Protagonist and Antagonist in a Story: How Are They Different?

protagonist and antagonist

Key Takeaways:

The protagonist is the story’s central character, pushing the plot along, while the antagonist (whether an individual, a group, or even a force of nature) stirs up trouble and throws roadblocks in their path.

When you are writing your story, remember that the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist characters is what drives the plot forward!

Do you know the difference between a protagonist and an antagonist?

In literature, movies, and other forms of storytelling, these two main characters are often at odds with each other.

But what exactly makes them different?

Why are they both critical to a good story?

And how can novel writers and screenwriters use protagonists and antagonists to their full potential in their stories?

As a newbie writer, I simply equated protagonists with heroes and antagonists with villains. Sound familiar? Luckily, as I continued to write novels, short stories, and screenplays, I discovered that they are so much more than that if you want to elevate your work!

In this article, we’ll explore the nuances of the differences between protagonists and antagonists, look at great examples of both, and discuss why each is essential to a well-told tale.

Definition: Protagonist and Antagonist

In literature, a protagonist is the story’s main character, while an antagonist is a character who opposes the protagonist. The conflict between the two causes the story to progress.

Typically, the protagonist is heroic and seeks to accomplish some great personal goal, while the antagonist represents evil or hinders the protagonist’s efforts in some way.

In some stories, the roles of protagonist and antagonist may be reversed, with the antagonist being the one seeking to accomplish something and the protagonist opposing them.

Other stories may have multiple protagonists and antagonists, each with their own goals and motivations. Ultimately, however, all stories need some form of conflict to keep readers engaged and create tension and suspense. Without conflict, there would be no story.

antagonist vs protagonist

How Are They Different?

The protagonist is the story’s hero, whose primary goal is to achieve whatever they are striving for, whether it be defeating the villain, rescuing a damsel in distress, or simply uncovering the truth or overcoming personal demons.

On the other hand, the antagonist is the chaos to the protagonist’s order; they are the ones standing in the way of the hero’s success.

In the simplest form, the antagonist is evil incarnate, but this is not always the case. There may be times when the antagonistic force is simply another person with a different perspective or goal. In other stories, the antagonist is merely a force that the protagonist must overcome, such as nature or society.

In a rarer category, the antagonistic force may be the protagonist’s own subconscious, addiction, fears, or other psychological issues. The relationship between a heroic protagonist and a villainous antagonist is key to creating external and internal conflict and tension in a story.

Overall, their purpose in the story separates a protagonist from an antagonist. The protagonist drives the plot forward while the antagonist tries to stop them.

antagonist

Protagonist vs. Antagonist: Role in a Story

Protagonists and antagonists play different roles in stories. The protagonist is the main character who drives the story forward and attempts to overcome various challenges.

The antagonist is the character who opposes the good protagonist and creates conflict or challenges. In some cases, the antagonist may also be the story’s villain. However, not all antagonists are villains.

A good antagonist may simply be a main character with a different goal than the protagonist or an opposing view – otherwise known as a moral antagonist. Antagonists can be complex characters with whom readers can empathize or sympathize, even as they root for the protagonist to triumph.

Protagonists and antagonists are both essential to stories and character development, and their roles help to create tension and conflict that keep readers engaged.

Protagonist and Antagonist Motivations

protagonist and antagonist

Protagonist Motivations

In literature, protagonists are often driven by a strong desire to achieve a goal. This can be something as simple as getting home safely or as complicated as saving the story’s world from destruction.

In some cases, the protagonist is motivated by revenge or a need to right a wrong that has been done to them. Whatever the case may be, the protagonist’s motivation is an integral part of the story and helps to drive the plot forward. Without a clear goal to strive for, the protagonist would simply be going through the motions, and the story would quickly lose its sense of purpose.

In addition to providing direction for an interesting plot, a strong motivation also helps to make the protagonist more relatable and sympathetic to readers. After all, everyone can understand what it feels like to have a burning desire for something, even if they’ve never experienced anything like it on such a grand scale. This motivation also often relates to the theme of the story.

By understanding what motivates the protagonist, readers can better appreciate the challenges they face and root for them to succeed in their quest.

Antagonist Motivations

Every story needs conflict, which typically comes from an antagonist or antagonistic force.

While the antagonist’s motivations can vary, there are some common reasons why writers pit their characters against each other. One reason is that it provides a way to explore different aspects of the human experience. By pitting two characters against each other, a writer can force them to confront their fears, flaws, and desires.

Additionally, conflict helps to create tension and suspense, propelling the story forward and keeping readers engaged. Finally, conflict can serve as a metaphor for the struggles we all face.

By understanding the motivation behind an antagonist’s actions, we may be better equipped to deal with our own challenges.

Examples

In almost every narrative film, there is a protagonist and an antagonist. The protagonist is the “good guy” main character who drives the story forward, while the antagonist is the “bad guy” main character or force that stands in the way of the protagonist’s goals. The relationship between these two main characters is often what makes a film exciting and suspenseful. Let’s look at some protagonist and antagonist character examples.

Clarise vs Hannibal

In the film The Silence of the Lambs, the protagonist, Clarice Starling, is a young FBI agent tasked with catching a serial killer. However, to do so, she must first enlist the help of Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant cannibalistic psychopath.

Because he toys with her for his own gains, rather than assist her outright, he places himself in the role of the main antagonist – or primary obstacle in finding out the serial killer’s real identity. The conflict during the rising action part of the film between these two characters creates tension and suspense that keeps viewers engaged throughout the film.

Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker

In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is an idealistic and naïve protagonist who dreams of an exciting life and fighting the evil Empire. The biggest obstacle in his quest to aid the Rebellion is Darth Vader, the main antagonist who not only murders Luke’s mentor but is the one most likely to defeat him in the film’s climactic space battle.

Though they hardly share a single scene together in the film, the rivalry between these two main characters forms the core of the film’s conflict and drives its narrative forward.

These are just a few examples of how protagonists and antagonists can create conflict and tension in a film. By understanding this dynamic, viewers can better appreciate how films are constructed and why they are so enjoyable to watch.

Antagonists and Protagonists in Good Storytelling

Protagonists are the central characters in a story, and their importance rests on two key factors. First, they drive the plot forward by pursuing their goals and overcoming obstacles. Second, they provide readers with someone to identify with and, in most cases, root for. In many ways, protagonists are the heart of a story!

For these reasons, every story needs a strong protagonist who is capable of engaging readers and keeping them invested in the story.

A well-developed antagonist is also essential to a good story. There would be no conflict or story without someone or something for the protagonist to struggle against. The antagonist or antagonistic force provides the challenges the hero must overcome and drives the plot forward.

A memorable antagonist usually differs from the protagonist in terms of personality, goals, morals, outlook, and/or values. The key differences tend to be emotional or psychological, though many stories expand into physical traits, such as size, strength, or even material goods or equipment.

This contrast highlights the strengths and weaknesses of both characters and creates an interesting dynamic between them. In addition, a well-developed antagonist will typically have a believable motivation for their ‘bad guy’ actions. This helps to make the conflict more relatable and understandable for readers.

classic villain

How to Write Protagonists and Antagonists

Writing fully developed antagonists and protagonists is one of the most important aspects of telling a memorable story. After all, these are the characters that readers will be rooting for (or against) from beginning to end!

So how can you create well-rounded protagonists and antagonists for your own stories? Start by giving them each a distinct personality. Think about the following when you are developing your main characters:

  • Childhood Influences: What defining moments from their early years shaped their worldview?
  • Personal Values: What do they hold sacred above all else?
  • Fears and Phobias: What keeps them up at night or makes their heart race?
  • Strengths and Weaknesses: What are they particularly good at, and where do they falter?
  • Hobbies and Pastimes: How do they choose to spend their free time?
  • Secrets: What are they hiding, even from themselves?
  • Relationship Dynamics: How do they behave in a group versus one-on-one?
  • Reactions to Stress: Do they confront issues head-on, avoid conflict, or maybe even self-sabotage?
  • Desires and Ambitions: What are their most deeply held dreams? What would they sacrifice to achieve them?
  • Regrets: Which decisions or actions from their past haunt them?
  • Opinions on Society: Do they conform to societal norms, rebel against them, or fall somewhere in between?
  • Morality and Ethics: When faced with a tough decision, do they follow their moral compass, or is the end result all that matters to them?
  • Learning Style: Are they hands-on learners, or do they prefer observing and reflecting?
  • Sense of Humor: What makes them laugh? Is their humor dark, light-hearted, sarcastic, or slapstick?
  • Personal Appearance: How do they feel about their own looks? Do they put a lot of effort into their appearance or hardly any at all?

By fleshing out your characters this way, you’ll ensure they feel like real people – not simply one-dimensional ciphers!

Lastly, it’s also important to give your protagonists and antagonists believable goals. They should strive for something achievable (but not necessarily easy).

And finally, make sure to give your reader a reason to care about your characters and their main character arc. Whether cheering them on or hoping they fail, we must feel emotionally invested in their journey!

sword fight

Final Thoughts

Protagonists and antagonists are both important characters in any well-written story with good story structure.

Remember that the protagonist is the main character and the one that most of the story’s events happen to. The antagonist is the person, animal, ideology, or societal force that is acting against them, trying to prevent them from reaching their goals.

Use the tips we’ve provided to help you develop protagonists and antagonists that your readers will love (and love to hate!)!

antagonist vs protagonist

Common Questions (FAQs)

OK, there are a lot of questions and answers here, sorry for the information overload! It’s just that I often get lots of questions about these terms when I’m coaching or mentoring other writers.

There are a lot of nuances to the differences between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” in a story, and I hope to share those clearly here!

What’s the difference between a protagonist and an antagonist?

In many ways, a protagonist and an antagonist are two sides of the same coin. Both are essential to the story and play an important role in driving the plot forward. A protagonist is usually the “hero” of a story, striving to achieve a specific goal. On the other hand, the antagonist, often perceived as the “villain,” works to thwart the protagonist’s ambitions. Their contrasting objectives lead to the central conflict of the story.

Are antagonists always villains?

By definition, an antagonist is a character who actively opposes the protagonist in their quest. They can have many reasons for being the main obstacle and are not necessarily evil people. A great example is Principal Rooney in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, who is not a bad person and is technically in the right as someone trying to do his job and catch a truant student in the act. A villain, on the other hand, is a main character who, by definition, is evil or lacks morals and is devoted to wickedness or crime with malicious intent. Therefore, an antagonist can be a villain but doesn’t have to be to oppose the protagonist in their journey.

Is an antagonist good or bad?

There’s no simple answer to whether an antagonist is good or bad. In some cases, an antagonist can help the protagonist’s moral or character development. For example, an antagonist may challenge the protagonist to grow in strength or wisdom to overcome a problem. In other cases, an antagonist may be nothing more than an obstacle that prevents the leading character from achieving their goal.

Is the protagonist the hero or the villain?

Traditionally, the protagonist of a story was usually a hero. However, there are many examples of villainous protagonists, such as Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, as well as many who are considered anti-heroes (protagonists who lack the traditional qualities of a typical hero, such as morality, and yet still endeavor to do the right thing or better themselves in some way). Examples of anti-heroes are Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Lindsay’s Dexter Morgan. In other words, you can write a heroic or villainous protagonist just as easily as you can create a heroic or villainous antagonist.

Why do movies have an antagonist?

A movie would be pretty boring if everything went right for the leading character all the time! There must be some conflict to create suspense and keep the story interesting. That’s why there is an antagonist! The antagonist is the “bad guy” who stands in the way of the protagonist’s goal. The antagonist doesn’t have to be a villain, but they do need to create some obstacle for the protagonist to overcome.

What makes a great antagonist?

A great antagonist is the driving force behind a story. They cause the protagonist to take action in their world, and they help to create conflict in the story. The best antagonists are complex characters with their own motivations and goals – rather than mindless roadblocks – which makes them relatable to readers. They should also be a credible threat to the protagonist, capable of raising the stakes and putting them in danger. However, don’t make your antagonist so strong that they’re impossible to defeat!

What are examples of movies with a protagonist and antagonist?

Most popular movies feature a protagonist and antagonist. For example, in The Hunger Games, the protagonist is Katniss Everdeen, while the antagonist is President Snow. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the protagonist is Harry Potter, and the antagonist is Lord Voldemort. And in The Dark Knight, the protagonist is Batman, and the antagonist is the Joker. Each of these movies features a hero who must overcome a villain in order to save themselves or others.

What is the antagonist’s main goal in a story?

The antagonist is the villain or opposing force in a story. The antagonist’s main goal is to oppose the protagonist and thwart their plans. In some stories, the antagonist may be amoral, seeking only to destroy or cause chaos. In others, the antagonist may have more sympathetic motivations, such as protecting their home or loved ones.

What are secondary antagonists?

In literature, a secondary antagonist is a supporting character who works against the protagonist but is not the main villain. The secondary antagonist might be a rival, an obstacle, or even a friend who betrays the protagonist. While the secondary antagonist is not as powerful as the primary antagonist, they can still create significant challenges for the protagonist.

Is there a movie where the protagonist is the villain?

Yes! Ant-Man is a great example of a movie where the protagonist is technically a villain. In the movie, Scott Lang is a thief who is just trying to make a quick buck. However, when he steals a powerful suit that allows him to shrink in size, he becomes the target of a ruthless (and greater) villain named Yellowjacket. While Scott technically starts out as a villain, he becomes the hero as he chooses to do the right thing, and he’s the one who ultimately defeats Yellowjacket and saves the day.
Another example is American Psycho, where the protagonist, Patrick Bateman, is a deranged serial killer who murders many innocent people over the course of the story. In every way, he’s a villain through and through.

Are you looking for ideas and tools to help you write your next story or screenplay? Check out these articles:

9+ Best AI Story Generator Tools for Fiction Writers

How to Write a Story with Three-Act Structure [with Examples!]

The Differences Between Novels, Stage Plays and Screenplays (Great Info for New Writers!)

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