In part one, we established the meaning of and difference between the following terms: protagonist, hero, main character, point of view character and narrator.
Now, let’s look at other character terms.
Last time we established that a protagonist is the character that drives the story by pursuing a goal. Following this, the antagonist is someone who tries to prevent the protagonist from reaching their goal and creating conflict. Every story needs conflict, so every story needs an antagonist. A story can have several antagonists or a main antagonist and supporting antagonistic characters or forces.
An antagonist is defined by their relationship to the protagonist and their goal, not their moral alignment. They don’t have to be the “bad guy.” They don’t even have to be a person.
The terms “antagonist” and “anti-hero” are sometimes confused but mean different things. An anti-hero is basically a morally flawed hero, or a hero without the traditional heroic traits. They may act out of self-interest or revenge and do morally grey things, but usually still choose the greater good (e.g. Jack Sparrow). Anti-heros often play the part of protagonists or allies, but they can be antagonists allies too.
Types of antagonists
The terms “villain” and “antagonist are sometimes used interchangeably, but they don’t mean the same thing. A villain is a type of character who is intentionally malicious or criminal, they aim to hurt others with their actions and the readers will generally agree that they’re the bad guy/girl. Villains often play the role of an antagonist, but not every villain is, and not every story needs a villain. Memorable villains are usually complex, can possess likeable traits and/or convictions that there are valid reasons for their actions.
- Authority figures
Parents and guardians, teachers, bosses, law enforcers — authority figures often make effective antagonists because they can exercise real power over the protagonist, making the conflict difficult to overcome. They may not be evil or ill-intentioned, they may even think they’re acting in the protagonist’s interests, but they stand between the protagonist and their goal. E.g. The Capulet and Montague families don’t intend to harm Romeo and Juliette, but their feud prevents the lovers’ from being together. Javert, a police inspector in Les Mis, is obsessed with upholding the law at any cost.
Someone competing with the protagonist for the same goal. E.g. in Ender’s Game, Ender and Bonzo Madrid are on the same team, but they compete for leadership. Bonzo, threatened by Ender, tries to get rid of him, which makes Bonzo an antagonistic character. In in the Queen’s Gambit, Vasily ‘The Russian’ Borgov is not a bad person and has no ill feelings towards the protagonist Elizabeth Harmon. However, he is competing for the same world chess champion title as she is and can be seen as an antagonistic character when he repeatedly wins against her.
- Internal conflict
This when the protagonist is also the antagonist. They don’t need to have a split personality like Tyler Durden in Fight Club (although this is a valid example), but their internal conflict prevents them from reaching their goal. I would argue that Beth Harmon, or rather her trauma, is the main antagonist of the aforementioned Queen’s Gambit. Her trauma fuels her addictions and self-sabotage. Once Beth is able to confront her traumatic memories, give up substance abuse, stop pushing people away and accept help from friends, she is able to reap the boon.
- Inanimate forces
As I mentioned, the antagonist doesn’t need to be a person, it can be a force of some kind. My favourite example is a short story by Jack London called To Build a Fire. In the story, a man travels alone through a Yukon forest in subzero temperatures. He is overconfident and assumes he can survive by building a fire. One by one things begin to go wrong and he is unable to build a fire and gradually freezes to death. Thus nature is the antagonist of this story. This example is also useful if you’re studying “setting as character.”
Other examples of inanimate antagonistic forces are illness, poverty, war, aspects of society as a whole, isolation (e.g. Cast Away).
Whereas an antagonist or antagonistc characters ally is somebody who helps the characters towards their goal. Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re good or bad
Have you figured out who’s who in your story?