What Is an Antagonist?
In storytelling, the antagonist is the opposer or combatant working against the protagonist or leading character and creating the main conflict. An antagonist is different from an antihero, who is a protagonist lacking traditional heroic qualities. The antagonist can be one character or a group of characters, but they have to get in the protagonist’s way of pursuing their goals. In conventional narratives, the antagonist is synonymous with the “bad guy,” while the protagonist represents the “good guy.”
Examples of antagonists include Iago from William Shakespeare’s Othello, Darth Vader from the original Star Wars trilogy, the ancient evil Sauron from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and President Snow in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.
The 4 Types of Antagonists
In genre writing—especially in thrillers—antagonists are usually arch-villains, but they don’t have to be people; they can be any oppositional element that thwarts your character’s main desire. Of course, many stories include more than one antagonist: Lord Voldemort is the primary antagonist in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, but other characters, such as Draco Malfoy, act as secondary antagonists. Broadly speaking, there are four different types of antagonists:
- Villains: The traditional definition of antagonist is a villain—a “bad guy” in the story, often working for evil purposes to destroy a heroic protagonist. While there can be villainous protagonists, villains are antagonists when they’re not the main character of the story but instead are the main source of conflict for the main characters. There are different types of villains within the category: the mastermind, the anti-villain, the evil villain, the minion or henchman, and the supervillain, to name a few. Examples of classic villain protagonists include Darth Vader from Star Wars, the Joker from the Batman comics, and Captain Ahab from Moby Dick.
- Conflict-creators: An antagonist doesn’t have to be a “bad guy.” Sometimes, they’re just a character whose goals are in direct conflict with the protagonist’s, like Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, who is constantly at odds with the main character Elizabeth Bennet. Another example of this type of antagonist: Javert, who works to arrest Valjean in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.
- Inanimate forces: An antagonist doesn’t have to be human—the main antagonist can sometimes be a force, like nature. A good example of an antagonistic force is the sea in Robinson Crusoe.
- The protagonist themselves: The main source of conflict in a story can be from within the main character’s own self—their shortcomings or insecurities are keeping them from reaching their goal. A prime example of an internal antagonist is Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. While Holden comes into conflict with many characters in the novel, the ever-present antagonizing conflict comes from his own obsessions and insecurities. If a story doesn’t have an external antagonizing force but rather seats the conflict within the protagonist, a strong backstory is useful for fueling that inner conflict.
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