When you start learning more about fiction writing at school, or when you have to do book reports or projects, you’ll hear about the antagonist and protagonist. A lot of people think of the protagonist as the good guy/hero and the antagonist as the bad guy/villain. That’s true in a lot of ways, but those aren’t the only definitions. The idea of protagonist or antagonist goes deeper.
If you look up the definition in Webster’s, protagonist means “the main character in a drama, novel, or story, around whom the action centers.” Does it say the protagonist is “the good guy everyone roots for”? Nope. Of course, he can be, but the true definition is that the protagonist is the main character of the story. Usually, that main character is a good person we want to win in the end. But sometimes the protagonist might not be so good or might not act like a hero, especially in the beginning. Hopefully, that character will learn and change and be better (or nicer) by the end of the book. (That process of growing and changing is called the “hero’s journey,” which I’ll cover in another post.)
Now let’s take a quick look at the antagonist. Going back to Webster’s, you’ll find “the person who opposes or competes with another; adversary; opponent.” The antagonist is the bad guy who makes the protagonist’s life hard and who keeps the protagonist from reaching his or her goals. There are all sorts of reasons why an antagonist does that. Maybe he wants the same thing as the protagonist, but only one can have it. Maybe there’s some type of “history” between the two characters and the antagonist is trying to get revenge for something that happened long ago. Maybe the antagonist doesn’t have a direct connection with the protagonist, but is just wacko and the protagonist becomes the focus of the craziness. And the list could go on …
Does the antagonist always have to be a person? You usually see it that way, but it doesn’t always have to be like that. Sometimes you’ll read stories where a terrible event (like the Black Plague) or nature (think, tsunami) or other non-human things might be an antagonist. If it’s something big and important to the story and can cause lots of problems for the protagonist, it just might be an antagonist.
Here’s the last thing to keep in mind when you’re writing: A good story will have a protagonist and at least one antagonist. Why? Because they balance each other out. It’s boring to read about a character who gets everything he wants the first time around, without any twists or challenges along the way. By the same token, it’s also not fun to read about an antagonist creating problems, problems, problems — without ever getting a break from the bad stuff. One needs the other before you have a truly balanced story that readers will keep enjoying.
If you have a favorite protagonist or antagonist from something you’ve read lately, share about it in the comments. Be sure to let us know why they’re your favorites,too.