Friday, September 25, 2015

Writing Basics: Protagonist v. Antagonist

You have probably heard the terms "protagonist" and "antagonist" before, but can you distinguish between the two?

Image: Warner Bros. I do not own this image.

Better question: Do you know the purpose of each?

Every story needs at least one protagonist and one antagonist.

Before we delve into the "why's" of this statement, let's first cover the "what's."

The protagonist is the primary character in your story. This character's main purpose (aside from undergoing the amazing journey and hardships you have drafted out in your story's outline) is to elicit your readers' interests and sympathies. In terms of plot, it is your protagonist who is pushing the action of the story forward. More often than not, your primary Point of View character is going to be your protagonist.

Example: Hamlet in Shakespeare's Hamlet.

The antagonist in your story is the character (or force) that is opposing your protagonist. This character's (or force's) main purpose in the story is to serve as an ongoing obstacle for your protagonist, thereby halting the forward momentum (action) of your story. Typically, many writer's make the antagonist unlikable; however, there is no rule that says your antagonist has to be a horrendous jerk.

Example: Claudius in Shakespeare's Hamlet.

***It is important not to confuse protagonist and antagonist with hero and villain (a common mistake made by many readers and writers).*** Protagonists and antagonists, by definition, do not fall into any strict moral stereotypes; just because the protagonist is pushing the action forward doesn't make him/her a hero ("good"), in much the same way that the antagonist isn't necessarily a villain ("bad") because he/she/it is attempting to halt the protagonist's journey.

So, why does every story need a protagonist and an antagonist?

Every story needs a protagonist and an antagonist because every story needs conflict. In fact, the plot depends upon the struggle between these two characters (or character and force).

It is the struggle between the protagonist and the antagonist that causes the conflict to arise in the story. Without the introduction of the conflict, there would be no rising action. Without a well-crafted antagonist, the protagonist's journey and trials in the rising action stage would be too easy to overcome (and ultimately too boring to read). In fact, it is often the penultimate struggle -- the boss level "showdown" -- between the protagonist and antagonist that forms the climax of many good stories.

Examples of climaxes driven by the protagonist and antagonist:


In The Lord of the Ring, Frodo (the protagonist) is standing at Mount Doom, debating whether or not to throw the ring (the antagonist) into the flames and destroy it, or take permanent ownership of the ring for himself.


In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry (the protagonist) finally enters the Chamber and discovers that Tom Riddle (the antagonist-in-hiding) is really a facet of Voldemort.


In The Handmaid's Tale, Offred (the protagonist) finds out that her friend, Ofglen, has committed suicide, and she realizes that even the brave have been broken by the government (the antagonist) in Gilead. Offred is then confronted by Fred's wife, Serena (another antagonist), about their outing to the club Jezebel's.

Notice how in The Handmaid's Tale example I mention two antagonists? This is because stories can have more than one antagonist (and more than one protagonist, for that matter).

Take George R. R. Martin's epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, my favorite go-to for any analysis. 

Each installment of ASOIAF features chapters with alternating Point of View (POV) characters. Because each POV character is the focus of his or her own chapter (and, more importantly, because these characters are driving the action forward in their respective chapters), each POV character serves as a protagonist. For this reason, each protagonist has a different antagonist or even multiple antagonists. Each chapter in ASOIAF also follows its own form of "mini-plot arc," but we can get into that later.

In short: the protagonist of your story is the primary character who pushes the action forward, whereas the antagonist of your story is the character (or force) who attempts to stall or thwart the protagonist's actions.

In the future, I will post more about how you can go about forming your protagonist and antagonist. 
Have any questions, comments, or concerns? Leave them below!

Remember: I love hearing from all of you, and I respond to each comment :) Let me know your thoughts!

5 comments:

Josh Pearce said...

Also, antagonists tend to spur the protagonist into action. In the Hobbit, Bilbo doesn't move forward until after Gandalf pushes him into action. In that sense, the first antagonist in that story is Gandalf. Not all antagonists have to be "bad guys."

I think its best to look at the idea of a protagonist and an antagonist as being fluid from point to point as your story goes along. Myths tend to be this way, with a hero running into a series of trials from different antagonists. Key is always knowing that the protagonist changes, and that change is part of how they move forward- without the antagonist to precipitate the change, there is no interesting story.

You did a good job of pointing out other stories, which are great for find examples and ways to use them. :D

Majesta Miles said...

+John Pearce, I like that you mention the fluidity of protagonists and antagonists as the story goes along. I hinted at this when I mentioned that -- when it comes to stories with different POV characters -- there can be multiple protagonists and antagonists. As such multiple-POV stories progress, you can really see how each character adapts and grows based on the actions of the other characters, be they protagonists or antagonists.

One of the biggest misconceptions people tend to have about protagonists and antagonists is that each has to be either "good" or "bad." This is a falsehood, as you point out, because the two terms really just point to which character pushes the action forward in the story and which character (or force) attempts to halt that action.

I am glad you liked the post!

Adil Vp said...

This post has given me an idea about the difference between protagonist and antagonist. Thank you Majesta. However one small doubt lingers in my mind. What if the aspect hindering the author's actions is his own thoughts (fear, anxiety etc.) ? Can we say in this situation that the protagonist and the antagonist are the same character ?

Majesta Miles said...

Glad you found the post helpful, +Adil Vp!

To answer your question: If your character's actions (not author's ;) ) are being hindered by his/her thoughts, you could see those thoughts as being the antagonist only if they were pervasive enough to actually halt the action of the story. If that was the case, your conflict would be Man v. Self, and the character's own inner turmoil would be his/her antagonist (to some extent).

However, even in those types of stories, there will usually also be an external antagonist (one that is not the character's thoughts). Remember: stories can have more than one protagonist and more than one antagonist.

Adil Vp said...

Thank you :)