed to disorient the reader.
One of the most famous ever false protagonists is Marion Crane in Psycho. The story begins with her as the main character, but she is killed partway through the film, in the shower as we all know! Other examples include Bernard Marx in Brave New World, Will and Eddard Stark in Game of Thrones, and Matthew Mercer in The Zero Game.
What is an antagonist?
The antagonist opposes the protagonist, meaning they work against their goals, desires and motivations. Generally, they are considered evil or a “bad guy”, but not always.
There are some fabulous antagonists in literature including Iago (Othello), Dracula (Dracula), Captain Hook (Peter Pan), Lord Voldemort (Harry Potter), and even the shark (Jaws).
Villains or antagonists can be loved, not necessarily for who they are, but for their role in making the literature so good. Even if the reader wants the antagonist to succeed, they may enjoy the tension and suspense they add to the plot.
RELATED READ: Character Development: Definition and Tips
Types of antagonists
The traditional bad guy is usually working for their own evil purposes or simply out to destroy the protagonist. They are the main source of conflict for the main characters, like the antagonists. Captain Hook is an excellent villain, playing Peter Pan’s archenemy.
The conflict creator might not be particularly bad, but their goals just conflict with the protagonist. Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, priding himself on social standing and treating others badly, is a good example, as is Javert who tries to arrest the protagonist Valjean in Les Miserables.
When the main antagonist is a nonhuman power or element that conflicts directly with the principal character, it is considered an inanimate antagonist. Forces of nature often make great inanimate antagonists, like the sea in Robinson Crusoe. In George Orwell’s 1984, the surveillance state of Big Brother is the inanimate force or concept.
Sometimes the main source of conflict in the story is the protagonist themselves. Usually, this is an internal struggle about their shortcomings, doubts or insecurities. Whatever the struggle is, it prevents them from reaching their goal. Macbeth could be considered his own antagonist, as could Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.
Main differences between protagonists and antagonists
The protagonist is generally the hero in the plot with a primary goal to defeat a villain, rescue a damsel, uncover a truth, or overcome internal demons. The antagonist gets in the way of whatever the primary goal of the protagonist is. They stand in the way of our hero or heroine’s success.
It can be easy to simplify one as good and the other as evil, but it’s not that simple. The protagonist themselves can have internal struggles, doubts, fears that work against them. The antagonist themselves adds much to the plot.
The clearer the struggle is between these two characters, or groups of characters, the more tension and conflict you will develop as you take your reader along for the ride. This helps drive the story forward and makes for excellent reading. The story wouldn’t be the same without them.