PROTAGONISTS AND ANTAGONISTS: ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW

by Dr Sharon Zink

Having a strong protagonist and antagonist is key to making a novel compelling, no matter what genre you are writing in.

In this piece, we’ll look at what protagonists and antagonists are and the different types of characters which can play these roles, as well as exploring the key elements which can bring them alive and give your manuscript the kick which will grab agents’ and editors’ attention from the opening page.

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PROTAGONISTS AND ANTAGONISTS?

Sometimes also referred to as the lead or main character or a hero or heroine, an enthralling protagonist gives your work a powerful story arc as this is based on their narrative goals.

However, the antagonist – which is also talked about as an opposition character or villain – creates much-needed conflict by getting in the way of the protagonist as they pursue their plot aims, usually wanting the exact opposite of the lead and doing all they can to stop them attaining their desires.

Hence, whilst other factors like the protagonist’s own inner fears and turmoils, plus external factors like the environment, institutional bureaucracy and even the weather can all get in a lead’s way, the best means of really generating conflict, which is, arguably, the lifeblood of fiction, is to create a flesh and blood protagonist who matches the antagonist in strength, so there’s an exciting and equal fight played out in the pages of your book 

This gives the lead a great foil to fight against as they travel through their story arc, which, in turn, injects energy into the plot and keeps readers rooting for the main figure, whilst also allowing the protagonist to grow in a way which is vital to their character development as they face the obstacles the protagonist presents. 

What is a Protagonist?

A protagonist is the central character of a novel – the one whose journey we follow as readers.  

Usually, they have the lion’s share of the viewpoint in the book and their narrative aims – which might represent one goal for the main story arc and another for the subplot – dominate the novel, being the focus of the reader’s attention and what they keep turning pages to discover.  

The standard plot begins with the protagonist’s world being turned upside down by an inciting incident or trigger event which sets them off on a quest to find a new ‘normal’ by the end of the novel, this journey representing the backbone of the story arc. 

Hence what the protagonist wants and why – their character arc – is key to creating an intriguing plot which readers will invest in.  

Types of Protagonists

Every book needs a protagonist or lead character, even if other figures are given viewpoints in the plot too, but the nature of this main player can differ according to the particular genre you are writing in.

For example, in police procedural fiction, a cop usually takes centre stage, but crime novels also often feature ordinary citizens who have personal motivations to solve a murder, such as in Rosamund Lupton’s bestseller, ‘Sister,’ in which the protagonist is out to find the family member given in the title.  

In chick lit or women’s commercial fiction though, the protagonist is usually a woman out to get a guy or rescue a romantic relationship and, in fantasy writing, the lead is often sent on a quest, such as Frodo in ‘Lord of the Rings’ who sets out to take the ring to Mordor and save his world from dark forces. 

Indeed, action and adventure fiction often has a similarly heroic lead who combats an evil villain to stop him/her destroying civilisation (just think of James Bond). 

In young adult writing, there’s often a teen who is either simply navigating the struggles of coming of age or who can also adopt the roles of an action or fantasy protagonist by engaging in a quest to free their imagined realm. 

In terms of literary fiction though, the protagonist’s identity is more diverse and their goals often more subtle, but they will always be there, often involving themes such as the lead finding redemption or healing, with romance still frequently being the core of the subplot.  

Whatever you write then, a strong protagonist who has clear narrative aims is crucial to creating a powerful character and story arc and so this is something to really ponder and plan before beginning work, preferably, unless you’re the kind of writer who needs to hit the keys to discover one’s plot and characters.

Can the Protagonist be a Villain?

This question often pops up as we’re largely taught that our protagonist should be sympathetic and likeable so we can root for them to get their goals and there is some truth to the power of a lead having a noble aim in a novel.

However, the key thing is that we understand a protagonist’s motives, even if they’re badly behaved or even overtly negative or evil, as once we comprehend why a figure is acting a certain way, we can usually find ourselves drawn into their story.

Hence Satan is, arguably, the most intriguing figure in Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ and we’re often drawn to serial killer and Mafia stories in true crime and fiction, this perhaps revealing the shadow side of human nature.

So, yes, you can create what is often called an anti-hero or heroine, so long as you’re able to convey the reasoning behind their immoral actions in a way your readers can easily follow. This can be a delicate and complex act of characterisation though, so only engage in this if you’ve got the will to really delve into the darkness of the psyche and the reasons why bad people do what they do.

How to Write a Protagonist

If your protagonist is so important then, no matter what kind of book you’re writing, it’s essential to ensure that you create a powerful lead with a compelling need to meet certain narrative aims by the end of the book.

You need to know what they want and why and to show them doggedly going after this throughout the story arc, entering each scene attempting to get their goal, whether the main one or that of the subplot (these are interwoven throughout with the main plot getting the most narrative space), but failing or progressing, only to find themselves facing an even bigger obstacle.

Their story arc could involve solving a crime, saving the world in a thriller with the clock ticking or getting a guy’s love in chick lit. Often the protagonist’s story arc in literary fiction will be somewhat less obvious, but it is commonly concerned with getting freedom from something (like oppression, war, a bad marriage and so on) or freedom to do a certain thing (travel, seek spiritual peace, justice and so forth).  

If you’ve got an anti-hero or heroine in play, the story arc may involve them in murder, world domination or other evil schemes, but it will be something which to them – and thus to the reader – makes sense.  

The same is true when writing magical realist or fantasy protagonists who may have special powers – so long as you can make the reader believe in the lead’s clairvoyant skills or their blue head with a hundred eyes, then all is well! 

Getting into a protagonist’s inner monologue or thoughts and the physical sense of being in their particular body and really using the senses and how they perceive the world via the lens of their own specific background, education, beliefs, relationships and so on and also giving them flaws and inner conflicts, like Hamlet’s notorious indecision, is really how you can creating rich and three-dimensional leads which readers both find ‘real’ and won’t forget, much as Shakespeare’s protagonists remain vivid to us now, hundreds of years after the Renaissance. 

Generally, though, it’s important to get the reader on the protagonist’s side, giving them a clear grasp of the character’s reason for wanting a certain goal for the main and subplots of the story arc from the start and showing them developing as characters as they face obstacles and conflicts as they fight for their aims in each scene, usually regularly confronting the antagonist who is the main thing standing between them and what they want most in the novel.

It’s this all-important baddie figure which I will explore next.  

What is an Antagonist?

As I mentioned above, an antagonist is the main figure who stands in the way of your protagonist’s story arc goals – the villain or opposition character who adds the most conflict to a narrative by doing their utmost to stop the lead getting their narrative aims, with their own character arc often focussing on obtaining the exact opposite of what the lead wants.  

Types of Antagonists

In a mystery, a cop lead will want to solve a murder, but the antagonist then may be the killer who’s out to flout being captured or stopped in his bloody rampage, no matter what.

In a women’s commercial or chick flick novel, the protagonist may be in love with and out to catch a certain guy, but she might find herself face-to-face with an antagonist in the form of a love rival, such as his poisonous ex, or being distracted, at least temporarily, from winning the heart of the real romantic interest by a guy who is bad news.

In literary fiction, where the protagonist’s character and story arcs may be more understated, the antagonist will have to be shaped more specifically to the lead’s particular narrative aims. Hence if they want freedom from a painful marriage, the main figure’s spouse could stand in their way, suffocating their bid for personal liberty and a new life.

Indeed, as much as larger obstacles, such as war, can cause huge issues for a protagonists, very much getting in the way of their goals – such as, for instance, a refugee’s attempt to escape dangerous lands with their child – it’s almost always crucial to actually embody these issues in a specific antagonist figure. Hence a refugee could be confronted by a cruel or unyieldingly bureaucratic guard at a detainment camp which thus symbolises the broader struggle the lead is facing.

This allows the protagonist to face a tangible threat in the form of an antagonist figure, rather than the mere abstractions of a situation and this offers way more opportunities in the story arc then for juicy conflicts for, as much as a refugee having to trek across a hostile landscape is impactful, one-on-one fights between a lead and the opposition figure (who in this scenario could be separating the lead from their children and imprisoning them) are definitely more memorable, especially if ‘shown’ in ‘live action’, like dialogue between the two enemies.

In this way then, a strong antagonist is crucial to create a powerful story arc and to make the protagonist’s journey all the more of an interesting and wild ride and, therefore, it’s key that you create a figure who’s equally matched to your lead and has as much determination to stop them getting their story goals as the lead has in terms of achieving them.

Don’t start a novel then without knowing your antagonist as well as your protagonist, even though the lead will take up most of the reader’s attention, as the opposition figure is key in adding essential dramatic tension to the story arc as everyone loves bad news (just watch a soap opera to see the truth of this!).

The antagonist also brings both the main character’s grit and inner issues to the fore, thus making them more three-dimensional and providing the reader with the expected sense of the protagonist’s personal growth over the course of their character arc.

Hence an antagonist injects conflict into a story arc, but facing off against the opposition figure often makes the protagonist grow positively during the course of the novel by forcing them to confront their worst fears or work on their less pleasant personality traits. In this way, the baddie has the ‘side-effect’ of bringing out the best in your lead and thus performs a vitally important function.

How to Write an Antagonist

If it’s often, arguably, a good idea to make your lead likeable, so that readers cheer for them to get their story arc aims, with the antagonist, you can really have fun creating chaos and a figure everyone loves to hate.

Look carefully at your protagonist’s story arc goals – for example, maybe they’re a woman detective looking to solve a murder in the main plot and to find love with a fellow cop in the romantic subplot – and then create a figure who’s going to make their life hell by blocking the lead’s plot aims as best they can.

Basically, the development of the antagonist is the primary means by which the writer puts their protagonist up a tree and then cuts it down, as the saying goes!

Hence, the antagonist in the above hypothetical cop’s story could be the murderer who’s going to fight being caught tooth and nail, but they may perhaps threaten her beloved’s life as well or even make matters personal by sending unsavoury materials from the past to her love interest in order to taunt the detective and ruin her life, as well as killing others.

You can see then that the protagonist and antagonist are really mirror images of each other, wanting exactly opposite aims and being just as dogged about getting them. The antagonist’s motives for acting the way they do needs to be understandable here, though in a standard fight against a protagonist, as much as if you’re making a villain central. The reader needs to understand, even if the antagonist’s logic is warped.

Hence we may see a tragic childhood which has shaped the killer’s psychopathy in a crime novel or a jealous ex’s refusal to give up on her past love which gets in the way of a couple getting together in women’s commercial fiction. In literary fiction, a toxic family member may refuse to let the lead grow up and be their own person, but only because they are insecure about being abandoned.

Whatever their rationale is, it’s key to balance the book so that the protagonist’s aims in the story arc are mostly blocked by the antagonist in the plot ‘til towards the end, making the story arc, an uphill battle, and for reasons which make sense to the opposition figure and are as clear to the reader as the lead’s narrative goals.

We may not agree with the antagonist’s perceptions or incentives, but we must understand what they are and what they want and why as much as with the main character.

Again, the importance of face-to-face confrontations in dialogue or even physical fights, depending on the genre, cannot be overstated in terms of creating the requisite drama to really give a story arc adequate oomph.

It’s possible to have an antagonist operating secretly against the lead, with the plot building up to a betrayal at the end, with the reader being privy to this hidden villain’s ill doings when the protagonist is not – a literary trope which is called dramatic irony. This can work as the reader is then on the edge of their seat as they wait for the horrible truth to hit home – just as Shakespeare shows Iago’s manipulation of Othello leads to the latter killing his wife, Desdemona, in jealous rage, although she is innocent of committing adultery, as the audience watches helplessly on, but also with a grim fascination.

However, this sort of plot, without direct confrontations between the antagonist and protagonist until the very end, when the deceit and horror is revealed, is hard to pull off, so I’d encourage you to consider bringing your lead and opposition characters into each other’s immediate orbits, with verbal conflict and machinations by the antagonist which ensure the lead has to fight ever harder for their story arc goals, until we reach a crisis point in the plot where we think it’s impossible for the main character to get their narrative aims … except usually they then prevail and get their narrative aims at the end as negative conclusions are also tricky, so most shy away from them, especially as fiction offers the chance to offer positive resolutions, closure and justice which we so crave as humans, but so often, arguably, find missing in real life.

Thus, the antagonist is central to making a compelling book, so I’d recommend getting to know them as well as the protagonist – who can take up all your attention if you’re not careful – as without a strong baddie, a story arc can lose its sense of drama and your lead can be seen to too seamlessly flow towards their goals, with the other characters they meet all being too pleasant, something which may wind up losing the readers’ interest as we want to see the lead facing major challenges and preferably having a particular villain to focus our wrath on as the person who’s doing all they can to mess with our treasured protagonist’s story aims.

However, I’d also be wary of going over-the-top when creating an antagonist as we have to be careful not to lean on stereotypes of the moustache-twirling villain and, instead, come up with more original figures. You don’t have to recreate the wheel with genre fiction, but it’s always good to bring some freshness to writing as agents, editors and the general reader love to see angles they’ve never seen before, such as unusual and unexpected murderers or love rivals.

We absolutely need then to create a protagonist who readers can get behind and to make it crystal clear what they want and why, so the reader can root for them to succeed throughout and be thrilled by their wins and sigh about their failures.

However, an antagonist is a key part of developing the relationship our audience has with the main character by giving them a figure who they can see confronting and obstructing their beloved lead, being someone they can dread and loathe, but also are intrigued by and maybe they may even have some small sympathy for in all their damaged humanity.

It’s crucial then to know your antagonist as well as the lead, giving them good sides as well as flaws to make them more rounded and comprehensible, even if this takes some deep thought about the past or present circumstances which make them act the way they do.

Indeed, if you’re struggling to come up with an antagonist to stand in the way of your protagonist, think who is most likely to have the most power to obstruct your lead’s story goals and who represents their deepest fears – and can make them come true.

In this way, sometimes creating an antagonist to fight our lead can feel rather mean to us writers, but just remember this is how you bring plots to life and, ultimately, develop your protagonist and allow them to shine.

By making a powerful villain, you’re really being cruel to be kind as antagonists bring out the best in both your narrative and lead and get your manuscript one more step towards being published.

About Sharon

Dr Sharon Zink is a former English Literature academic and the author of ‘Welcome to Sharonville’ (Unthank Books, 2014), which was long-listed for The Guardian First Book Award. 

Sharon is also a feminist writing coach, long-term Jericho Writers editor and founder of The Feminist Writing School which has a mission to get more womxn’s books written, published and out there changing the world, hosting online courses and in-person workshops and retreats 

She lives in the UK by the sea with her cat, Muse, and a large book collection. You can receive her weekly Love Letters from the Literary Revolution with a bundle of articles on writing as a thank you for joining her community, follow her on Instagram where she is drsharonzink or join her supportive feminist writing group on Facebook as she loves getting to know her fellow authors.  

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