I. What is an Antogonist?
In a story, the antagonist (pronounced an-TAG-oh-nist) is the opposite of the protagonist, or main character. Typically, this is a villain of some kind, but not always! It’s just the opponent of the main character, or someone who gets in their way.
Every story has at least one protagonist, but not all stories have an antagonist! In some cases, the protagonist is simply struggling against impersonal forces like nature, circumstance, social strictures, or addiction. In these cases, there is no antagonist in the story. However, a story can have any number of antagonists getting in the protagonist’s way.
II. Examples and Explanation
Adolph Hitler (World History)
The dictator has appeared as an antagonist in countless stories, both fictional and non-fictional, over the past few generations. In re-tellings of the Second World War, the Allies are almost always the heroes, making Hitler the villainous antagonist.
Homer Simpson (the Simpsons)
If Homer is the protagonist of The Simpsons, then he has many antagonists, some of them evil and others less so. His wife Marge, for example, is often out to stop his plans – not because she is a villain, but because she fears for his safety or the family’s reputation. But when she obstructs Homer’s goals, she is still acting as an antagonist (though neither a hero nor a villain).
For most of the graphic novel, the protagonists are uncertain who their antagonist is. Some mysterious figure is plotting against them, but no one knows who it is. In the end, it turns out that the antagonist is Ozymandias, a brilliant retired superhero. Ozymandias causes millions of deaths, but he also averts World War Three and ends the Cold War, thus arguably saving millions more lives. Because Ozymandias is still a superhero, and because his plan is in such a moral grey area, this is a debatable example of a hero antagonist.
III. Types of Protagonist
Most antagonists are traditional villains – they’re “the bad guy” and are motivated in some way by evil. The most interesting villains have believable motives for their actions, but sometimes the villain is just pure evil and wants nothing more than to kill and destroy for no particular reason.
b. Hero Antagonist
Sometimes, the entire story is told from the perspective of the villain, and thus the hero becomes the antagonist. This is less common than traditional villains, but it can make for a very interesting story!
IV. The Importance of Antagonists
Stories are naturally driven by conflict, and the simplest form of conflict is waged between two or more characters. The hero has a goal; the villain hopes to thwart that goal; and conflict develops naturally. In order to make the story compelling, of course, the antagonist must be well-written and believable. We’ll cover what that looks like in the “How to Create an Antagonist” section.
V. Examples of Antagonists in Literature
Inspector Javert (Les Misérables)
Inspector Javert stands in a moral grey area throughout the story, but he might still be seen as a hero antagonist. He appears to be a good man in general, but he is overly attached to his moral absolutes and adamantly pursues the protagonist, Jean Valjean, in order to arrest him for theft.
King Joffrey (Song of Ice and Fire series)
In George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, there are several distinct plot lines, each with its own protagonists and antagonists. In many cases, we see the story from both perspectives, meaning individual characters like Stanis Baratheon occupy both the protagonist and antagonist roles by turns. There is one character, though, who is unambiguously a villain antagonist – King Joffrey, who seems to have nothing but enemies in the story and is clearly evil.
VI. Examples of Antagonists in Popular Culture
Saruman (Lord of the Rings trilogy)
The trilogy has many antagonists, most of them fairly simple villains (Tolkien’s fantasy universe is a land of absolute black-and-white morality). However, the wizard Saruman is more relatable than many other villains, since he starts out as a friend to the heroes, and a mentor to Gandalf.
Russian Red Army (Downfall)
The film Downfall follows the last days of Adolph Hitler’s life, as seen from the perspective of his young typist. Because the protagonist is a German during World War II, the antagonists are Hitler’s enemies – the Russian Red Army, who are shelling Berlin. This is arguably an example of the hero antagonist. The film’s depiction of the Red Army, however, is only marginally more positive than its depiction of the Nazis. So it would be more accurate to say that this bleak film depicts a world without heroes.
Every superhero has at least one antagonist, and usually several – Batman’s Joker, Superman’s Lex Luthor, or Thor’s Loki. Note that if the story is told from the villain’s perspective, then the superhero would become a hero antagonist.
VII. Related Terms
The protagonist is the main character of the story – usually, but not always, a hero. This is the opponent of an antagonist.
A secondary main character, less important than the protagonist but still essential to the story, is called a deuteragonist. Examples might include Sam Gamgee from Lord of the Rings, or Han Solo from Star Wars.