Protagonist Vs. Antagonist: A Detailed Breakdown With Examples

Most stories contain the protagonist vs. antagonist element, in which the main character or main characters are up against the bad guy. The main character is the protagonist, and the bad guy is the antagonist. The leading character and his or her struggle to best the antagonist moves the story forward to its climax and eventual resolution. The protagonist usually learns as they go, and their character arc is what fuels the reader to continue to cheer for their victory against the antagonist, who is usually a more static character than the protagonist.

Difference between Protagonist and Antagonist

The protagonist is the center of the plot; the story often revolves around their character development. On the other hand, the antagonist constantly works against the protagonist, creating conflict in the protagonist’s life and the other characters’ lives. Often, the protagonist has lovable attributes despite their flaws. In contrast, the antagonist has irksome or horrible traits yet may have a good side depending on how the author creates their backstory.

Like so many other literary terms, the word protagonist comes from an ancient Greek word, and it was used to describe and identify the lead character in a play. As readers, we tend to oversimplify things and only recognize the protagonist and antagonist, and we clump everyone else together as supporting characters. However, there are many types of protagonists and antagonists, and this article will illustrate and explain that point.

Protagonist in a Sentence

Here are some examples of the word “protagonist” used in different sentences:

  • She deals with things like a protagonist.
  • The protagonist aims to discover the true essence of his existence.
  • The selflessness of the protagonist sets her apart from the other characters.
  • You can always choose to be a fabulous protagonist in your own life.
  • With the protagonist by his side, nothing alarms him.

Antagonist in a Sentence

Below are sentences that used the word “antagonist” within them:

  • He never expected that his friend would be the antagonist in his life.
  • The antagonist celebrates every downfall of the people around her.
  • The antagonist only ever pretends to be helping the community.
  • The massive explosion was plotted by the antagonist.
  •  The self-righteous antagonist makes everyone in his town miserable.

Protagonist Vs Antagonist: A Breakdown

The False Protagonist

Also known as an anti-hero, this character is often used to trick the audience. At the beginning of the story, the reader is led to believe that someone is the protagonist, only to be thrown off guard by the death or disappearance of this character and the replacement of this character with the real protagonist. This is seen in all types of fiction writing, as well as in television and movies.

protagonist vs. antagonist

For example, take Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Janet Leigh is a famous false protagonist, and the usage of this gimmick is executed perfectly. The first third of the film follows this character as she takes a lot of money and goes on the run. We assume that she is the protagonist because we’ve been given a little bit of background information, there’s definitely a conflict involved for her, and we find ourselves wanting to know what happens to her. We’re drawn in.

Leigh gets to the Bates’ residence and has decided to stay there overnight. We expect that the next day she’ll move on or that she’ll wait for someone to meet her the next day. Instead, we see her brutally murdered in the famous shower scene. She was a false protagonist, and the rest of the movie, the last two-thirds of it, had absolutely nothing to do with her. 

Instead, the focus is on Norman Bates. Almost a bait and switch type technique, it entices the reader to continue with the story due to the cleverness of the writer to have duped us so easily. False protagonists take some finesse to perfect, but they become memorable when they are written well.

The Heroic Protagonist

A heroic protagonist is what most readers are used to seeing. This is the all-around good person who only wants to see justice prevail, make his or her friends happy, find love, all of the nice things. They are altruistic; they are selfless, loyal, honest, and true. 

Harry Potter is a favorite famous protagonist of many readers. A dedicated and loyal friend, he’ll do anything for the people he cares about. Harry Potter is also a lonely hero, having lived the majority of his life abused, mistreated, and neglected by an extended family that didn’t want him and didn’t care about him.

This is a very common type of protagonist, but readers never tire of reading stories about them. Everyone wants to believe that heroes truly exist, and in these sorts of stories, they do.

Villainous Protagonists

Villainous protagonists are bad guys who are the main characters, who are often pitted against the main antagonist that is worse than they are or inanimate forces. An example of this is Joe Goldberg from the book You. Joe is possibly as villainous as a person can possibly be, but because he is the main character, he’s the protagonist. 

A murderer who has a made-up moral code that seems to change as it suits him, he is truly a terrible person. The antagonist for him changes as the story becomes more twisted, and the role is usually played by anyone or any inanimate forces that could bring an end to his crimes by getting him caught and sent to prison.

Another example of this is Dexter from the book Darkly Dreaming Dexter. This time, the character does have a moral code, but he still murders people. Working for the police force, he goes after people he deems as “bad,” although his own actions are also detestable. The antagonist for this character shifts throughout the story as anyone who stands in the way of the protagonist’s goals.

Antagonists

Just like with protagonists, there is more than one type of antagonist. Antagonists are simply whatever causes conflict for the protagonists. They don’t even have to be human. Weather, the elements, natural disasters, monsters, and animals can act as protagonists. They don’t have to have any sort of actual relationship with or knowledge of the protagonist to act in their role, either. They simply have to be the cause of conflict. We will now discuss some of the various types of antagonists.

Evil Antagonist

The evil antagonist is the classic bad character that we see the hero up against repeatedly in literature and film. There are almost no redeeming qualities to these characters, and they seem to exist solely to be the exact opposite of the principal character. 

This type of antagonist produces an engaging story because over and over again in literature, the story revolves around the classic struggle, not so much of two characters, but of good vs. evil, and that’s something readers will never tire of.

Voldemort is the polar opposite of Potter. Randall Flagg is the polar opposite of Mother Abagail in The Stand. It’s a classic situation that we repeatedly see under different circumstances and in various settings, but it always boils down to good vs. evil.

This sort of antagonist is often a government or society rather than one person. In the Hunger Games, the antagonist is evil, but rather than a single person, it’s the government. We see it again in Fahrenheit 451. Again in The Acolyte by Nick Cutter. We like to see the story play out of one brave hero against a government body or reigning establishment. We like to cheer for the virtuous little guy.

protagonist vs. antagonist

Complex Characters

Complex characters can be protagonists or antagonists, or both in some stories. This occurs when important characters have complicated motivations or morals. For example, the good guy is also a thief (Aladdin), or the bad guy is also a good friend (Charles Jacobs in Revival). Any character in your book or story can be complex, but your protagonist and antagonist have to be made to stand out distinctly, more than any other character.

This trope works well when there are multiple protagonists or antagonists, and some of them switch sides in the story. This happens most often when there are a lot of characters in the work. For example, there are dozens of characters in The Stand, and they must each choose the side of good or evil.

Characters like Nadine Cross and Harold Lauder start out as members of a group of protagonists but switch sides halfway through and become antagonists. While neither of them is the book’s chief character, they are significant enough that their switch from good to evil impacts the plot and the other characters.

There often has to be some complexity to a character, especially an antagonist. A completely evil antagonist is bland. We have to have some sort of halfway redeeming quality or explanation as to why the character sees the world in the grim light that they do. 

One of the only times there doesn’t need to be complexity present for an antagonist is when the antagonist isn’t just one person but a set of group villains, such as a government. There doesn’t have to be a humanizing factor when it comes to a government.

Protagonist vs. Antagonist Examples

The best examples of protagonist vs. antagonist in literature or film are when the struggle between the two types of characters creates conflict that moves the story toward the climax. Star Wars is one famous example. Luke Skywalker and his group of friends certainly have more than one personality flaw, but they’re still trying their best to do the right thing and take down the evil Darth Vader and his stormtroopers, who are villains set on the destruction of entire planets.

Creating conflict is the point of the whole struggle between characters, and a strong protagonist is necessary so as not to buckle under the pressure, violence, and cunning of a morally inept adversary. The main protagonist has to be a strong protagonist. Otherwise, the antagonist will win, and that’s rarely something that a reader wants to encounter in a book they have emotionally invested in.

There can be a direct conflict, such as the lightsaber fight between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, or there can be symbolic conflict, such as Katniss rebelling against the Capitol in Hunger Games. When a protagonist goes after the government or other ruling body, there is very rarely direct conflict. The main point is that the conflict has to hold the reader’s interest.

Think of your favorite protagonist and what sort of conflict they engaged in that best held your interest. What sort of protagonist was this person? What sort of antagonist were they up against? Knowing what sorts of protagonist vs. antagonist situations you most like to read can help you decide what sorts of conflicts you might most like to write about.

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