Having a strong protagonist and antagonist is key to making a novel compelling, no matter what genre you are writing in. But what is the difference between them and how you include them in your book?
In this piece, we’ll look at what protagonists and antagonists are, and the different types of characters which can play these roles. We will also explore the key elements which bring them alive, giving your manuscript that extra spark which will grab agents’ and editors’ attention from the opening page.
What Is The Difference Between Protagonists And Antagonists?
We all know every work of fiction needs a hero and a baddie, but how you portray them makes all the difference.
An enthralling protagonist, often referred to as the lead, main character (MC), or hero/heroine, can make or break your story. After all, not every book is plot-driven…many much-loved works of fiction have a simple plot but a unique and memorable main character.
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 goals (ie the basis of the plot). The bad guy usually wants the exact opposite of the lead and will do 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, let’s face it, the lifeblood of fiction) is to create a protagonist who matches the antagonist in strength.
Making sure your protagonist and antagonist are evenly matched not only gives your lead a great foil to fight, as they travel through their story arc, but it also injects energy into your plot and keeps readers rooting for the main figure. Having equal protagonists and antagonists also allows the main character to grow in a way which is vital to their development as obstacles are thrown in their way.
Now let’s take a look at our good guys and baddies individually, and how they differ.
What Is A Protagonist?
A protagonist is the central character of a novel – the one whose journey we follow as readers. If they are the sole lead of the story, it is often their thoughts and actions that influence the ‘voice’ of the novel and the tone in which it is told.
Usually, the protagonist has 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. An example of this is 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, the protagonist is usually a woman caught up in the drama of her life (work, romance or family).
And in fantasy fiction, the lead is often sent on a quest and has to fight many monsters along the way – 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, the lead is often a teen who is either simply navigating the struggles of coming of age (relationships, school, sex, friendship) or who can also adopt the roles of an action or fantasy protagonist (ie the chosen one).
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 about, a strong protagonist with a clear narrative aim is crucial to creating a powerful character. Their story arc is something to really consider and plan before writing the first word as it will influence your entire story (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. There is some truth to the power of a lead having a noble aim in a novel, but not all lead characters have to be likeable (look at Eleanor in Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, or Martha in Sorrow And Bliss).
The key thing to remember is that, although we may not like the protagonist, we must understand and empathise with their motives. Even if they’re badly behaved (or even overtly negative or evil) if we can comprehend why a figure is acting a certain way, we can usually find ourselves drawn into their story.
Hence why Satan is, arguably, the most intriguing figure in Milton’s Paradise Lost, and why we’re often drawn to serial killer and Mafia stories in true crime and fiction. After all, every human has a shadow side and fiction is the perfect place in which to explore that.
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 achieve their goal, whether the main one or that of the subplot (these are interwoven throughout with the main plot getting the most narrative space).
A protagonist’s story arc may involve solving a crime, saving the world as the deadline looms, or finding the love of their life. 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 realism or fantasy protagonists with magical powers. As long as you can make the reader believe in the lead’s clairvoyant skills or their blue head with a hundred eyes, then they will care. And if they care, they will keep turning the pages!
Getting your readers to feel like they are inside your protagonist’s body and mind is key to them connecting with the main character. Making them as human as possible, through the use of backstory, past trauma, flaws and inner conflicts, is what makes even the most unlikeable lead a hero we all root for.
Take Hamlet and his notorious indecision, for example. This is a man who allows power, greed and his ambitious wife to steer him into a horrific mess from which he can’t escape. As a reader we urge him to do better, we stay by his side because we too understand how easy it is to be influenced by our darker side, and we suffer alongside him at every turn. It’s a huge testament to Shakespeare that, even four-hundred years later, his protagonists remains both relevant and memorable today.
Whether the villain the main character is fighting is external (the environment, a war, monsters), internal (depression, fear, doubt), or a fellow human being (a dark lord, a work rival, the devil himself), the reader need to know whose side they are on.
So, let’s take a look at this all-important baddie figure…
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.
Types Of Antagonists
In a mystery, a cop lead will want to solve a murder, therefore the antagonist may be the killer. Or maybe it’s not, maybe it’s another cop who wants to beat him to the chase.
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. Or maybe her villain is herself, standing in the way of true love.
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 (ie a refugee’s attempt to escape dangerous lands with their child) it’s often important to also 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, thus symbolising 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, offering way more opportunities for fairly-match conflict. A refugee trekking across a hostile landscape may be impactful, but adding a one-on-one fight between a lead and the opposition figure (who in this scenario could be separating the lead from their children and imprisoning them) will definitely be more memorable.
With this in mind, it’s important you don’t start a novel without knowing your antagonist as well as your protagonist, even though the lead will take up most of the reader’s attention. Your opposition figure is there as a key for adding essential dramatic tension to the story, because everyone loves to see the main character battle with highs and lows (just watch a soap opera to see how many obstacles one character can face!).
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 your hero is going to be likeable (or at least someone the reader can empathise with) then, with your baddie, you can have fun creating chaos and a figure everyone loves to hate. Although, 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. The Darkling in Shadow and Bone is the perfect example of a dark lord who readers fall completely in love with…before realising he’s the bad guy!
Look carefully at your protagonist’s story arc goals to determine how your antagonist’s personality and how they should act. For example, maybe they’re a female 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!
Looking at our hypothetical cop story above, the antagonist could be the murderer who’s going to fight being caught tooth and nail. Perhaps they threaten the life of the main character’s love interest as well as continuing their killing spree.
You can see then that the protagonist and antagonist are really mirror images of one another, 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, so backstory will be needed. The reader needs to understand why the bad guy is doing what he’s doing, even if their logic is warped.
Adding Dramatic Irony
When an antagonist is operating secretly against the lead, with the plot building up to a betrayal at the end, and the reader is privy to this while the protagonist is not – that literary device is called dramatic irony.
This works really well as the reader is on the edge of their seat waiting for their beloved hero to catch up and see what they can see. In Shakespeare’s Othello, he shows Iago’s manipulation of Othello, leading to the latter killing his wife, Desdemona, in jealous rage – even though she’s innocent of committing adultery. As the audience watches on helplessly, they remain transfixed with grim fascination, forever wondering when the penny is going to drop.
Dramatic irony often involved conflict behind the scenes – a form of confrontations between the antagonist and protagonist that isn’t revealed until the end. For those starting out in writing it can be 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 standing in the way of the protagonist.
Bad Is As Important As Good
Whilst your work of fiction will invariably revolve around your lead, remember that the antagonist is also central to making a compelling story. So get to know your baddie as well as you know the protagonist.
Without a strong protagonist, a story arc can lose its sense of drama and your lead can be seen to seamlessly flow towards their goals with too much ease – something which may lose your audience’s interest. Readers want to see the lead facing major challenges, 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.
Although we absolutely need to create a protagonist who readers can get behind (and to make it crystal clear what they want and why), an antagonist is a key part of developing the relationship our audience has with the main character. Give them a figure they can see confronting and obstructing their beloved lead, someone they can dread and loathe, but are also intrigued by. Maybe they even have some small sympathy for the bad guy’s damaged humanity.
Know Your Protagonist And Antagonist Well
It’s crucial 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. Then turn those attributes into a character no one will forget in a hurry.
As a writer, you may feel mean doing this to your lead, but remember that this is how you bring plots to life and, ultimately, develop your protagonist and allow them to shine. And when they shine, so does your book!