Study 10 classic antagonist examples from literature and film to see what this literary term means.
A story needs both good and bad guys for a story to work. There must be a conflict to move a storyline along and to give the reader a reason to continue reading. The antagonist is the “bad guy” that works against the protagonist’s goals throughout the story.
There are four main types of antagonists in literature. These are:
Villains – Villains are the bad guys, often evil to the core, and their goal is to destroy the protagonist.
Conflict creators – Conflict creators are not bad guys, but they create conflict for the main character.
Natural forces – Forces of nature can become antagonists if they work against the main character in a story.
The protagonist – Sometimes the protagonist and their innate shortcomings are what create the conflict, and thus the protagonist becomes the antagonist
First, check out our guide explaining what are foil characters. Then, look at these classic examples of the different types of antagonists from film and literature.
1. Lord Voldemort
In the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, Potter and his friends come against many obstacles on his journey through the seven books. Some of those are in the form of various people, monsters, and situations, but the main antagonist throughout the series remains Lord Voldemort, his sworn enemy. Voldemort becomes his enemy when Potter was just a baby and failed to die when the villain killed his parents and attempted to kill the baby, too.
Throughout these books, Voldemort continues to be the catalyst for the challenges Potter and his friends must overcome. As Harry’s backstory unfolds, readers learn that Voldemort has been part of the story from the very beginning, so his hatred of the boy wizard runs deep. In the end, Harry, Ron, and Hermione emerge victorious and the evil villain dies.
2. The Joker
Batman faces many foes throughout his movies, T.V. shows, and comics, but The Joker remains his arch-enemy throughout these tales. It seems everywhere the masked man turns, The Joker has another challenge or riddle for him. In some of the stories, The Joker seems to always have the upper hand, and his maniacal laughter follows Batman throughout his adventures.
What makes The Joker so effective as an example of an antagonist is that he gains the audience’s sympathy. He was not born evil, but rather became evil due to his life’s events. In spite of this, he remains a villain type of antagonist because of the way he interacts with the superhero.
Iago is the bad guy in William Shakespeare’s play, Othello. Many call Iago one of the clearest examples of antagonists in all of literature. Iago is the husband of Emilia, who serves as Othello’s wife’s assistant, and throughout the play, he continues to fight against Othello psychologically by planting doubts in his mind.
Specifically, Iago spends much of the play trying to show Othello that his wife is being unfaithful to him, yet he lacks a clear motivation for this treachery. It appears his only reason for wanting to hurt Othello is a desire to have power over the others around him. He represents the villain type of antagonist.
4. Darth Vader
Darth Vader is one of the most recognizable antagonists in movie history. This villain of the Star Wars story’s original trilogy. He shows up as the embodiment of pure evil out to turn the good guy, Luke Skywalker, into the dark side. Even those who do not watch Star Wars are often familiar with the name Darth Vader and his embodiment of evil.
Yet, Darth Vader is an interesting villain because of the twist in their story. When the famous revelation is made that he is Luke’s father, the audience sees behind his deeper motivation. In the end, his self-sacrifice shows that there is an opposing force of good inside him, even while he appears to be the classic villain with nothing but evil throughout most of the movies.
Learn more about movies that follow the hero’s journey.
5. Mr. Hyde
In Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the villain is not another character. In fact, the villain, Mr. Hyde, is actually another side of Dr. Jekyll himself. When Dr. Jekyll takes a serum that could transform him into an evil and self-indulgent man with a different face, he creates the villain.
This is an interesting type of antagonist because it comes from within the main character himself, not an outside force acting on the character. In the end, both Jekyll and Hyde perish as Dr. Jekyll tries to stifle the villain inside. This story is an example where the protagonist himself is the antagonist.
6. Holden Caulfield
The Catcher in the Rye’s main character, Holden Caulfield, faces two antagonists n his quest to make connections with others. One is society, which tends to look down on him, but the other is himself. This character arc is a case where the protagonist himself is the antagonist.
In the book, Caulfield’s own obsessions and insecurities are the biggest antagonistic force he faces. It is his own hostility towards others and inner conflict that keeps him alienated throughout the story. Again, this is an example of the protagonist himself being the antagonist.
Throughout The Lord of the Rings, Dark Lord Sauron stands as the primary antagonist. He shows himself through his Great Eye or the Dark Tower, and he has a burning desire to own the One Ring. Because he is never seen in the stories, he eludes an idea of mystery, making his evil nature even more impactful… and compelling. An extreme desire for power taints Saruman, so he becomes Sauron’s servant. This plotline drives much of the first third of the series.
8. President Coriolanus Snow
In The Hunger Games, two antagonists exist. First, President Coriolanus Snow who is the mastermind of the games and the control that Katniss fights is the primary one with a human face. However, the lead character also fights society in general.
In The Hunger Games, the human antagonist, President Snow, is a visualization of the non-human antagonist, society. So, in this book, the antagonist is both a villain and an inanimate force. This creates intense conflict that the protagonist must work through throughout the story, and this makes Katniss a powerful force due to the intense nature of the evil she faces.
9. The Sea
Sometimes the antagonist is not a person or society, but rather a force of nature. In Robinson Crusoe, the sea itself is the main antagonist in the story. Crusoe must fight the sea while trying to make his way back to England.
In this story, the sea is what strands Crusoe on the island. It is also what keeps him from returning home. In order to overcome his trial, the protagonist in this story must overcome the sea, and that makes it a true antagonist.
10. Mrs. Bennet and Lady de Bourgh
There is no villainous character in the novel Pride and Prejudice, so pinpointing a protagonist is more challenging. In the story, Mrs. Bennet tries to force Elizabeth to marry a man she does not love, while conversely, Lady de Bourgh tries to prevent her from marrying the man she does love.
Though the motivations of the antagonists are different, the result is the same. They prevent the protagonist’s goals. In the end, love wins and Elizabeth marries the man she loves, and both antagonists accept the marriage. These antagonists are not villains, but rather they are conflict creators in the story. If you like this list, check out our guide to common character archetypes.
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