For the plot structure of a good story to come to life, it needs both a recognizable protagonist and antagonist with whom the audience can connect with. The interaction of these characters creates both conflict and drama.
Without them, you have no climax or resolution, and the story will be flat and uninteresting.
If you aren’t sure which is which and why they are so important, look at our definitions and examples so you can decide which of your favorite characters are the heroes, or villains, of the books and movies you enjoy.
What is the Difference Between a Protagonist and Antagonist?
The protagonist of a story is the leading character, while the antagonist is their primary opponent. Both are nouns. Often, the protagonist is the good guy or hero, while the antagonist is the villain who actively opposes the protagonist or is a hostile force.
What is a Protagonist?
The word first came into modern use during the late 1800s and was generally defined as a leading person in any cause or contest.
However, its origins go even further back and is derived from the Greek word prōtagōnistēs, which is a combination of prōtos, meaning ‘first in importance’ and agōnistēs, meaning ‘actor’.
Often, the protagonist is the “hero” of the story, but they don’t have to be defined as such and may be one of multiple main characters, or may not even be very virtuous in their actions and behaviors.
Examples of Protagonists
Protagonists are not a one size fits all central character. Even though they are a main character, they can take on many forms and personalities and may even be “the bad guy”.
Here are some examples of who and what protagonists can be:
A protagonist may be the hero or good guy of the story that you are rooting for and want to see succeed in their quest or endeavors. Even with obvious flaws, they are often likable and work for the common good. Made popular by the ancient Greeks, they embody the good that people should model themselves after.
Examples of heroes are Hercules, Tarzan, and Harry Potter.
When stories have more than one protagonist, they are often called group heroes: multiple people working towards a common goal. Occasionally, one or another character may stand out as an individual to better develop their traits to an audience within a part of the story. However, they are still part of a collective effort.
Examples include The Avengers and The Fellowship in Lord of the Rings.
Reluctant Hero or Anti-Hero
Anti-heroes, or reluctant heroes, are the main character of a story but don’t embrace the goodness and positivity the traditional hero usually possesses, and is more of an unwilling hero figure. Despite the story revolving around them, they may be neutral in their behaviors or have unlikeable traits, but they almost always do good – even if by accident.
Examples include Shrek, Jack Sparrow, and Holden Caulfield.
A false protagonist is a character that the author or director purposely wishes the audience to believe is the main character but is usually killed off or is part of a major plot twist. The real protagonist will come to light at this point, as suspense and mystery are woven into the storyline.
Examples of false protagonists include Mufasa, Janet Leigh in Psycho, and Ned Stark.
A tragic hero may at first seem to be a bad guy in the story, but through its development highlights them as somebody who is working towards what they believe is a common good, but has made a fatal mistake. They will recognize this mistake and work to correct it, often to their demise.
Examples of tragic heroes include Brutus, Macbeth, and Jay Gatsby.
Sometimes the villain or “bad guy” is the main character. Remember, protagonist simply means the main character, and nobody said they have to have positive and ethical traits or be likable.
Many popular stories and films tell the backstory of famous villains, explaining their backstory and letting the audience have some insight into why they behave the way they do.
Examples of villainous protagonists include The Grinch, Tony Soprano, and The Joker.
What is an Antagonist?
An antagonist is a noun used to indicate the primary opponent of the main character or characters. This character, or set of characters, serves as an obstacle between the protagonist and their goals.
They are often the “bad guy” who is actively working against the main character, often in a violent or unethical manner.
Derived from Greek, antagōnizesthai means ‘struggle against’. The French adopted it in the late 1500s to form our more modern use: ‘one who contends with another’.
Examples of Antagonists
There are various types of antagonists as well. These are often complex characters (or forces) who are just as exciting and popular as a protagonist. In fact, many antagonists in one story eventually become the focus in another. Look at who, or what, antagonists may be:
A classic villain is a bad guy who actively works to defeat and hinder our protagonist throughout a story. They rarely have any redeeming traits or qualities and behave in a violent and reprehensible manner.
They are often selfish and work to advance their own needs, seek revenge, and hold a grudge against the main character. Examples of villains include Cruella de Vil, Scar, and Palpatine.
Like group heroes, there are also group villains working together to stop our protagonist. Within the story, the audience may learn details of one individual over another, but this is usually done to help explain the plot’s backstory or help us better understand the actions our main character is taking. Examples include The Legion of Doom, Hydra, and The Suicide Squad.
A tragic hero can also be the antagonist (at least for part of the story), especially if they play opposite a prominent main character. They almost always are the root cause of death and destruction and don’t realize their fatal flaws until all has been lost.
Sometimes this character is part of an unexpected twist when the false protagonist is revealed, forcing the audience to rethink the entire plot. Examples include Creon from Antigone, Darth Vader, andKylo Ren.
The false antagonist is similar to the false protagonist. Often they are not the sole antagonist of the story but have actively worked against the protagonist (or have seemed to) through most of the plot.
Often, in a twist or surprising revelation, the audience discovers they are not, in fact, an opposing force at all. An example of this is Snape in Harry Potter.
Occasionally the factor working against the protagonist is themself. This “man versus self intrinsic struggle” is popular and is often threaded throughout psychological thrillers.
Examples include the internal struggles of the main characters in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Old Man and The Sea, and Norman Bates.
Nature, Technology, or the Supernatural
Man versus an inanimate force is also a popular genre, especially within the Realism Movement during the early 1900s. This pits our protagonist against nature, advances in technology, or even the supernatural.
Examples of this are seen in To Build a Fire, The Masque of the Red Death, and Swiss Family Robinson.
Venn Diagram of Protagonists and Antagonists
Despite the apparent differences between protagonists and antagonists, they share common features.
Tips to Remember the Difference
If you struggle to remember which is which, remember these tips:
- A protagonist is the main character and begins with the prefix pro – as in positive or proactive.
- An antagonist works against the protagonist or antagonizes the main character. Or, you may also relate anta to anti – which is the prefix meaning opposed or against.
Using Protagonist and Antagonist in Sentences
Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist, is so mixed up from pretending to love a fellow contestant that she no longer knows what she feels. [New York Times]
And she seems to have created a proxy for herself with Arachne, Spider-Man’s ancient, eight-legged antagonist. [Slate]
So goes the tagline for “Almost Famous,” a movie in which the protagonist must negotiate the conflicting philosophies of a decadent world of rockstar debauchery and the intellectual gravity espoused by his mother. [Harvard Crimson]
She often looks as if she’s head-butting an invisible antagonist. [The Guardian]
You need both an antagonist and protagonist to build a good story. A protagonist is the main character, whether or not they are likable, and the antagonist is the character working against them.
The development of both these figures is essential in building a conflict that provides both a climax and resolution to the storyline.