Protagonist and Antagonist: Writing the Perfect Rivalry
[Last updated: 17 September 2018]
If there’s one thing every story needs, it’s conflict — and while conflict can take many forms (such as Self vs. Nature, Technology vs. Humanity, Character vs. Self, etc.), some of literature’s most loved stories include conflict in the classic form of the protagonist and antagonist.
Without a White Whale, Moby Dick is a book about a guy who sails out on a boat and then goes home. If there wasn’t a Harry Potter, then JK Rowling would have written a series about Voldemort taking over the world, unopposed. Without the Sauron and the Ring, the Fellowship would have been an odd sight-seeing group touring Middle-earth.
In this article, we will look at what protagonists and antagonists are, how these age-old character archetypes can help you craft memorable stories, and what famous rivalries look like in both literature and film.
With that in mind, let's first go back to basics to figure out what exactly protagonists and antagonists are.
- What is a protagonist?
- What is an antagonist?
- Protagonist vs. antagonist: the importance of the rivalry
- How do you write a memorable protagonist and antagonist?
- Protagonist and antagonist examples
What is a protagonist?
The protagonist is the main character, whose story is being told through any literary work. The term derives from classical Greek drama and literally means “first actor.” Though often referred to as the hero of the story, the main character isn’t necessarily virtuous and they may be just one of many protagonists in the narrative.
Four Protagonist Examples
Seeing how protagonists can take many forms, let's see four common examples in action.
1. Lonely Hero
The Lonely Hero is the most common breed of protagonists. Though they’re often helped by a team of supporting characters, the burden of the quest usually falls on the shoulders of this one character. It’s the Lonely Hero who has to sacrifice the most in order to accomplish their goal.
Examples of the lonely hero as the protagonist:
- Matilda from Matilda
- Cooper from Interstellar
2. Group Hero
With Group Hero protagonists, more than one person shoulders the burden of the story’s primary conflict. They might not all be performing the same task, but they are pulling together to accomplish a single goal.
Examples of the group hero as the protagonist:
- Aibileen Clark, Minny Jackson, and Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan from The Help
- Romeo and Juliet from Romeo and Juliet
3. Inanimate Objects
Although not as common as other types of protagonists, inanimate objects or even towns can be the main characters of stories. These are not the anthropomorphized characters usually found in fables and animated movies — who are, in a story sense, human — but rather regular objects that play a central role in a story.
Examples of inanimate objects as protagonists:
- The houses from A House is a House for Me
- The cities themselves in books such as London, Paris, or Invisible Cities
Although protagonists are often shown as fearless, kind, and courageous heroes, they can also be bitter, sarcastic, and perhaps less-than-heroic. In other words, they might be an anti-hero.
Examples of anti-heroes as protagonists:
- Locke Lamora from the Gentleman Bastards series
- Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye
Can protagonists be evil?
Yes! Though not as common as traditional, hero-like protagonists — or even anti-heroes — there are actual villains that are the protagonists of their own stories. Here are some examples of villains as protagonists:
- Patrick Bateman from American Psycho
- Alex from A Clockwork Orange
So, now that we’ve seen who’s standing in the red corner, let’s take a look at who’s standing on the opposite side of the aisle.
What is an antagonist?
The antagonist is the primary opponent of the protagonist and the major force standing between the main character and their goal. The term derives from Greek: anti, meaning “against” and agonist, meaning actor.
Like the protagonist, the antagonist can take many different shapes: from the traditional villain working alone, to a group of people, a force of nature, or even an intrinsic conflict that the protagonist needs to overcome. Let’s venture into the dark side for a bit to see for ourselves what forms an antagonist might take.
Four Antagonist Examples
1. The Villain
A classic, evil-doing character (think of the Joker from Batman) will probably be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of an antagonist. It isn’t just that their goals oppose the protagonist's, they are also actively working against them in order to fulfill their own — often selfish — purpose.
Examples of the villain as an antagonist:
- Voldemort from the Harry Potter series
- Cruella de Vil from The Hundred and One Dalmatians
2. Group Villain
An antagonist doesn’t have to be a single entity working alone: it can be an entire group of people or a social entity that actively opposes the protagonist.
Examples of the group villain as an antagonist:
- The Community from The Giver
- The Capitol from The Hunger Games
3. Inanimate Forces
Though not as common as human antagonists, inanimate forces — such as nature, technology, or the supernatural — can present resistance that the protagonist needs to overcome or, sometimes, learn to accept.
Examples of inanimate forces as antagonists:
- Nature in Robinson Crusoe
- Technology in the Terminator franchise
- The supernatural in the short story, “The Masque of the Red Death”
4. Intrinsic force
This type of antagonist isn’t another character, but rather one of the protagonist’s shortcomings that keep them from achieving their goals. This can be a character flaw or some sort of physical disadvantage that they must learn to either overcome or embrace.
Examples of the intrinsic force:
- Elizabeth and Darcy’s pride and prejudice in, well, Pride and Prejudice
- Henry DeTamble’s uncontrollable time traveling abilities in The Time Traveler’s Wife
Not all antagonists are evil
Antagonists don’t necessarily need to be bad or downright evil characters. In order for a character to be labeled as an antagonist, they only need to meet one criteria: their goals must conflict with the protagonist’s goals. To show you what we mean, here are some not-evil-on-purpose antagonists:
- Every other character besides Holden in The Catcher in the Rye
- Javert from Les Miserables
Speaking of conflicting goals...
Protagonist vs. antagonist: the importance of the rivalry
Now we come to the million-dollar question: how do these two opposing forces interact? Defining the relationship between your protagonist and antagonist will be one of the centerpieces of your storytelling, so let’s take a look at how you can unlock this rivalry and use it to your advantage.
They must be foils of each other
For every step your protagonist takes, your antagonist should counterattack — and vice versa. Both should be two sides of the same coin, each showing the positives and negatives of their world and their beliefs, and how they are at odds with each other. The rivalry is part of what will create central conflict, which propels the story forward and eventually leads to its conclusion.
It informs your main characters’ goals
The back and forth between your protagonist and antagonist is what will provide reasoning behind your characters’ actions and become the starting point of other secondary events and obstacles.
It will also inform your protagonist's character development. While other events can drive change in your characters, the protagonist-antagonist conflict is particularly important because they bring out the greatest weaknesses in each other — weaknesses that they need to learn to overcome in order to accomplish their goals.
It can be food for thought
In non-traditional conflict (such as Man vs. Nature), the antagonist might not knowingly attack your protagonist, but will present obstacles to their goal. This type of indirect rivalry can be used as a very powerful commentary on human nature, political powers, environmental issues, societal expectations, among many others.
How do you write a memorable protagonist and antagonist?
It can be intimidating to think about developing a great protagonist and antagonist. But that's why we're here! Since these characters can make the difference between a memorable story and a forgettable one, we'll give you some ground rules to get you started.
How to write a good protagonist
1. Give them a purpose
As the main character of your story, your protagonist needs a reason to do what they do in the scope of the story — whether shallow or profound, they need a motivation (or several) to set the story in motion.
For many years, Frodo lived uneventfully in the Shire. That is, until he is given a purpose: to destroy the One Ring. His mission is the starting point of his adventure and what set the events of the Lord of the Rings into motion.
2. Don’t make them perfect
Nothing is more boring than reading about a protagonist who checks off all the cliched boxes of a standard archetype — without any defining characteristics that add a new twist. A compelling protagonist must be complex and have flaws, like any other person. Their flaws can become one of your most powerful allies because they can — and should! — affect your protagonist’s actions and decisions.
Is your protagonist too trusting? Too impulsive? Too reckless? Too honest? These are only a few of the many flaws that can get your character into a lot of trouble, and ones they need to overcome throughout the story.
2. Don't be afraid of making them unusual
If your story has a non-traditional protagonist, show their importance in the story through their interactions with other secondary characters.
In novels that follow many different characters and families throughout centuries of history, such as London or Paris, the ever-present constant is the city itself. It isn’t a sentient being, but changes that happen within the city are reflected in the lives of the characters and by how they respond to them.
How to write a good antagonist
1. Give them a purpose and backstory
Why does your antagonist want to foil the protagonist? What is their ultimate goal? Just like your protagonist, your antagonist also needs a motivation. Don’t create an antagonist for the sake of having a villain. They need to have a backstory so that their motivation is believable and legitimate.
Magneto, from the X-Men series, is the antagonist of the story. However, a look at his background reveals all the pain and suffering that led him to hold his belief that mutants are superior to humans. He still acts as the “evil” character, but his backstory gives the reader a reason for his behavior.
2. Don’t make them too weak (or too powerful)
How can your antagonist be defeated? While it’s true that your antagonist needs to create trouble for your protagonist, and that they will — most likely — be defeated at the end, there needs to be a balance between their power and their weaknesses. If your antagonist is defeated too easily, then the story won’t be interesting for readers. However, if they're too difficult to defeat, your story might never end (or end on an unrealistic note).
3. Don't be afraid of unusual antagonists
How does the story’s rivalry push or challenge your protagonist? Antagonists such as nature or technology don’t need to be defeated per se. Instead, their purpose is to show how the protagonist deals with conflict.
The main antagonist in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is his backward aging. It doesn’t need to be overcome or defeated, but it pushes the story forward by creating conflict, seen through the struggle that takes place throughout Benjamin’s entire life.
Keeping this in mind, let's see how a few authors famously brought out the best of their protagonists and antagonists.
Protagonist and antagonist examples
Pride and Prejudice
Protagonist: Elizabeth Bennet
Antagonist: Her pride and prejudice (particularly against Darcy)
Rivalry: Though Jane Austen introduces several smaller obstacles between Elizabeth and Darcy — Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Caroline Bingley, Mr. Collins, and George Wickham — the truth is that the main obstacle between Elizabeth and Darcy is their pride and prejudice, which they must overcome in order to be together.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Protagonist: Dr. Jekyll
Antagonist: Mr. Hyde
Rivalry: It’s a conflict between good and evil — but the tiny problem at hand is that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are the same person! Burdened by his less than notorious behavior, Dr. Jekyll decides to undertake experiments in order to separate his good and evil sides. The result is the appearance of Mr. Hyde. Their juxtaposition not only deals with the perpetual rivalry between good and evil, but also exposes the duality of human nature.
Whether you have the traditional hero-villain character dynamic, or a non-traditional character rivalry, remember to make full use of the conflict their interactions generate in order to move your story along. By creating complex characters, you will find it much easier develop an interesting plot and bring your story to life.
Do you have a favorite protagonist? A favorite antagonist? What are your favorite protagonist vs. antagonist rivalries? Let us know in the comments below!