Ariel and Ursula. Katniss Everdeen and President Snow. Jean Valjean and Javert. Most compelling narratives have a protagonist who the audience is meant to support—and an antagonist who stands in the way of the protagonist achieving their goals.
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A protagonist is a central character in a story whose wants, actions, and obstacles drive the narrative. Typically, the protagonist is the main character of the story and the character through which the audience experiences the story.
The word protagonist comes from the ancient Greek, meaning “one who plays the first part, chief actor.” At first, the protagonist was an actor who stood opposite the Greek chorus (a group of performers who typically spoke in unison and often represented the proletariat) and spoke with a singular voice. By the fifth century BCE, Aeschylus was writing character-driven dramas with dramatic structure—including protagonists—as we know it today.
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An antagonist is a character (or environment) that directly opposes the protagonist, functioning as the primary obstacle the protagonist must overcome, defeat, or otherwise circumvent in order to get what they want. Also originating from ancient Greece, the word antagonist means “opponent, competitor, villain, enemy, or rival.”
An antagonist is not automatically a villain in contemporary storytelling, though the terms are often conflated. For example, if a protagonist wants to crash his car into a building and the antagonist stands in the way of him achieving that goal, then you can see how the antagonist can sit on the side of good. Further, protagonists can be villains themselves, such as Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho” or Walter White in “Breaking Bad.”
Protagonists and antagonists do not function without the other. For a narrative to progress, the protagonist must have a driving force, as well as obstacles in the way of achieving their goals. Those obstacles come from the antagonist or antagonistic forces.
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There are three primary types of protagonists:
Hero/heroine: These are the typical “good guys” in the narrative. Lauded for their virtues, heroes and heroines proceed through the arc of the narrative doing their best to defeat an enemy, whether internal or external. This category also includes the Tragic Hero, a character who meets a devastating end in spite of (and often because of) their innate goodness. Some examples of characters that fall into this category are:
- Captain America (Hero)
- Wonder Woman (Heroine)
- Hamlet (Tragic Hero)
Antihero/antiheroine: The antihero is the protagonist of a story, but they lack typical heroic qualities and virtues. They may do the morally correct thing, but it is often for a self-serving reason. Antiheroes have become exceptionally popular over the last decade or so, as they allow us to take in narratives about morally complex characters. Some examples of characters that are antiheroes include:
- Walter White from “Breaking Bad”
- Dexter Morgan from “Dexter”
- Harley Quinn from “Suicide Squad”
Villain protagonist: A villain protagonist flips traditional storytelling on its head and makes the bad guy the main character. Sometimes (though not always) the villain might even get a sympathetic point of view. Some examples of characters that are villain protagonists are:
- Alex DeLarge from “A Clockwork Orange”
- Joe from “You”
- Humbert Humbert from “Lolita”
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Unlike the protagonist, an antagonist need not always be a person. In fiction, there are six different types of story conflicts. These conflicts are:
- Character versus character
- Character versus self
- Character versus nature
- Character versus society
- Character versus technology
- Character versus supernatural
As evidenced by a number of these conflict types, antagonists can actually be groups of people, constructs, or inanimate objects. The types of antagonists that exist include:
Other characters: If the protagonist of the story is a traditional hero, then the character opposing them might be a traditional villain, for instance:
- Lex Luthor against Superman
- The Joker against Batman
- Voldemort against Harry Potter
Aspects of the protagonist: When the central conflict of a story is internal, then the antagonist may actually be a part of the protagonist. This is especially true for antiheroes and villain protagonists. Examples of this include:
- Dexter Morgan’s homicidal nature in “Dexter”
- Tony Soprano’s mental health in “The Sopranos”
Non-personal antagonists: This could be anything that serves as an obstacle or instigator for the protagonist, but not in a personal or malicious way. For example, it could be a natural disaster, an animal, a piece of technology, or an abstract concept. For example:
- The volcano in “Dante’s Peak”
- The dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park”
- The wolves in “The Grey”
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These examples of protagonists and antagonists in film and television demonstrate how they function in a narrative.
“Schitt’s Creek”: In the sitcom “Schitt’s Creek,” the Rose family is initially exceptionally wealthy. The inciting incident of the entire series happens in the first moments of the pilot, which shows that the Roses have lost the entirety of their fortune—except for a small town that patriarch Johnny Rose purchased as a joke gift for his son, David. The family of four packs up what little they’re allowed to keep and move from their lavish mansion to adjoining rooms at a run-down motel.
This series actually has four protagonists in each member of the Rose family: David, Alexis, Johnny, and Moira. Overall, the antagonists of this show are aspects of the protagonists themselves—although depending on the episode, Roland Schitt is also an antagonist, since he represents a perceived lack of elegance and refinement that the Roses miss from their old lives. Each protagonist embarks on a journey of self-discovery, and by the end of the show, they have rebuilt their lives and their family bond is stronger than ever. They do this by facing the non-personal antagonist of “ruin,” which forces them to take a good, hard look at how they were living their lives and strive to be something more.
“Iron Man”: In the first “Iron Man” film, billionaire engineer and industrialist Tony Stark is not immediately aware of the antagonist of his story. (Spoilers ahead.) After he is injured and captured, he must use the limited technology available to him to create life-saving body armor that will help him to break free. Once he does, he returns home and informs the world that Stark Industries will no longer be producing weapons, much to the chagrin of his father’s longtime business partner Obadiah Stane. Tony continues to refine his Iron Man suit and the life-saving mini arc reactor, which Stane attempts to steal. He finally succeeds in stealing it from Tony, nearly killing him in the process, and revealing himself as the villain of the story from the beginning: It was Stane who had Tony captured.
In this storyline, the protagonist (Tony Stark/Iron Man) is forced to become more than just a “billionaire playboy genius” and begins saving lives. The villain undermines his longtime relationship with Tony in the name of money and power. Of course, Tony’s arc doesn’t stop at the end of “Iron Man”; he continues to develop, countering other antagonists through to the conclusion of “Avengers: Endgame.” But Stane’s arc doesn’t last nearly that long, as good triumphs over evil in this traditional hero narrative.
“The Dark Knight” Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
To craft protagonists and antagonists that pop off the pages of your screenplay, construct them simultaneously and focus on nuance. The antagonist’s primary narrative purpose is forcing your protagonist to grow and change. For optimal growth, they must be the perfect foil for your protagonist’s flaws. Keep the following in mind as you create your characters:
1. Have the protagonist overcome the antagonist: In a traditional narrative, the protagonist eventually defeats or evades the antagonist and achieves their goals, which is often highly satisfying to audiences. The antagonist should embody some of the protagonist’s biggest flaws to make this moment satisfying. This makes the moment of the protagonist overcoming the antagonist double as the end of their own internal character arc. For instance, Batman’s biggest flaws include his reclusiveness and propensity for violence—also the Joker’s biggest flaws. When Batman beats the Joker, it’s not only a win for the city of Gotham, it’s also a personal triumph.
However, it’s possible to play around with this structure while still crafting a rewarding resolution. (Spoilers ahead.) In “Breaking Bad,” Walt’s primary antagonist is his cancer. In the final episode of the series, he secures money for his family; releases his partner in crime from captivity; and takes revenge on a rival gang, before dying from a gunshot wound. Even though Walt never defeats his cancer, he is able to fulfill his purpose of providing for his family and proving that he’s the best at something. Make the ending of your story satisfying by bringing the protagonist-antagonist relationship to a head and then writing a resolution in which the protagonist accomplishes at least some of his goals.
2. Figure out what drives the protagonist: Begin with deciding what the protagonist wants and why they want it. Craft your script so that this desire drives the plot.
3. And what drives the antagonist: Determine what the antagonist wants and why they want it. Often, the antagonist wants the same thing as the protagonist, but for the wrong reasons. For example, in the “Avengers” series, both the Avengers and Thanos are all looking for the Infinity Stones, but they are at cross-purposes.
4. Create an adversarial relationship: Write a strong antagonist for your protagonist by making them their foil. The most satisfying antagonists usually feel like the other side of the coin to the protagonists. For example, Syndrome in “The Incredibles” wants to be a superhero at any cost, much like Mr. Incredible—but they take drastically different paths to get there.
5. Write with nuance: Just like the protagonist, the antagonist should feel like the hero of their own story. Avoid painting them with a broad brush by making them complex, dynamic people who are going after what they want, for what they believe are the right reasons—even if they’re wrong. Along those same lines, antagonists shouldn’t simply be evil for the sake of being evil. Explore their history and backstory and give them goals that make sense for their personality. In many ways, the protagonist of your story is the antagonist of the antagonist—the impetus that prevents them from reaching their goals.
6. Include character arcs: Before you start writing, figure out how the protagonist will change by the end. This will allow you to explore the momentum of the character arc as informed by the plot of the story.