Writing

Writing 101: Protagonist vs. Antagonist Characters

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Sep 13, 2019 • 6 min read

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The conflict between a protagonist and an antagonist—a story’s two most essential characters—is an age-old storytelling trope. Writers of films, plays, and literary works have a long history of using the tension created by the protagonist and antagonist competing against each other toward conflicting goals to drive a story forward, evolving and developing the definition and characteristics of both types of characters.

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What Is a Protagonist?

In storytelling, a protagonist is the main character or principal character or group of characters in a story.

Writers use the protagonist to drive the story forward—the protagonist’s goals reflect the overall story goals, the plot moves forward based on the protagonist’s decisions, and their character arc is what the readers follow throughout the story.

While in many narratives, the protagonist is synonymous with “the good guy,” the word “protagonist” is simply from an Ancient Greek word meaning “one who plays the first part, chief actor.” The definition of protagonist has nothing to do with a character’s internal moral compass: a protagonist can be both a “good” character (i.e. full of moral integrity) or a “bad” character (i.e. lacking moral integrity).

Protagonists are often thought of as the “point-of-view” character, because readers follow them and their exploits throughout the story. However, writers don’t always tell their stories through the protagonist’s eyes—they can also tell stories through a third-person point of view, or through the eyes of a supporting character. Learn more about point of view in writing in our complete guide here.

Examples of famous protagonists throughout literature include Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, and Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby.

3 Types of Protagonists

There are three main types of protagonists. The different types can refer to either one person or to a group of characters fulfilling the protagonist role:

  1. A hero. A heroic protagonist is the traditional “good guy” of the story. They try to embody strong morals and make the right decision for themselves and for the other characters. Well-known heroic protagonists from literature include Beowulf, Harry Potter, and Luke Skywalker.
  2. An antihero. Some protagonists subvert the traditional “hero” trope. These are called antiheroes, and they can either be unlikely or unwilling heroes, or in some cases villains. Even when antiheroes are villains, they’re protagonists—rather than antagonists—when they’re in stories where the author treats them as the main character, rather than the main conflict working against the main character. Famous antihero protagonists include Captain Ahab from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Severus Snape from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and Shylock from William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.
  3. A false protagonist. Sometimes, a writer sets stories up with one character as the protagonist only to switch focus at one point in the story, often by killing the false protagonist. This is done in order to jar or disorient the reader. Examples of false protagonists include Llewellyn in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and Marion in Robert Bloch’s Psycho.
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2 Tips for Writing a Strong Protagonist

When screenwriting, playwriting, or novel-writing, there are a number of things you should keep in mind if you’re striving to write a strong protagonist:

  1. Avoid absolutes. When protagonists are either extremely moral characters, or extremely immoral characters, it might be hard for readers to relate to them. Allow your protagonists a mix of traits in order to make them feel more human. After all, there is a bit of both in all of us.
  2. Don’t make your protagonist too powerful or too weak. An all-powerful protagonist can often leave readers feeling that the stakes of the story’s central conflict aren’t high enough—in other words, the protagonist is not risking anything and has nothing to lose. If the story has no stakes, it is not all that interesting to read. On the other hand, a protagonist that is too weak or helpless might leave readers feeling frustrated.

What Is an Antagonist?

In storytelling, the antagonist is the opposer or combatant working against the protagonist’s or leading characters’ goal (“antagonizing”) and creating the main conflict. The antagonist can be one character or a group of characters. In traditional narratives, the antagonist is synonymous with “the bad guy.”

Examples of antagonists include Iago from William Shakespeare’s Othello, Darth Vader from the original Star Wars trilogy, and Lord Voldemort from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

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4 Types of Antagonists

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There are four main types of antagonists.

  1. A villain. 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 the main source of conflict for the main characters. Examples of villain protagonists include Darth Vader and Captain Hook.
  2. A conflict-creator. 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 or Javert working to arrest Valjean in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.
  3. Inanimate forces. An antagonist doesn’t have to be human—the main antagonist can sometimes be a force, like nature. A good example of this is the sea in Robinson Crusoe.
  4. The protagonist themselves. The main source of conflict in a story can be from within the protagonist themselves—their shortcomings or insecurities are keeping them from reaching their goal. A prime example of this 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.

2 Tips for Writing a Strong Antagonist

When screenwriting, playwriting, or novel-writing, there are a number of things you should keep in mind if you’re striving to write a strong antagonist:

  1. Give them some goodness. When antagonists are completely evil, the story might not hold the reader’s interest and runs the risk of being too unrelatable. Even in stories where the antagonist is a villain, like Star Wars, the writer can make the conflict more interesting by giving the antagonist a mix of traits—for instance, Darth Vader appears to be completely evil at first, but softens the more he comes in contact with Luke Skywalker.
  2. Balance their power. If your antagonist is easily defeated at the end, audiences might feel underwhelmed—they may feel that the conflict’s stakes were never high enough to really be exciting. On the other hand, if your antagonist is all-powerful, that can frustrate audiences who want to see the protagonist have a fighting chance.

What Is the Difference Between a Protagonist and an Antagonist?

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Protagonists and antagonists are both essential characters in a story, but they propel the plot in different and usually opposite ways:

  • The protagonist works toward the central story goals, while the antagonist works against the goals.
  • The words “protagonist” and “antagonist” are antonyms. In storytelling terms, this means that protagonists and antagonists are opposing forces in a story.

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