Protagonist vs. Antagonist: A Guide to Writing Characters

two hands pulling on a rope

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

When writing characters for your story, the protagonist and the antagonist may naturally be the first you create. The conflict between the protagonist vs. antagonist is a tale as old as time: the protagonist needs to solve the issue created or propelled by the antagonist, and within that conflict we enjoy character development, plot lines thickening, and, ultimately, resolution. It seems simple enough: the good guy fights the bad guy and comes out victorious.

But what are the actual roles of these main characters and how can we write the hero and villain of our story in a way that’s captivating and engaging? Let’s dig into the details of protagonist vs. antagonist.

What is a protagonist?

A protagonist is the driving force behind the story’s plot. They’re often portrayed as the hero/heroine and are at the heart of the narrative. A compelling protagonist typically faces some type of conflict or challenge that they must overcome while readers follow along to see their growth, lessons learned, and overall character arc. We typically see the story through the protagonist’s point of view, whether it’s written in first or third person.

Types of protagonists

Protagonists come in shapes and sizes. There can be multiple protagonists in your story, like the iconic trio in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Many will follow conventional archetypes and can be what we might stereotypically think of as the main character of a story; others might surprise us.

  • Classic hero. The classic hero is that stereotypical main character that exudes bravery and valor, strength, and nobility. While they may have their flaws and downsides, the classic hero story never fails to please.
  • Antihero. An antihero is often blatantly flawed and complex, as well as morally ambiguous. However, when they become faced with the conflict of the story, we find that we empathize with them and are rooting for them to win.
  • Ordinary people. Sometimes the most compelling protagonists are just ordinary people. These main characters can be very relatable to readers in the way they navigate conflict. While “ordinary,” these can sometimes be the most complex characters in how they are portrayed through dialogue, personality quirks, etc.
  • Unreliable narrator. With an unreliable narrator, readers may question the plot entirely as they read the story through the protagonist’s skewed lens and biases. Used adeptly, this adds to the suspense of the story and ultimately can create a more complex, interesting protagonist and story.
  • Villains as protagonists. Speaking of complex and interesting, some of the most beloved protagonists of stories also double as the villains. This choice in protagonist can provide a sense of humanity that exists within otherwise bad actors, adding another layer of depth to the plot.

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Examples of iconic protagonists

  1. Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  2. Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  3. Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  4. Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  5. Frodo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

What is an antagonist?

The antagonist directly opposes the protagonist. They create the conflict — or are at least part of the conflict — that the protagonist is facing. While stereotypically perceived as the villain of the story, they don’t necessarily have to be; in fact, the antagonist doesn’t have to be a human being at all!

Types of antagonists

Antagonists can come in various forms, and not just human (or, even a character like a fairy, dragon, etc.). You can even have multiple antagonists tied to your central character that impacts their development and journey. Let’s look at some common antagonists you might find.

  • Physical antagonist. This type of antagonist presents as physical conflict against the protagonist. This can be in the form of physical combat via the story’s villain or a literal external obstacle. Natural disasters can fall under this category, as well.
  • Psychological antagonist. Psychological antagonists operate just as you’d imagine: they challenge the protagonist’s mental and emotional wellbeing. They may be manipulative or play mind games with the main character. Additionally, the main character’s own personal fears or trauma can serve as this type of antagonist.
  • Social antagonist. Opposing forces within society create social antagonists. These can include oppressive systems, prejudiced communities, or societal “norms” that create a challenge the protagonist must navigate.
  • Supernatural antagonist. These antagonists include anything that’s beyond the physical world we live in: vampires, aliens, werewolves, ancient curses, etc.
  • Internal antagonist. Internal antagonists involve any inner struggle that the protagonist is facing. Their own insecurities, fears, or doubts that may create more conflict and add to the narrative and character’s overall growth can serve as an inner antagonist.

Examples of iconic antagonists

  1. The White Witch from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
  2. Victor Frankenstein from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  3. Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
  4. Sauron from The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  5. Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

How to create complex and compelling protagonists and antagonists

Creating complex protagonists and antagonists involves creating a balance of depth, relatability, and authenticity. Be sure to give them clearly defined goals and motivations while also emphasizing their flaws. Understand and convey their fears and desires on the page, which will also support their conflict with one another and the overall plot.

The conflict between your protagonist vs. antagonist will ultimately propel your story. The more nuanced and layered the conflict is, the more your readers will be engaged — the more complex you create your individual characters, the more the conflict will be apparent to your reader.

Perhaps most important is to allow your characters to grow and change throughout the story. Both protagonists and antagonists can undergo huge transitions, adding to the depth of the plot and creating a more interesting resolution. While you will need both round and flat characters throughout your story, your main characters need complexity.

Tips for writing effective protagonists

  • Make your protagonist someone the reader can root for. Develop complex but relatable character traits to establish an emotional investment and keep your reader engaged.
  • Give your protagonist a clear goal. Be sure to convey the protagonist’s goal early on — overcoming a personal obstacle, seeking justice, pursuing a lifelong dream, etc.
  • Allow your protagonist to grow and change. This may be a shift in perspective, personal growth, or a drastic transformation, but having growth and change throughout the story creates an engaging and compelling character arc.

Tips for writing effective antagonists

  • Give your antagonist a clear motivation for their actions. Whether it’s their own power struggle, a version of justice they are seeking, or some other clearly defined motivator, be sure to convey their “why” to add complexity and believability to their character.
  • Make your antagonist relatable. Relatability is key for antagonists, too. Your reader needs to understand, even sympathize, with why your antagonist acts the way they do.
  • Don’t make your antagonist too evil or one-dimensional. Dig into your antagonist’s motivations and drive for the lack of their moral compass. Define their own personal stakes, as well as their fears, insecurities, internal conflicts, and vulnerabilities.

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Related Posts
What’s the Difference Between the Main Character and Protagonist?
How to Achieve Great Character Development in Your Story
12 Character Archetypes to Know Before You Start Writing
What is an Antihero?
The Role Of The Unreliable Narrator

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