Protagonist vs. Antagonist: A Must-Know Literary Pair, Defined
If there’s one thing every story needs, it’s conflict. And while conflict takes many forms, some of literature’s most beloved stories involve 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 comes home. If there were no Voldemort, Harry Potter would simply follow the title character through seven boring years of school. Without Sauron and the Ring, the Fellowship would have just 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! That's why it's so important to have some kind of conflict — and furthermore, to have real people be involved in some way. This article will look at those people: protagonists and antagonists. Let's find out who they are, how they oppose each other, and what you can do to craft memorable rivalries fo your own stories.
What is a protagonist?
The protagonist is the lead character of a story. The term derives from classical Greek drama, literally meaning “first actor.” Though often referred to as the “hero” of the story, the protagonist isn’t necessarily virtuous, and also may be just one of many protagonists.
Every narrative will have at least one protagonist, who may serve as the narrator as well. If not, the story will typically follow them in third person limited. Alternately, if there are multiple protagonists, the POV often shifts back and forth, whether that's in first person or third person limited. It may be difficult to identify the protagonist(s) immediately, but you usually know within a few chapters.
Is the protagonist always the main character?
99% of the time. Some people differentiate between “protagonist” and “main character,” saying that the protagonist moves the story forward, while the main character may be anyone who features heavily — but doesn't necessarily drive the narrative.
For example, Scout is the main character of To Kill a Mockingbird, but some might say Atticus is the true protagonist: his actions drive the story, while Scout is ultimately more of an observer. The same could be said of Nick and Gatsby in The Great Gatsby, as Gatsby is the truly active participant in the story, as Nick mostly observes what happens.
However, for almost all intents and purposes, “protagonist” and “main character” are synonymous terms. Then again, if you're a writer, it may be helpful for you to think of your protagonist purely in terms of what they do! If you find yourself with less of a protagonist and more of a passive main character, you might want to reconsider that character's true role and purpose in your story.
Speaking of which, how many ways can protagonists manifest in different narratives? Let's take a look at the three most common types of protagonists in action.
Types of protagonists
1. 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 usually 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. Group hero
With group hero protagonists, multiple people are equally involved in the story’s main events and conflict. They may not all serve the same purpose or perform the same tasks but pull 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. (Whereas the lonely hero can, and ultimately does, rise to the occasion alone.)
Examples of group hero protagonists:
- Romeo and Juliet from Romeo and Juliet
- Violet, Klaus, and Sunny 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
Learn more about what your protagonist is like by downloading this character questionnaire:
Although protagonists are usually shown as selfless, kind, and courageous heroes, they can also be bitter, sarcastic, and perhaps less-than-morally-upright. In other words, they might be an anti-hero: a hero without typically “heroic” traits.
An anti-hero 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, their lack of truly malevolent convictions typically means that they end up in more neutral or even good territory, if only by accident. (Anti-heroes frequently feature in works of grimdark, which specialize in morally gray characters and situations.)
Examples of anti-hero 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
Can the protagonist be the bad guy?
Yes! Though not as common as traditional, heroic protagonists, or even anti-heroes with complex motivations, there are some fully malevolent villains that serve as the protagonists of their own stories. Here are some examples of villainous protagonists:
- Patrick Bateman from American Psycho
- Alex from A Clockwork Orange
- The Grinch from How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Sometimes an evil protagonist undergoes a transformative character arc to become good in the end (as with the Grinch). However, sometimes they remain just as monstrous as ever (often a sign of sociopathy, as in the first two examples).
If you're writing a villainous protagonist, just remember that, even if they don't get a redemption arc, they still need to be compelling to readers in some way. Perhaps they have a delightfully twisted inner monologue, or a weakness that they fear will be found out. Maybe you're writing satire and want to see how far you can push the limits of the genre. But whatever you do, your protagonist cannot be flat or uninteresting — otherwise readers won't understand why you're telling their story in the first place.
Now that we’ve seen who’s standing in the protagonist 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 biggest obstacle standing between the main character and their goal. This term also derives from Greek: anti, meaning “against,” and agonist, meaning actor.
Like the protagonist, the antagonist can take many different forms. From the traditional villain working alone, to a group of people, a force of nature, or even an intrinsic conflict, the one uniting factor of all antagonists is that they challenge the protagonist in some way. Let’s venture over the dark side for a bit to see how antagonists can take shape, with the four most common types of antagonists.
Types of antagonists
When you think "antagonist," the first thing that comes to mind is probably a classic evil-doing character. This is, of course, the villain antagonist seen so often in stories from Dickens to Disney. Not only do the villain's goals oppose the protagonist's, they are also actively working against them in order to fulfill their own — often selfish or wicked — ambitions.
The villain may have a longstanding grudge against the protagonist and are out for revenge (think Syndrome in The Incredibles). They may simply want to watch the world burn while the protagonist wants to maintain order (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.
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. Group villain
Of course, just as with protagonists, an antagonist doesn’t have to be one 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. Group villains can also appear in a more “typical” way, as simply a group of villains — however, this is pretty much exclusive to superhero comics and movies.
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 also create resistance that the protagonist needs to overcome. The inanimate force antagonist may take a form akin to a human figure (as with the Terminator below), but as with the group hero's face/figurehead, this form is only a stand-in for the protagonist's true enemy.
Such inanimate forces may be on par with the unfathomably terrifying threats of cosmic horror, or they may be as mundane as bad weather. But either way, this force 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 to read before the world ends.
4. Intrinsic forces
This is another type of antagonist that isn't a character, but rather one of the protagonist’s own shortcomings that keeps them from achieving their goals. An intrinsic force drives the “character vs. self” conflict you'll sometimes see in stories. This may be a personality flaw or some sort of physical disadvantage, but it's something the protagonist (and those around them) must defeat — or give into, especially if they have a hero-to-villain arc.
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
Can the antagonist be the good guy?
Sometimes — or at the very least, the antagonist isn't always as bad as we think they are. Oftentimes, a traumatic past explains why they act the way they do. Or they might want to be good, but got started down the wrong path and now believe it's too late to change
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
What about anti-villains?
An anti-villain is slightly different from a “good” antagonist who just happens to oppose the protagonist. The anti-villain is undeniably villainous in behavior, but their motivations make us think twice about how to label them.
Killmonger from Black Panther is a quintessential anti-villain. His reason for wanting to take over Wakanda is highly justifiable: to redistribute its resources to oppressed people around the world. However, his methods are too extreme and would ultimately cause greater violence — which is why T'Challa must oppose him.
Now, 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 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 deep, 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, 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 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 character 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 an antagonist
1. Give them 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. But 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 antagonist, but his backstory gives the reader a reason for his behavior, which makes the whole story much more compelling.
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 includes your antagonist.
Curious about the psychology of real-life villains? Try checking out a few true crime books to get a feel for their motivations and inner lives.
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.
More 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 Jekyll and Hyde are the same person! Burdened by his own poor behaviors, Dr. Jekyll undertakes experiments in order to separate his good and evil sides. The result is the appearance of Mr. Hyde. Their tale not only deals with the eternal rivalry between good and evil, but also with 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. When aiming for cinematic splendor, you can't go wrong with a 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.
What are your favorite protagonist and antagonist rivalries? Let us know in the comments below!