Antagonist vs. Protagonist: What’s The Difference Between These Characters?

Comparing an antagonist vs. protagonist is a vital part of learning how to study literature. Here is a closer look at the difference between these two terms.

For a story to be interesting to read or watch, it needs many literary elements. The setting and plot are important, but the most important feature will be the story’s characters. Specifically, the protagonist and antagonist are vital to understanding how stories work.

Looking at the question of antagonist vs. protagonist, you may be wondering what sets these characters apart. Is the protagonist always the good guy and the antagonist the bad guy? Not necessarily. This concept is a bit more complex, and that makes it one that is often the subject of literary critics.

Here is a closer look at the antagonist, protagonist, and their role in developing a story. By better understanding the difference between these two roles, you can better understand what you read and watch. If you are looking to write fiction, this distinction will help you better develop stories that people will want to read.

Antagonist vs. Protagonist: What Is a Protagonist?

The protagonist is often the good guy or the story’s main character. This character is the leading character, the one whom the story centers on, and the protagonist’s goals are what drive the storyline along.

According to the dictionary, a protagonist is the “leading character, hero, or heroine of a drama or other literary work.” The idea of the protagonist stems from ancient Greek plays. It comes from a Greek word that means “the player of the first part” or “the chief actor.”

Every story has a protagonist, even if there are other complex characters in the story that support the work of a protagonist. Some stories can have a group of characters that serve as the protagonist, while others will have one main character. Either way, it is the character or characters at the heart of the story that are the protagonists.

4 Common Types of Protagonists

Protagonists fall into one of four categories in most stories. Being able to identify these will help you identify the protagonists in the books you read and the shows you watch.

1. Heroic Protagonist

The heroic protagonist is the traditional style of the protagonist. This type is the favorite of Disney movies and rags-to-riches stories. These protagonists have the perseverance to overcome tremendous odds, and the story may even come from their point of view. Even if someone else narrates the story, the main character arc is about the hero or heroine overcoming conflict to achieve their goal. Luke Skywalker from Star Wars and Frodo from The Lord of the Rings are both examples of heroes.

Learn about movies that follow the hero’s journey

2. Antihero

The antihero is a protagonist that has many flaws and may not be a virtuous individual. However, the story is about that person and their motivations and journey, and thus they are the protagonist. They cannot be called a hero because they do not have the heroic, good-guy persona, but they are the main person in the story. Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab is a good example of an antihero.

3. Villainous Protagonist

The villainous protagonist, which is sometimes linked with the antihero category, is the villain or bad guy in the story, yet they are also the central character. Sometimes books and movies will explore the motivation and actions of a villain, and they become the center of the storyline. The Grinch from How the Grinch Stole Christmas is an example of this type of protagonist.

4. False Protagonist

Technically, the false protagonist is not a true protagonist. This character appears to be the most important character of the story at the beginning. The author will spend quite a bit of time exploring this person’s backstory and motivations, only to kill them and revealed the true protagonist. This jarring change grabs the attention of the reader and makes them pay attention to what the author is doing. Marion Crane in the Hitchcock film Psycho is the most common example of a false protagonist.

Examples of Protagonists

Antagonist vs. Protagonist: Sherlock Holmes
Protagonists are the character or characters at the heart of the story

Looking at literature and television, you will find many examples of protagonists. Some of these include:

  • Harry from Harry Potter
  • Katniss from The Hunger Games
  • Sherlock from Sherlock Holmes

To see more, visit our article on Protagonist Examples, which outlines the best examples from modern and classic literature.

Protagonist vs. Antagonist: What Is an Antagonist?

The antagonist is the opposite of the protagonist. Antagonist characters are the conflict creators of the story. They are the ones that put up obstacles in the path of the protagonist. In many ways, they are the bad guy of the story or the villain that makes the protagonist’s journey more challenging.

Like the protagonist, the antagonist can be one character or a group of people. It can even be an inanimate object. No matter who or what the antagonist does, it creates a conflict for the main character or characters.

According to the dictionary, the word antagonist means “A person who is opposed to, struggles against, or competes with another.” This word comes from the Greek word antagōnistḗs, which means “opponent” or “rival.”

4 Common Types of Antagonists

Antagonists fall into one of four categories. Understanding these will help you be able to identify the antagonist in the story. The three types of antagonists are:

1. The Villain

The villain is your quintessential bad guy in a story. This evil character is the main source of conflict against the main character or group of characters. Some classic examples of villains include Voldemort from Harry Potter, any of the evil witches from a classic fairy tale, or Darth Vader from Star Wars.

2. Conflict-Creators

Conflict-creators as antagonists are not necessarily evil. They may not have the best intentions, but they are not bad at their core. However, they do work against the antagonist because their goals conflict. Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice is a good example of a conflict creator.

3. Inanimate Forces

Forces of nature or even government systems can be the protagonist in a story. These are not people, but rather are inanimate objects. In The Hunger Games, the government system and the games themselves are the main antagonists, even though President Snow is the human face of those groups. The sea in Robinson Crusoe is another example of an inanimate force as an antagonist.

4. The Protagonist

In some stories, the protagonist is the antagonist as well. If the person’s insecurities and human shortcomings are what keeps them from achieving their goals, then they are the antagonist and the protagonist. The most often-cited example of this is Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye.

Examples of Antagonists

As you read literature or watch movies, you will find many examples of antagonists. Some classic ones include:

  • Sauron from The Lord of the Rings
  • Cruella Devil from 101 Dalmatians
  • Iago from Othello

For more examples of antagonists, check out this article on Antagonist Examples. It looks at classic and modern literature to explore common examples of the antagonist to make it easier to identify.

The Key Difference between Antagonist vs. Protagonist Characters

Once you know the difference between these two terms, you will likely find it easy to identify them. If you still struggle with remembering the difference between a protagonist and an antagonist, here are a few tricks.

First, the protagonist is who the story is pushing towards success. Thus, as the reader reads the story, their thinking is “pro” the protagonist.

Second, the antagonist is who brings the conflict to the story. Thus, they are antagonizing the protagonist. If you can connect this word with the similar-sounding word “antagonist,” you can keep the two terms straight.

A Final Word on Antagonist vs. Protagonist

Good stories often will have many supporting characters. However, the main character, the protagonist, is the story’s central focus. It is the person overcoming some struggle to reach a goal, whether that struggle is internal or external.

For the protagonist to have a struggle, someone or something must create that conflict. That entity is the antagonist. At the core, most stories are a tale of an antagonist versus a protagonist.

Whether you are a reader or a writer, understanding these two characters is key. Even in stories with multiple characters and story arcs, there will be protagonists and antagonists at heart. Learn to find these and study examples of them, and you will find your reading and writing more enjoyable.

Like this article? Check out our storytelling guide.

FAQs about Antagonist vs. Protagonist

Can the antagonist be the main character?

In some stories, the antagonist and the protagonist are the same people. The protagonist’s internal struggles are what send him on his journey, and thus he is also the antagonist. Similarly, some protagonists are the villains of their stories, and thus they appear to be antagonists. Often, even if the antagonist is not the protagonist, the antagonist is one of the most important supporting characters in the story, as they drive the narrative’s conflict. So yes, the antagonist can be the main character in a story and even can be the protagonist for some stories.

How to identify the protagonist and antagonist

When reading a story or watching a movie, ask yourself who the main character is. In most instances, the primary character that the story focuses on is the protagonist. Then, ask who is bringing the conflict to that main character. In most instances that will be the antagonist.

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