What is a Protagonist vs Antagonist? Understanding Character’s and Their Conflicts

Understanding the conflict between a protagonist vs antagonist is vital to writing strong fiction, and this guide will help.

When writing fiction, your story usually has a main character. Yet it also has a secondary character that serves as the “bad guy” to your main character’s “good guy” persona. This is the difference between a protagonist vs antagonist. 

In writing, authors spend much time building these two people for their fiction works. A good story has a well-developed protagonist as well as a well-developed antagonist. This guide will help you create characters that make your books engaging and fuel your character arc from start to finish.

The Protagonist vs Antagonist: Literature’s Primary Conflict

What is a protagonist vs antagonist?

There are many types of conflict in literature, but the protagonist vs. antagonist, or good guy vs. bad guy, is one of the most common. Studying this conflict and how to build a strong protagonist and antagonist character will make your writing more effective.

What Is a Protagonist?

In literature, the protagonist is the main character of the story. While usually the good guy, it is possible for a story to have a protagonist who is not morally good. In Ancient Greek, the word actually means “one who plays the first part,” a definition that has nothing to do with the character of the character.

The protagonist drives the action of the story. The story arc is usually in line with the protagonist’s goals. The story may come from the protagonist’s point of view.

Three Types of Protagonists

Protagonist or antagonist
The heroic protagonist is the good guy who has a strong moral campus

Protagonists come in all shapes and sizes, but they tend to fall into one of three main categories, which are:

  1. Hero: The heroic protagonist is the good guy who has a strong moral campus and wants to help himself as well as the other characters achieve something great.
  2. Antihero: These are unlikely or unwilling heroes, and in some cases, the villain can become the protagonist and serve as the antihero. 
  3. False protagonist: The false protagonist happens when the writer starts the story with one person who seems to be the protagonist, only to jar the reader by switching the focus. Sometimes the false protagonist gets killed to make this jarring switch. 

Protagonist Examples

To better understand these types of protagonists, consider these classic examples:

Hero Protagonist

Antihero Examples

False Protagonist Examples

How to Write a Good Protagonist

If you want a strong, story, you need a strong protagonist that readers are hearing for. However, it is easy to make the protagonist too much of a good guy. Remember, readers need to connect to the protagonist emotionally, and someone who takes too high of a moral ground may be hard to connect with.

To write strong protagonists, start by developing the character as a human first. Make them have both strengths and weaknesses that play into the story. Give them human flaws that help people relate to them, then create a story that lets them grow and change as the story unfolds. 

Remember, a good story must have an important character who risks something to achieve a goal. The story has nothing at stake, the leading character is going to fall flat. 

What Is an Antagonist?

On the other side, the antagonist is the character who fights against the protagonist. Usually, the antagonist’s goal is to stop the protagonist from achieving their goals. This comes from the Greek word antagonistes which means “chief foe.”

This can be a group of characters or just one character, depending on the author’s goal. Sometimes the antagonist can be circumstances or inanimate forces, but usually, it is an actual character. 

4 Types of Antagonists

Antagonists usually fall into one of these four types, which are:

  1. Villain: The villain is the quintessential bad guy. This person or group of people typically has an evil purpose and wants to hurt the protagonist. This is different than a villainous protagonist because the villain is not the story’s main character.
  2. Conflict-creator: This antagonist has a goal in conflict to the antagonist’s, but not necessarily an evil intent. However, because they want something different, the conflict-creator works against the antagonist.
  3. Inanimate forces: If something is working against the protagonist, but it’s not another character in the story, then it falls into this category.
  4. The Protagonist: Sometimes the main character is their own worst enemy. Their shortcomings are what hold them back from greatness. These complex characters make interesting stories as they must fight their own insecurities to find success.

Examples of Antagonists

To better understand these types of antagonists, take a look at these classic examples:

Villain Examples

The classic villain is seen in these antagonists:

Conflict-Creator Examples

Inanimate Forces Examples

The Protagonist as an Antagonist Example

How to Write a Good Antagonist

When writing your antagonist, remember the same tips for the protagonist, and make the bad guy human. You cannot have an antagonist who is completely evil, because even villains usually have some humanity in them. In fact, the villain often has a complex past that is relatable but leads them to evil in the end.

Be careful not to give your antagonist too much or too little power. The villain needs to feel hard to overcome to make the stakes high in the story, but if the villain is all-powerful, then the hero’s victory will feel unbelievable. 

Finally, give your main antagonist some sort of backstory. This will help them feel more relatable and give you more interest in your writing.

A Final Word on Protagonist vs Antagonist

Without a protagonist vs. antagonist conflict, most fiction writing falls flat. Even in books with just one main character, there is usually a force working against that character. If you are going to write fiction, you must learn how to develop these characters.

The protagonist is the main character whose story you are telling. They have a goal they work to accomplish over the course of the story. The antagonist is in conflict with the protagonist and seeks to keep them from reaching that goal.

As you develop protagonists and antagonists in your writing, you must develop these characters, their motivations, and their backstories. This will give you interesting characters that the readers want to follow throughout their journeys.

FAQs About Protagonist vs Antagonist

What is the difference between an antagonist and a protagonist?

In literature, a protagonist is the main character of the story. They may be the good guy, but sometimes they are evil. The antagonist, in contrast, works against this main character to stop them from reaching their goal.

Can an antagonist be a protagonist?

It is possible for a story to have a character that appears to be an antagonist, only to come out as the protagonist in the end. However, the opposite, a protagonist eventually revealed as an antagonist, is the more common structure.

Storytelling Resources

A Storytelling Guide: Step-By-Step, With Examples

First vs Third Person Point of View: What Makes Sense for Your Story?

How to Write a Story Outline that Works: 9 Steps

The Hero’s Journey: Explained In 12 Steps

The Inciting Incident: 7 Tips For Starting Your Story With A Bang

Synopsis Example: How To Write A Winning Summary Of Your Story

Allegory vs Parable: What Are the Differences?

7 Types of Conflict in Literature Worth Exploring

12 Character Archetypes To Drive Your Writing

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  • Nicole Harms has been writing professionally since 2006. She specializes in education content and real estate writing but enjoys a wide gamut of topics. Her goal is to connect with the reader in an engaging, but informative way. Her work has been featured on USA Today, and she ghostwrites for many high-profile companies. As a former teacher, she is passionate about both research and grammar, giving her clients the quality they demand in today's online marketing world.