Protagonist vs. Antagonist: Understanding a Story's Main Characters
If there’s one thing every story needs, it’s conflict. And while conflict can take many forms (Self vs. Nature, Technology vs. Humanity, Character vs. Self, etc.), some of literature’s most beloved stories include conflict in the classic form of the protagonist and antagonist.
Without the white whale, Moby Dick is just a book about a guy who goes sailing and then returns home. If there were no Harry Potter, then J.K. Rowling would have written a series about Voldemort taking over the world, unopposed. Without Sauron and the Ring, the Fellowship would have merely been an odd sight-seeing group touring Middle-earth. And as enjoyable as that may have been for them, it wouldn't have made a very good story for the rest of us.
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?
The protagonist is the main character whose story is being told. 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 also may be just one of many protagonists in the narrative.
Because protagonists can take many forms, let's take a look at four common types of protagonists in action.
4 Types of Protagonists
1. The Lonely Hero
The Lonely Hero is the standard strain of protagonist, probably because it's seen as the most "heroic" type. As the name implies, the Lonely Hero is the one and only person who can stop evil from triumphing and save the day. Though they’re almost always helped by a team of supporting characters, the ultimate burden of the quest falls squarely on the shoulders of the Lonely Hero. They are the one who must sacrifice the most in order to accomplish their goal.
Examples of Lonely Hero protagonists:
- Harry from Harry Potter
- Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games
- Frodo Baggins from Lord of the Rings
- Matilda from Matilda
- Cooper from Interstellar
2. The Group Hero
With Group Hero protagonists, multiple people shoulder the story’s conflict. They might not all be performing the same tasks, but they are pulling together to accomplish a single goal. No one person stands out beyond the rest, or if they do, it's only because the group helped them get there — they literally couldn't have done it without their support. (Whereas the Lonely Hero could have, and ultimately does, rise to the occasion alone.)
Examples of Group Hero protagonists:
- Romeo and Juliet from Romeo and Juliet
- Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire from A Series of Unfortunate Events
- Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy, and Scooby from Scooby-Doo
- Aibileen Clark, Minny Jackson, and Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan from The Help
- The Avengers from the Marvel comics of the same name
3. The Antihero
Although protagonists are usually shown as selfless, kind, and courageous heroes, they can also be bitter, sarcastic, and perhaps less-than-heroic. In other words, they might be an Antihero. An Antihero often starts out as either an impartial party or a lesser villain who begrudgingly engages in conflict with the main antagonist — usually because there's something in it for them. However, over time (i.e. in a lengthy series), the Antihero may undergo a hero's journey of sorts and become genuinely heroic... or at least a little less bad. Antiheroes frequently feature in works of grimdark, which specialize in morally gray characters and situations.
Check out our full post about anti-heroes for a more in-depth explanation and lots more examples.
Examples of Antihero protagonists:
- Artemis from Artemis Fowl
- Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye
- Locke Lamora from the Gentleman Bastards series
- Thomas Covenant from The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant
4. Inanimate Objects
Although not nearly as common as other types of protagonists, Inanimate Objects can indeed 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 (or places) that play a central role in a story.
Examples of Inanimate Objects as protagonists:
- The houses in A House is a House for Me
- The cities themselves itself in the novel Invisible Cities
Can protagonists be evil?
Yes! Though not as common as traditional, heroic protagonists or even antiheroes, there are some fully malevolent villains that serve as the protagonists of their own stories. Here are some examples of villains as protagonists:
- Patrick Bateman from American Psycho
- Alex from A Clockwork Orange
- The Grinch from How the Grinch Stole Christmas
So now that we’ve seen who’s standing in the red corner, let’s take a look at those on the opposite side.
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 over the dark side for a bit to see what forms an antagonist might take, with four common types of antagonists.
4 Types of Antagonists
1. The Villain
A classic, evil-doing character will probably be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of an antagonist. This is, of course, the Villain antagonist that you see the vast majority of the time. Not only do their goals oppose the protagonist's, they are also actively working against them in order to fulfill their own — often selfish — ambitions.
They may have a longstanding grudge agains the protagonist and are out for revenge (think Syndrome in The Incredibles), or they may simply want to watch the world burn (think the Joker in The Dark Knight). But whatever their motives (or lack thereof), there's no doubt about the fact that they're a Villain through and through.
(Did you know there's such a thing as an "anti-villain"? Read our blog post all about these morally grey characters to learn more).
Examples of classic Villain antagonists:
- Voldemort from Harry Potter
- Darth Vader from Star Wars
- Hans Gruber from Die Hard
- Sauron from Lord of the Rings
- Cruella de Vil from One Hundred and One Dalmatians
2. The Group Villain
Of course, just like with protagonists, an antagonist doesn’t have to be a single person working alone: it can be an entire group or entity that actively opposes the protagonist. This is the Group Villain, and though it may have a distinct face or figurehead, the group itself is recognized as the real bad guys.
The Group Villain usually represents political values and social mores that clash with the protagonist's in a drastic way. As you might expect, the Group Villain often features in dystopian works, such as those listed below.
Examples of Group Villain antagonists:
- The Community from The Giver
- The Capitol from The Hunger Games
- The Republic of Gilead from The Handmaid's Tale
3. Inanimate Forces
Though not as common as human antagonists, Inanimate Forces — such as nature, technology, or the supernatural — can create resistance that the protagonist needs to overcome. Such a force may be on par with the unfathomably terrifying threats of cosmic horror, or it may be as mundane as bad weather. But either way, it blocks the protagonist's path to victory and must be neutralized before they can succeed.
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”
To see how landscape figure as a villain, check out these 10 post-apocalyptic novels that you need to read before the world ends.
4. Intrinsic Forces
This type of antagonist isn’t another character, but rather one of the protagonist’s own shortcomings that keeps them from achieving their goals — on other words, an Intrinsic Force, the driver behind Character vs. Self conflict. This might be a personality flaw or some sort of physical disadvantage, but it's something the protagonist (and those around them) must defeat, or otherwise give into, about themselves.
The other thing to remember about the Intrinsic Force antagonist is that it may not be the only anatagonist in a story. Often, a character has to grapple with an internal issue and combat an external force at the same time — for example, Frodo battling both his own desire for the ring AND his ultimate enemy, Sauron.
Examples of Intrinsic Forces as antagonists:
- Elizabeth's prejudice in Pride and Prejudice
- The narrator's paranoia in Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart
- Henry DeTamble’s uncontrollable time-traveling in The Time Traveler’s Wife
Not all antagonists are evil!
Finally, remember that antagonists don’t necessarily need to be bad or outright evil characters. For one thing, they might be "not bad, just misunderstood," with a difficult past that explains why they act the way they do. Or they might want to be good, but they got set down the wrong path and now think it's too late to turn back.
In any case, for a character to be considered an antagonist, they only really need to meet one piece of 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
How to write a memorable protagonist and antagonist
It can be intimidating to think about developing a great protagonist and antagonist for your story. But that's why we're here: to lessen the intimidation and get 'er done! Since these characters can be the difference between a memorable story and a forgettable one, we'll provide some essential ground rules to help you create a legendary fictional rivalry.
How to write a good protagonist
1. Give them 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 require some kind of motivation to set the story in motion.
For example, Frodo lived uneventfully in the Shire for many years before finding a greater purpose: destroying the One Ring. This mission is the starting point of his adventure and sets 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 all the clichéd boxes of a standard archetype and becomes a flat character, without any defining characteristics that add a new twist. Yes, you might start with an archetype as your base, but you need to really develop them from there into someone unique.
A compelling protagonist must be complex, with flaws and quirks like any other person. These 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? Perhaps too honest? These are only a few of the many issues that can get your character into a lot of trouble, and ones they need to overcome throughout the story.
3. Let them change
Another frustrating thing for readers is protagonists who don't change in any way throughout the story — especially if it's a multi-book series. This ties into our previous tip, because obviously a protagonist who's too perfect isn't going to be able to evolve. However, any kind of static protagonist pales in comparison to a dynamic one. The more you allow your protagonist to change and grow, the more excited readers will be to follow their story.
How to write a good antagonist
1. Give them 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 motivation — and explanation for that motivation. Don’t just create an antagonist for the sake of having a villain. They need both purpose and backstory to be believable and legitimate as a character.
For example, Magneto from the X-Men series is the antagonist of the story. However, a glimpse into his past reveals pain and suffering that, understandably, led him to the 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 might 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 strengths and their weaknesses.
If your antagonist is defeated too easily, then the story won’t be satisfying for readers. However, if they're too difficult to defeat, your story might never end (or end on an unrealistic note). Again, no character should be perfect, and that obviously includes your antagonist.
3. Embrace 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.
For instance, the main antagonist in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is his backward aging. It cannot be overcome or defeated, but it pushes the story forward by creating conflict, as seen through the struggle that Benjamin undertakes.
Keeping this in mind, let's see how a few authors famously secured their protagonists and antagonists in the public consciousness forever.
Examples of protagonists and antagonists
1. Pride and Prejudice
Protagonist: Elizabeth Bennet
Antagonist: Her 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.
2. 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 main problem at hand is that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are the same person! Burdened by his less-than-scrupulous 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.
3. Infinity War
Protagonist: A veritable hoard of Marvel superheroes
Rivalry: In a great example of a group protagonist facing off against a single supervillain, we have literally all the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, AND Wakandans battling Thanos, who wants to destroy half the Earth's population with the Infinity Stones. We won't reveal how it ends for those who haven't seen it, but needless to say that it's a pretty epic battle. When aiming for cinematic splendor, you can't go wrong with a mass collective protagonist!
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 to develop an interesting plot and bring your story to life.
In any story, how can you tell if someone is a protagonist or an antagonist? They are both significant characters, but the easy distinction is that:
- The protagonist is always the main character, regardless of they are heroic.
- The antagonist isn't always evil or a villain, simply the character who is in opposition to the protagonist.
With that distinction in mind, why not go ahead and create your own characters who are worthy of joining Frodo and Thanos in the pantheon of great protagonists and antagonists?
Do you have a favorite protagonist? A favorite antagonist? What are your favorite protagonist vs. antagonist rivalries? Let us know in the comments below!