You may often be told not to make things too straightforward or easy for your story’s protagonist. They shouldn’t just be able to reach their goal unhindered, be their constant best self, and experience the easy life whilst doing that. Let’s face it, that’s not life, and it certainly isn’t storytelling.
It’s imperative that your protagonist has someone or something holding them back, facing obstacles along their journey, and forcing the protagonist to learn something about themselves. That’s where the antagonist comes in, the main force of conflict, who should be just as well developed as the protagonist they’re ‘antagonizing’!
The conflict patterns between a protagonist and antagonist are essential to storytelling. They both want very different things and are often opposites to each other, causing them to directly clash. Without this clash of goals, there would be no conflict, and as we know, in stories, conflict is key!
In today’s article, we’re going to be exploring the workings and complexities of an antagonist in its many forms alongside how they enhance storytelling. Let’s go!
What is an Antagonist?
As we’ve determined, an antagonist is the key source of conflict for the protagonist working in direct opposition. It doesn’t always have to be a person. The antagonist could be a force of nature, societal construct, or even the protagonist themselves.
Porteous and Lindsay (2019) also depict the narrative role of an antagonist as twofold: “observing the protagonist’s behaviour in order to identify their intentions and recognise the goal that they are working towards; and considering the possible ways in which the antagonist can attempt to interfere with these intentions to stop them from achieving their goal.” (pg. 1071). The antagonist’s role is a calculated one, whether a physical being or not.
A story can also have more than one antagonist, providing a range of obstacles for our protagonists to overcome.
A common misconception about antagonists, however, is the assumption that they are always ‘evil’. Yes, there are many villainous antagonists in the literary, film, and television worlds, but antagonists don’t always need to be the ‘bad guy’.
This is also suggested by Muller, Moroco, Loloi, Portolese, Wakefield, King, and Olympia, in a study of violence in superhero-based films that “…protagonist characters performed significantly more acts of violence compared to antagonist characters. This contradicts the common assumption that protagonists are the ‘good guys,’ and therefore perform lesser acts of violence compared with their ‘evil’ counterparts”. (2020, pg. 4)
You also couldn’t categorize a hurricane as a ‘bad guy’ as it has no awareness as a force of nature. It is instead, a force working against a protagonist as they try and save people from its wake of destruction, for example.
With that said, let’s take a look at the main types of antagonists and how they bring conflict to a story.
Types of Antagonists
When selecting an antagonist for a fictional work, they need to be best suited to the story and the protagonist’s goal. Essentially, what will be the best way to hinder the protagonist in their journey that will cause as much conflict as possible?
Often, we think of antagonists as people, however, as Altenbernd and Leslie describe, “a conflict can be caused not only by antagonist personally, but also by thing beyond personal individuality such as accident, disaster, environment, social, moral values, authority, etc.”. Sometimes an antagonistic force isn’t through the actions of a person, but something else.
It is important to note that there can be an overlap between the characteristics of the different types of antagonists. They aren’t mutually exclusive.
These are human or physical antagonists with motives and goals of their own, completely opposite to that of the protagonist.
Probably the most well-known of all antagonists, the villain is the traditional ‘bad guy’ and can be portrayed in several forms:
Think Cruella De Ville (101 Dalmatians) and her plot to create the ultimate fur coat, the brutal Miss. Trunchbull (Matilda) and Scar (The Lion King) with his hankering lust to rule the Pride Lands, villains who would do anything to reach their goal or prevent the protagonist from obtaining theirs.
The supervillain is the antithesis of a superhero and often will have mighty powers of their own. This sort of villain is characteristic of film studios such as Marvel and DC Comics.
Characters like Magneto (X-Men), Hela (Thor: Ragnarok), Blane (The Dark Knight Rises), and Catwoman (Batman Returns) will summon superhuman powers to try and outwit a protagonist such as Batman, Thor, Superman, or Wonder Woman usually resulting in a mesmerizing battle with all the bells and whistles.
These are villains who will use less brute force and more scheming to prevent the protagonist from succeeding. Their tendencies are based more on manipulation and mind games.
Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs) is a prime example. Yes, he’s a serial killer with cannibalistic tendencies, but he is psychologically powerful despite being locked up, able to manipulate anyone who he crosses paths with.
Other masterminds include Professor Moriarty (Sherlock Holmes), Amy Elliott Dunne (Gone Girl), and Tom Ripley (The Talented Mr. Ripley) who all use their powers of manipulation to create conflict.
Henchmen assist the main villain in the pursuit of their goal and can sometimes have one of their own.
The Death Eaters in the Harry Potter series are one of the most prominent examples, to which characters like Lucius Malfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange belong. They assist Voldemort in his pursuit of ruling the Wizarding World and defeating Harry whilst also having goals of their own. Lucius is determined to rise within the Death Eater ranks, which could be argued informs his actions more so than defeating Harry.
Other examples of henchmen include Smee (Peter Pan), Saruman (The Lord of the Rings), and The Flying Monkeys (The Wizard of Oz), who all assist the prime antagonist of their respective works: Captain Hook, Sauron, and The Wicked Witch of the West.
Unlike the prior examples of villains, the anti-villain’s goals are justifiable from an audience’s perspective. What causes the conflict is the way in which the anti-villain goes about meeting those goals, usually through the lens of self-interest. The audience will generally feel some empathy towards them and their goal.
An anti-villain is a clever plot device, giving the audience doubt on which characters may have the right perspective.
Let’s return to the Harry Potter series, but this time consider Draco Malfoy. Yes, he is an antagonistic force for Harry, causing him many problems throughout his time at Hogwarts. As the series progresses, the audience learns that Draco’s actions are informed by his troubled upbringing and his parents’ problematic connection to the main antagonist, Voldemort.
A huge turning point for Draco is at the end of the sixth installment, The Half-Blood Prince, where he can’t kill Albus Dumbledore. His redeeming quality of not physically being able to make the choice to kill another, puts him in an anti-villain light.
Other examples of anti-villains include Thanos (Marvel Cinematic Universe) and his goal to bring stability to the universe, Carrie (Carrie) who’s trying to navigate her teenage years, and Daenerys Targaryen (Game of Thrones) who’s ambition is fueled by her troubled background.
Creators of Conflict
These characters may not be inherently evil or have bad intentions. They simply have opposing goals to those of the protagonist and are constantly at odds with them.
Characters such as Mr. Darcy (Pride and Prejudice) and Javert (Les Misérables) aren’t evil people or villains, they simply have different views and goals to their respective protagonists: Elizabeth Bennett and Valjean.
No, this is not a typo you’re seeing! The protagonist can be their own worst enemy, their internal battles the most prominent obstacle in their journey.
In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield struggles with his own insecurities which hold him back more so that the physical antagonists in the story. It is to be noted, however, that if the protagonist’s inner troubles are serving as a key antagonist, their backstory must be a strong one to bolster the conflict throughout the entire work.
As discussed, the antagonist doesn’t always need to be a person or a group of people. An entire society or system can stand in the way of a protagonist achieving their goal. They fight against societal norms or the injustice of the system in which they live.
The Capitol in The Hunger Games and Big Brother in 1984 are prime examples of where a protagonist must battle the very society in which they live to succeed.
We’ve briefly discussed the protagonist’s own self being an antagonist to their journey. Let’s expand on this with more specific examples where protagonists must overcome a specific traumatic event, flaw or fear that has blighted them long before an audience meets them.
Usually, audiences witness the protagonist make the wrong decisions and succumb to the darkness within them before eventually overcoming it and succeeding (most of the time!)
Raskolnikov allows his guilt to take over in Crime and Punishment, and he chooses to allow himself to suffer with it. This decision makes him very ill both physically and mentally which causes further bad decisions.
In Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, the narrator doesn’t have sufficient reasoning for committing murder, insisting it was his victim’s eyes that drove him to it. This obstacle prevents him from seeing the bigger picture and most importantly, what the audience sees.
Just as society and institutions can be methods of antagonism, forces of nature can have devastating effects in real life as well as fiction.
Usually, we would see nature antagonists in disaster films which use earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, and many other natural disasters to put up horrendous obstacles for characters to beat.
The ocean in Life of Pi is almost a character, its unpredictability representing the vastness and troubles of life unknown. Similarly, the desert in The Alchemist represents the hardships that exist between people and their goals, forcing the characters to respect it for what it is and ‘listen’ to it.
The Complexity and Depth of Modern Antagonists
Modern storytelling has somewhat blurred the lines of good and evil, and therefore the roles of the protagonist vs. antagonist; they aren’t quite polar opposites anymore.
Antagonists will now often defy traditional archetypes of what evil has previously been defined as. Their motivations and actions are often hidden somewhere in between empathy and complete disgust in the mind of an audience.
Examples of where this has been the case in recent years include Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones and Walter White in Breaking Bad. Cersei’s complex backstory and the brutal world in which she was born into, pushes her to do the unthinkable, but for sometimes justifiable reasons – just about!
Similarly, Walter White’s cancer diagnosis and subsequent prognosis allow an audience to somewhat separate him from his actions and empathize, despite the awful things he goes on to do.
In essence, we root for these characters, even though it may go against our better judgement. This is extremely clever storytelling and almost humanizes what should be villains. Empathy plays a huge role in defining an antagonist and where they fit into a story’s plot.
How Antagonists Enhance Storytelling
By placing obstacles and inciting conflict with a protagonist, antagonists push narratives forward, ensuring a bumpy ride ahead. This is what will engage audiences; they need to already be rooting for the protagonist to succeed, and this should be heightened by the counteracting actions of the antagonist and their desire to prevent the protagonist from reaching their goal.
Through challenging the protagonist, an antagonist should be developing the protagonist’s character. By pushing the protagonist to rock bottom or hindering them in some way, antagonists force the protagonist to become better (hopefully!) in the long run or add another facet to their character.
Antagonists will often reflect the era in which they are created, reflecting social norms and critiques. For example, in The Handmaid’s Tale, author Atwood explores the oppressive regimen of the Republic of Gilead, inspired by past methods, and means used by old totalitarian regimes. It is suggested that such tools are used in the modern United States to deny a woman’s autonomy, something that has been of huge importance in recent years.
The antagonist’s role in storytelling is far from being one-dimensional. Modern storytelling has blurred the lines between good and evil, challenging traditional notions of hero vs. villain.
Characters like Cersei Lannister and Walter White are clear examples of this shift, humanizing antagonists. They have become intricate and complex characters providing conflict, pushing protagonists to evolve, and reflecting the societal and cultural context in which they are created to captivate audiences and create a thought-provoking narrative.
It is up to us as writers to continue developing our antagonists as more as simply ‘villains’, but multi-faceted and complex characters in their own right.
Porteous, J. and Lindsay, A., 2019, May. Protagonist vs antagonist provant: Narrative generation as counter planning. In Proceedings of the 18th International Conference on Autonomous Agents and MultiAgent Systems (pp. 1069-1077).
Altenbernd, Lynn and Leslie L. Lewis. 1966. A Handbook for the Study of Fiction. London: The Macmillan Company.
Muller Jr, J.N., Moroco, A., Loloi, J., Portolese, A., Wakefield, B.H., King, T.S., Olympia, R. and Olympia, R.P., 2020. Violence depicted in superhero-based films stratified by protagonist/antagonist and gender. Cureus, 12(2).