There are some terms in the literature that are hard to define. For example, the term antagonist can represent an evil character bent on sowing destruction. Or, the antagonist could be someone just doing their job but who happens to get in the way of the protagonist. Then again, the antagonist may not be a character at all. Rather the antagonist can be a hurricane or a bad case of food poisoning. Today we are answering the question: What is an antagonist in a story? We’ll also examine some examples and discuss how to write a compelling antagonist.
In literature, an antagonist is a character or force that opposes the protagonist or main character. The antagonist may be directly opposed to the protagonist, such as an enemy or a rival. Alternatively, the antagonist may be a more abstract force, such as society or nature.
The role of an antagonist in a story
Conflict plays a crucial role in most western stories, and the antagonist is the source of most conflict. In short, the antagonist is the thing or person that stops the protagonist from instantly achieving their goal.
Let’s talk about how the antagonist affects different plot points and elements of a story.
The Antagonist and Rising Action
The rising action is a period after the inciting event when the character takes several measures to solve their conflict but fails each time. Each new act the character takes is more desperate or intense.
The story’s main antagonist may not appear very often during the rising action, especially if the antagonist is a person rather than a natural force. The main antagonist may work behind the scenes to thwart the hero or might not be aware of the hero yet.
Instead, the protagonist will face off against several minor antagonists or bad guys during the rising action. These antagonist forces could work for the main villain or have their own agenda and motivation.
At this point in the story, the hero is not skilled or strong enough to face off against their main antagonist, whether that enemy is a person or a force of nature. You will only get glimpses of the main antagonist during this part of the story.
The Antagonist and the Midpoint Climax
The end of the rising action is usually where our protagonist and antagonist first meet. This midpoint is typically disastrous for the protagonist as they still do not possess the skills, strength, or willpower to overcome their primary antagonist.
The midpoint is where an antagonist or antagonistic force gets to shine. This climax is where the bad guy wins. At the midpoint, the killer shark eats the boat, the Nazis find the Ark, or the space Nazis freeze your best pal in carbonite.
The Antagonist and the Final Climax
This climax doesn’t go so well for your antagonist. This beat is the point in the story where the antagonist is beaten or finally overcome. But, they don’t go down without a fight. In fact, it will seem like the antagonist has defeated the story’s hero throughout most of the final act.
But, the hero overcomes in the end. We won’t talk about that here, but if you’d like to read more about plot structure and how a hero overcomes their demons, check out this article.
The Antagonist and Suspense
A good antagonist helps create suspense in a story by posing a threat to the protagonist—the more dangerous the threat, the greater the tension. An antagonist can also create uncertainty by playing on the protagonist’s fears or preventing the protagonist from achieving their goals. In addition, an antagonist can be used to heighten tension by creating obstacles for the protagonist to overcome. By doing so, an antagonist creates suspense and keeps readers engaged in the story.
Now let’s look at some examples of antagonists.
Antagonists in literature:
Who is the Antagonist in Lord of the Flies?
Jack Merridew is the main antagonist in the novel Lord of the Flies, written by William Golding. In the book, a group of schoolboys are stranded on a deserted island and must fend for themselves. Jack is the leader of the boys and represents the instinct of savagery. He is ruthless, and his only goal is to hunt and kill.
Throughout the novel, Jack degenerates into a barbaric state, and his actions become increasingly violent. In the end, he and Roger kill Piggy in cold blood and lead the charge to murder Ralph. Jack is a complex character, and his story is a cautionary tale about the dark side of human nature.
Jack as Ralph’s antagonist:
Ralph is the protagonist of the novel. He aims to survive and build a cooperative society among the stranded boys. Ralph’s ultimate goal is to escape the island. Jack challenges Ralph’s leadership and eventually takes control of the island. Jack is not interested in rescue as he enjoys the power and authority he can exert over the other boys. This lust for power motivates Jack to kill Piggy and attempt to kill Ralph as they are both threats to his leadership.
Who is the antagonist in Pride and Prejudice?
George Wickham is a central character in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. He is first introduced to the reader as a dashing young gentleman who quickly catches the eye of protagonist Elizabeth Bennet. However, it soon becomes clear that Wickham is not all he seems. He is a natural charmer with a gift for manipulating people, which he uses to his advantage.
He is also dishonest and lazy and has a knack for getting into debt. As the story progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Wickham is a bad apple. Nonetheless, he remains an intriguing character, and his interactions with Elizabeth are some of the most entertaining in the novel.
Mr. Wickham as Elizabeth’s antagonist:
Elizabeth’s goal is to marry for love rather than money or security. Mr. Darcy is an ideal match for Elizabeth; however, he is also a rival of George Wickham. Wickham lies to Elizabeth, telling her that Mr. Darcy has mistreated him. This lie causes Elizabeth to harbor an unfair hatred for Mr. Darcy.
Antagonists in film
Who is the antagonist in Encanto?
Seventy-five-year-old Alma is the matriarch of the Madrigal family, and her candle is the source of Encanto’s magic in the film. Fifty years before the film’s events, Alma married Pedro and had three children, Julieta, Pepa, and Bruno. When bandits attack Alma’s village, she is forced to flee with her family. However, the bandits catch up with Alma, and she witnesses the murder of her husband, Pedro. Alma prays for a miracle, and through magic, she creates Encanto, a place where she and her family can live in peace and safety.
Alma is a kind, loving mother; however, she is preoccupied with her family’s reputation and wants to keep a perfect image. She also seems disappointed that her granddaughter, Maribel, does not possess a gift like the rest of her family. This disappointment causes Alma to alienate Maribel, the film’s protagonist.
Alma as Maribel’s antagonist:
Maribel’s goal in the film is to save the miracle of Encanto. However, Alma blames the family’s problems on Maribel. Maribel tries to explain that many family members, such as Luisa and Bruno, aren’t happy due to the impossible expectations Alma holds. Alma doesn’t listen and blames Maribel for the house cracking and the magic fading.
Antagonists in TV
Who is the antagonist in Stranger Things
Vecna (or Henry Creel)
Each season of Stranger Things has had its minor villains, such as the Demogorgon of season one, and Martin Brenner has played a significant antagonist throughout the series. However, as the series builds to its finale Henry Creel also known as Vecna, has emerged as a primary antagonist for protagonist Eleven.
Vecna as Eleven’s antagonist:
Henry Creel and Eleven share a backstory and a mysterious form of telekinesis. Both were kidnapped by a shadowy government organization and experimented on by Dr. Martin Brenner or “Papa.” However, Creel was disturbed long before he met Brenner. Creel used his powers as a boy to torture and murdered his family. As a child, Eleven overpowered Creel and sent him to the Upside Down, where he became the creature Vecna. Now, Vecna seeks revenge on Eleven and all of her friends.
How to find the antagonist in a story
To find the antagonist in a story, look for the character or force creating conflict for the protagonist. Consider what the protagonist wants and identify the character or power preventing them from achieving their goal.
The antagonist in a story is the character who stands in opposition to the protagonist or main character. In many cases, the antagonist is the villain, but this is not always the case. The antagonist can be a force of nature, such as a hurricane or an earthquake.
In some stories, the antagonist is society, like in the novels 1984 or The Hunger Games. Sometimes the antagonist is a character with a different perspective who conflicts with the protagonist.
In some cases, there may be more than one antagonist. For example, in a story about a woman trying to start her own business, she may face gender discrimination and a challenging market. Identifying the antagonist can help you understand the story and its themes more deeply.
Antagonist vs. Protagonist
Most stories have some conflict; at the center of that conflict is usually a protagonist and an antagonist. But what exactly is the difference between these two terms? A protagonist is the main character in a story, the one who is trying to achieve a goal. On the other hand, an antagonist is a character or force trying to prevent the protagonist from achieving their goal.
In many cases, the antagonist is simply a foil for the protagonist, someone for them to struggle against. However, an antagonist can also be more nuanced, serving as a mirror for the protagonist and forcing them to confront their flaws.
Whether simple or complex, antagonists are essential for creating dramatic tension in a story. Without them, there would be no conflict, and no one wants to read a story about someone who sails smoothly through life without any challenges.
How to write an antagonist in four steps:
Want to start brainstorming an antagonist for your own story? Start with these four simple steps:
1. Make them realistic & grounded
In modern stories, there’s nothing worst than a mustache-twirling villain. Antagonists shouldn’t be evil just for the sake of being evil. Most antagonists shouldn’t be evil at all. A good antagonist is a character who is just as real and fleshed out as your hero.
These characters have goals that are in opposition to your hero’s. Now, sure, those goals could make a character evil. A character like Thanos, who wants to wipe out half the living creatures in the universe, is evil, but he has a goal. Thanos does not think he’s the villain. A good antagonist either believes they are morally right or their ends justify the means.
Or, your antagonist could be a force like a hurricane. In that case, the power needs to be believable and consistent with the world you’ve built.
2.Give your antagonist a goal.
Part of what makes an antagonist believable is that they will have a clear goal, apart from being evil or wanting to kill your hero. A good villain thinks they are the story’s hero and that the protagonist is just another obstacle in their way.
To make an antagonist even more interesting, give them a goal that makes sense, at least on the surface level.
Going back to our example of Thanos, his goal is reasonable. He wants to create more resources for life in the universe to thrive. It’s not Thanos’s goal that is unreasonable, but it’s his means, mass murder, that makes him a villain.
3. Make your antagonist the perfect foil.
A character foil is a person whose personality contrasts with the protagonist. If the hero of your story is strong and brave, then their foil is sniveling and weak. A character foil doesn’t always have to be an antagonist, but an antagonist who is strong where your hero is weak is a compelling threat.
The reverse scenario is also true because the antagonist can be born out of weakness. In Batman: Forever (that’s right, I’m using Batman: Forever as an example), Bruce Wayne is threatened by Edward Nigma, a.k.a The Riddler. Bruce Wayne is wealthy, confident, and successful while Edward is a working scientist who is bullied by his supervisor and suffers from an inferiority complex.
However, Edward’s jealousy of Bruce makes him the perfect foil and antagonist for the caped crusader. This transformation happens as Edward is rejected by Bruce and finds confidence in embracing his most destructive tendencies.
Foil antagonists are effective, but there is another option.
4. Make the antagonist exactly like the protagonist.
Sometimes it’s interesting to make an antagonist comparable to the hero in almost every way. Sometimes the only difference between the hero and the villain is their reaction to a traumatizing event. Sometimes your hero is just one bad day from becoming a villain. Except, a true hero will almost always make the right choice.
Let’s discuss an example of an antagonist who is very similar to the heroic counterpart from The Dark Knight (I only watch Batman movies). Again we have Bruce Wayne as the protagonist- successful, handsome, fights crime, blah blah blah. But, this time, we have a new antagonist named Harvey Dent. Dent is successful, handsome, and fights crime.
What’s the difference between these two heroes? The difference is their reaction to a single traumatic event.
Bruce and Harvey are both in love with Rachel Dawes. The two hero’s paths diverge when the Joker kills Rachel in an explosion. Bruce recommits to his life as Batman and vows to stop Joker at any cost. On the other hand, Harvey embraces his hate and inner turmoils and embarks on a bloody path of revenge.
The difference between an antagonist and a villain
In literature, there is often a fine line between an antagonist and a villain. An antagonist is typically a character who opposes the protagonist or main character. This opposition can be either physical or mental.
On the other hand, a villain is generally considered to be an evil figure. Villains often have malicious intent and use underhanded methods to achieve their goals. In some cases, an antagonist may also be considered a villain.
However, it is more common for an antagonist to simply be a character who stands in the way of the protagonist without necessarily being evil. Whether a character is classified as antagonist or villain often depends on the interpretation of the reader or viewer.
Antagonist is an interchangeable term with many others- most notably villain or bad guy. Here is a list of antagonist synonyms pulled from thesaurus.com.
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