Protagonist vs. Antagonist: Craft Conflict Through Character
It’s protagonist vs. antagonist, the battle of the century.
Or at least the battle that defines your novel’s central conflict and guides your main character’s development. Either way, it’s pretty important.
Now, in order to make this central relationship the riveting, heart-stopping mess it should be, you need to understand a few things. Things like:
- What a protagonist is
- What an antagonist is
- How to develop them for maximum conflict
- How to use that conflict to show character growth
Fortunately, you’re about to learn all those things right now. So let’s get on it.
Defining the Protagonist
When a lot of us hear the phrase “protagonist vs. antagonist,” our minds translate it as “good guy vs. bad guy.” Even setting aside the gendered phrasing, this isn’t necessarily accurate.
You know who’s a protagonist? Walter White from Breaking Bad. I know it might sound judgy, but I don’t really consider him a stand-up guy.
So let’s work with a different definition.
The protagonist is the main character. Your entire story is built around their journey, and as a result, your protagonist is the one your reader feels invested in.
That’s probably where the “good guy” association comes from. When we witness and understand a character’s journey, it’s hard not to care about them. When we care about them, it’s hard not to see the good in them (or at least the potential for good). That’s why storytellers will save the world.
So that’s the high-level definition of a protagonist. Now let's look closer at what makes a character a protagonist vs. antagonist.
Characteristics of a Protagonist
There are no key character traits your protagonist must possess. As I just mentioned, your main character doesn’t even have to be virtuous.
However, there are a few things you need to include when you create your protagonist. Things like:
- A belief that limits them in some way (we call this the Lie)
- Internal conflict
- Character arc, even if it’s just a flat one
Put together, these characteristics make your protagonist a complex being with the capacity for desire, fear, pain, and growth. They may not choose growth, but you still want your readers to see that the opportunity is there.
When you do that, you create a character your readers will take an interest in, even if they wouldn’t want to share a cubicle with that person in real life.
That brings me to this next point.
Relatability and Empathy
This is where it gets interesting.
The reader doesn’t have to always side with the protagonist morally. They’re allowed to get really pissed at them or feel torn about whether they even want to see the main character succeed at all.
But you still want to use this central figure to key into your audience’s emotions. To accomplish that, you need to do two things.
First, give your reader a chance to empathize with your protagonist’s circumstances, even if they can’t condone their choices. Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair is a real piece of work, but her vulnerable beginnings clarify her instinct to be conniving and selfish.
Second, create something in your protagonist that your reader will find relatable. Little tip: pain is the easiest way to do this. Everyone understands abandonment, fear, insecurity, loss… devastating things like that.
In all honesty, it’s good to make antagonists relatable, too. But for protagonists, it’s mandatory.
Goals and Motivations
Finally, your protagonist needs to want something (a goal). Not only that, they need a reason to want it. We call that reason their motivation.
A goal and motivation are crucial. If your protagonist isn’t pursuing anything, there’s no journey, no conflict, and ultimately no story.
Plus, motivation is a handy tool for building that relatability we were just talking about. You may not relate to the goal of finding the Wizard of Oz so he can send you back to Kansas. But most likely, you can understand the pull towards home.
Types of Protagonists
Not all protagonists are the same. You’ve likely picked up on this by now.
Some protagonists fall under the category of hero/heroine. These are your “good guys” (and gals).
Hero protagonists have flaws but are generally virtuous people overall. This character’s goal might be something that sounds heroic, like making the world better or protecting the innocent. It can also be something more personal, like finding love or acceptance.
So don’t let the word “hero” confuse you in this context. Right now, we’re talking about anyone who’s doing their best to be or become a good person. That includes everyone from Superman to Amelia Bedelia.
On the flip side, we’ve got anti-heroes. These are the protagonists who don’t have particularly heroic traits. Their goals are not only self-serving, they’re also destructive.
An anti-hero might begin the story as a villain or become villainous as the story progresses. That’s what we call a descending or negative character arc. Walter White, Othello, and Becky Sharp are all anti-heroes.
So that’s your overview of protagonists. Let’s get into the characters who throw a wrench into everything.
Defining the Antagonist
As discussed, “protagonist vs. antagonist” doesn’t mean “good vs. bad.” It means “character with a goal vs. character with an opposing goal.”
Simply put, the antagonist is the character working against your protagonist.
They may not be doing it for wicked reasons. They may not even be doing it on purpose. Your reader may even like them. Nevertheless, they’re definitely in the way.
Here’s what that looks like.
Characteristics of an Antagonist
Not only is there no set of character traits all antagonists must have, this character type can also be a major or minor character.
The supervillain who kidnapped your protagonist’s grandma is an antagonist. So is the bully who only appears in one childhood flashback. You can have several antagonists in your story, all with varying levels of importance.
In order to manage them all, you need to be clear on their roles. If an antagonist is only meant to create an obstacle in a single scene, they don’t need a lot of development.
For the sake of clarity and simplicity, we’re going to focus on the primary antagonist for now. This is the character who opposes your protagonist for most—if not all—of your story.
Your primary antagonist must have:
- A specific perspective
Ideally, they’ll also have:
- Internal conflict
- Character arc, even if it’s just a flat one
You’re not required by the laws of literature to make your antagonist as complex as your protagonist. Nevertheless, it’s a thousand times more interesting if your protagonist’s nemesis is just as complicated as they are. So let’s talk about that.
Complexity and Nuance
You and I are comparing protagonists vs. antagonists right now. We’re putting everybody in their little boxes and slapping labels on them because it makes our job easier.
But to write a great antagonist, you need to take a step back and remember that this character thinks of themselves as the protagonist. They’ve got their own objective, motivation, and moral justifications. Your main character is the one getting in their way.
If you approach character development from this angle, you’re bound to create a fascinating antagonist. You’ll be able to articulate why they are the way they are and maybe even stir sympathy in your readers… or protagonist.
Doug has a lot of great suggestions for managing the complexities of a great antagonist. For now, let’s dig into the details that will make this character feel unsettlingly real.
Goals and Motivations
Like your protagonist, your antagonist needs—deserves—both a goal and a reason for wanting it. They also shouldn’t be able to pursue their objective without getting in the protagonist’s way.
Let’s say your main character wants to win the gold in speed skating at the Olympics. And let’s say your antagonist wants the same thing. Bam. Instant conflict.
Or maybe your antagonist wants to feel like a top priority in your protagonist’s life and is constantly neglected in the name of ambition. Or they know the protagonist is destined to win and are afraid the fame will destroy your main character.
It all works. What wouldn’t work would be if your antagonist wanted to pass their real estate exam. There’s no protagonist vs. antagonist there. They’d wish each other luck and get on with their lives.
And don’t forget to give your antagonist solid motivation for what they want. Without good motivation, it’ll feel like your antagonist is opposing your protagonist just to be difficult. Not a very compelling reason.
Types of Antagonists
There are so many ways to destroy another person’s dreams, both intentionally and accidentally. That’s why we have so many different types of antagonists.
You’ve got your villain antagonists, who are simply evil. They might seek to gain something, like wealth or power, or destroy something, like society or puppies. Think Darth Vadar or Voldemort. Wicked as they are, these characters still benefit from a backstory and motivation.
Your antagonist could simply be a rival—someone who wants what your protagonist wants. Whether they’re after the same job or the same crush, the bad blood comes from a fear of losing. In another world, your protagonist might not have any problem with this person at all.
Then there are the accidental antagonists. They’re not actively opposing your protagonist. They just can’t help but be in the way.
This is often the case in romance, where the love interest is the primary antagonist. In Sleepless in Seattle, it’s not Sam’s fault his disembodied voice charmed Annie to the point of destroying her relationship.
Finally, there are inanimate antagonists. These antagonists aren’t characters at all. They might be forces of nature or the consequences of technology.
Whatever form your antagonist takes, take time to develop them fully (assuming they’re animate). That’s going to come in handy when you get around to this next part.
Protagonist vs. Antagonist: Building the Conflict
The antagonist exists to create conflict in your story. That’s their whole job.
To make it happen, the battle of protagonist vs. antagonist must be an even match. Your reader should be able to hope for the main character’s success while being painfully aware that they could lose.
And an even match is about much more than strengths and weaknesses.
Backstory, Flaws, and Strengths
A formidable foe is strong in areas where your hero(ine) is weak and weak in areas where your protagonist is strong.
These two characters should also be equally flawed and equally terrified, though you don’t want to go too crazy revealing your antagonist’s flaws and fears. Don’t let your readers get too relaxed too soon.
Finally—and this is important—your protagonist and antagonist must be equally driven to get what they want.
This is why it pays to create a complex antagonist. Drop some backstory. Explore their wounds. Reveal what’s at stake for them. Make it clear this character can’t afford to back off any more than the protagonist can.
Internal and External Conflict
Your protagonist should endure two different forms of conflict.
The first—the protagonist vs. antagonist conflict—is the external conflict. It’s a struggle between your main character and someone or something outside themselves.
Then there’s the internal conflict. This is the battle your protagonist fights within their own heart.
For example, while Katniss Everdeen fights for her life in the Hunger Games (external conflict), she wages another war within: her responsibility to survive for the sake of her family versus a moral resistance against taking innocent lives.
This is a perfect example of how the external and internal conflicts make each other worse. Katniss’s external conflict forces a constant internal dilemma, while her internal conflict makes her more vulnerable in the arena.
If you want to go deep with your antagonist, you can give them an internal conflict as well. You don’t have to, though. It’s only mandatory for the protagonist.
So is this:
A character arc is a journey of growth or deliberate non-growth. There are four types of character arcs.
- Ascending arc – The character becomes a better person because of the conflict and makes their world better, too.
- Descending arc – The character responds to conflict by taking an amoral, destructive path. They become a worse person and ruin the world around them.
- Transformational arc – Through conflict, a common person transforms into a full-blown hero(ine).
- Flat arc – The conflict gives the character plenty of opportunities to change. They don’t wanna, so they don’t.
Your protagonist’s journey will fit into one of these four categories. You can learn more about crafting a character arc in this article. The short version is that the combined forces of their external and internal conflict are what pushes them to evolve.
That’s why nailing this protagonist vs. antagonist situation is so essential.
Speaking of the antagonist, what about them? Do they need an arc?
It depends. If you plan to redeem the antagonist in the end—have them change their ways or help clean up the carnage they created—they absolutely need an arc. Or if your antagonist gets a lot of screen time or has a bunch of scenes told from their perspective, it’s usually worth giving them an arc.
They could also have a flat arc if they’re offered an opportunity for growth and reject it, stubbornly clinging to destructive beliefs. Or you can also go the classic Disney villain route and let the antagonist be consistently awful without ever questioning it. No arc, basically.
Of course, to make any of this work, you need some killer character development.
Here are some resources to get you started.
Developing Protagonist and Antagonist Characters
This has been a lot to digest. In an effort to avoid overwhelming you in this one article, I’ll leave it to you to take on character development when you’re ready.
When that time comes, you can find incredible resources at DabbleU. Here are some of my favorites:
- How to Write a Good Villain
- Character Development Questions
- 14 Character Archetypes
- How to Write Realistic Characters
- How to Write a Character Sketch
- Character Arc Template
- Character Development Worksheet
Ready to go even deeper? For a comprehensive guide to plotting, writing, and revising your entire novel, download our free ebook, Let’s Write a Book. It covers characters, conflict, and everything in between.
Now get out there and create some chaos.
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