Characters 101: What is a Protagonist and Antagonist - article

Sherlock Holmes will outwit Moriarty, Elizabeth Bennett doesn’t give two cents what Lady Catherine de Bourgh thinks, and Harry Potter will take down Voldemort. Two of the most important characters in any story are the protagonist and the antagonist.

Why? Because stories need conflict. Without it, your story isn’t a story. Think about it: What is Harry Potter without Voldemort? Sherlock Holmes without Moriarty? Pride and Prejudice without Elizabeth Bennet’s pride and prejudice?

Create friction between your protagonist and antagonist and voila! You have conflict.

Constructing well-developed protagonists and antagonists is key to creating tension and a more engaging story, so taking time to understand them is important.

Let’s look at the differences between the two and how they work together to create a great story.


What Is a Protagonist?

The protagonist is your book’s main character, or the one driving the story. He or she will be the lens through which your readers see everything—so your protagonist has to be interesting enough to sustain an entire book.

Often, your protagonist will begin the story with some kind of goal or wish. Then, early on in your book, something or someone will call your character to action, allowing them a way to accomplish their goal.

For example, in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins’s goal is to destroy the ring and defeat Sauron. In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Captain Ahab’s goal is to kill the whale.

Without a goal, your protagonist has no story. Giving him or her a strong desire or need is essential to developing an interesting main character that can sustain a book.

Types of Protagonists

Most often, protagonists take the form of a “lonely hero,” or one person who must take the brunt of the struggle and sacrifice in order to reach his/her goal. Even though he/she will likely have supporting characters to help, the main character will be the driving force.

However, if you have a group of characters all pulling together for a common goal, they can collectively be considered protagonists. For example, both Romeo and Juliet are the protagonists of Romeo and Juliet. Scooby Doo, Shaggy, Fred, Velma, and Daphne are all the protagonists of Scooby Doo.

You can also have an anti-hero as your protagonist. Anti-heroes are main characters that, although they drive the story, they offer less-than-heroic qualities that make them either unreliable or reprehensible. Holden Caulfield from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is a great example of an antihero.

How to Create a Good Protagonist

More than any other character in your book, your protagonist has to be engaging. He/she has to carry the weight of the story, after all.

While protagonists don’t necessarily have to be likeable, they need to be relatable enough that your reader can find some reason to root for them. If they can’t, a reader will have no trouble putting down the book and moving onto something else.

The most important component of a great protagonist is that he/she is multidimensional. Strong characters have depth and complexity. Cardboard cutouts and clichés make for boring books.

As mentioned earlier, your protagonist should have a goal and clear motivations for wanting to achieve it. Without these two things, you don’t have a protagonist. You want your readers to have someone to root for.

However, you don’t want your main character to be too perfect. They are human, after all, and humans have flaws. Even if your protagonist isn’t quite human, it will need to be human enough that a reader can relate to and connect with it.

Your protagonist should also be able to grow and change throughout the story. If they end the story exactly where they began…you don’t really have a story.

Your main character is going on a journey—and likely a difficult one. They should go through some challenging trials and tests, all thanks to your antagonist.  

What Is an Antagonist?

The antagonist is the person or force that will move your protagonist toward growth and change throughout the story. The antagonist often takes the form of a villain, or someone who directly opposes the main character in many ways.

Just like the protagonist, an antagonist should have a clear goal and motivations for achieving it—but these goals will be in direct contrast to the goals of your main character. That’s what makes things interesting!

For example, in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Voldemort is intent on becoming the most powerful wizard and taking over the world.

Without an antagonist, your main character will face no opposition, and therefore your story will have no conflict.

Types of Antagonists

The most common type of antagonist is your typical villain: a person or group with motivations that directly oppose the protagonist or with a morally unethical goal, such as destroying the world, which your protagonist disagrees with or dislikes.

The government, society, other ruling body is also a common type of villain, such as The Capitol in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games.

However, villains aren’t the only category of antagonists. The main character’s flaws or shortcomings could also be what’s keeping them from reaching their own goals, creating an internal conflict rather than an external one.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet has an enemy in Claudius. However, Hamlet is also his own worst enemy, fighting his own internal war with himself throughout the play.

Your antagonist can also be an inanimate or external force, such as technology or nature.

How to Create a Good Antagonist

Although antagonists are often equated with the word “evil,” they don’t necessarily have to be.

The only function of an antagonist is to oppose the main character and make it more difficult for them to reach their goal. He/she doesn’t necessarily have negative motivations.

The best antagonists are the ones who are just as multidimensional as protagonists. They have flaws as well as redeeming characteristics. They make the reader question at times who is really in the wrong, so don’t be afraid to make your reader feel some sympathy for them.

The most authentic stories are the ones with multiple antagonists, so get creative! Give your main character a villain, an internal conflict, and an inanimate force. The more opposition your protagonist faces, the more interesting and complex your story will be.

How to Balance Your Protagonist and Antagonist

The most important thing in creating these two forces is to make sure they work well together. While they must oppose each other, they can be neither too strong nor too weak to where the conflict is easily resolved (or never-ending).

Most likely, your protagonist will defeat the antagonist by the end of the story, but the fight must be believable.

You have to give your protagonist some characteristic that gives them the ability to win—without being too unrealistic.

Also, keep in mind that your antagonist doesn’t have to be overcome or defeated. The antagonist exists to move the story forward, but the struggle doesn’t necessarily go away at the end of the story.

For example, your main character’s antagonist may be his/her own disability. This disability will not simply disappear by the end of the book, but perhaps your character will discover a way to live with it.

Feel free to get creative with your protagonist and antagonist. All that matters is:

  1. Your protagonist has a goal
  2. Your antagonist makes it more difficult for the protagonist to reach that goal
  3. The protagonist, whether or not they reach their goal, changes by the end of the story

Think of your favorite story and try to decipher who (or what) the protagonist and antagonist is, then let us know in the comments below!

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