We have already covered the term ‘protagonist,’ which means the Lead or main character of a fictional work. But what do we mean when we talk about the ‘antagonist?’
The antagonist is the opposing force, usually in the form of a person, that thwarts the protagonist in whatever goal that protagonist is working towards.
Sometimes an antagonist is called ‘the villain.’ A villain is not only an antagonist who opposes the protagonist’s efforts, but he is a morally corrupt force. If the antagonist of your story beats an innocent person to death with a baseball bat, he is probably a villain, and a bad one.
An antagonist doesn’t have to be a villain or a bad guy. Maybe he opposes the protagonist for the protagonist’s own good, or for the good of the community. If you have a flawed or ‘anti-hero’ type protagonist, your antagonist could even be an honest law enforcement officer!
Your antagonist, whether morally upright or a villain, provides an important service to the story— he gives your protagonist a challenge. Imagine if Frodo’s quest to dispose of the One Ring was a walk in the woods with no opposition? Would the story be interesting or exciting? Would Frodo be seen as a heroic character?
Because you want your readers to identify with the protagonist, you have to be careful how you craft your antagonist. You don’t want your readers to like the antagonist best and cry when the protagonist defeats him!
So if your antagonist is morally upright, you probably should give him a flaw. Make him a corrupt law enforcement officer, or a cold and unforgiving person, or a person who dislikes the protagonist due to a prejudice.
A villain, even a wicked one, can become too popular. Think of the villain Negan in the television series The Walking Dead. He’s a popular character even though he’s killed people in gruesome ways. If a villain is both massively powerful and charismatic enough to win over readers, the eventual victory of the protagonist becomes less believable.
The antagonist shapes the story by giving the protagonist someone to measure himself against. The antagonist is often presented at the start as someone your hero simply cannot beat. Readers feel your protagonist is doomed even though they know that protagonists rarely are doomed in a story about them, and in fact the protagonist nearly always wins. Protagonists often have to grow into someone who can measure up to their antagonists.
Can there be more than one antagonist in a work of fiction? Yes, because your protagonist can face more than one person opposing him. Often, though, to unify the story there is a Big Antagonist and many/most of the minor antagonists work for him. In literary or more realistic fiction, there may be a number of unrelated antagonists each with his own motive for being in opposition.
We may fall it love with the fictional protagonists that we create, but often it’s the antagonists that make our fiction more compelling. We need to pay attention to them!
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Are you working on a current fiction story with an antagonist? What is that antagonist like? Is the antagonist male or female, powerful or less so, good or evil? Share it in a comment!
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