What Is an Antagonist?

Definitions & Examples of an Atagonist

Dracula in the forest

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An antagonist, in a work of fiction, is a character or force that opposes a protagonist, the main character who often is the story's hero. An antagonist provides the story's conflict by creating an obstacle for a story's protagonist.

Here's what you need to know about antagonists to use them in your stories.

What Is an Antagonist?

Every story needs conflict, and a common source of this conflict is the antagonist. These characters add some type of conflict to the story. Typically, this conflict is in direct opposition to the story's protagonist, or hero.

While story villains are almost always the antagonist in direct conflict with the protagonist, not all antagonists are villains.

The tension and conflict imposed by antagonists can be subtle, such as by creating obstacles for the protagonists rather than opposing them directly, or by unwittingly hampering the hero's progress. In some stories, the antagonist may be a force of nature. The protagonist themself can become the antagonist when the story deals with an internal battle.

How Does an Antagonist Work?

To understand the role of an antagonist in fiction, think of the classic structure of an old western. The story's hero—or protagonist—rides through town, and the townspeople ask them for help. The town is being terrorized by a villain who takes what they want and threatens to kill anyone who stands in their way. That villain is the antagonist, and the terrorizing they do in the town creates the conflict that the hero can solve. The hero and villain battle each other, and when the hero prevails, the conflict has been resolved, the town has been saved, and the story comes to a satisfying close.

This obviously is a simplistic look at the roles of protagonists and antagonists, and good literature never is so simple. Stories are richer when readers can empathize with protagonists and antagonists alike. Some stories may even throw the reader's notion of the protagonist and antagonist on its head, and they can't tell who is good and who is evil.

Famous Examples of Antagonists

To better understand antagonists, it helps to analyze antagonists from famous stories.

In recent English literature, one of the most famous pairings of a protagonist and an antagonist is that of Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort in J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series. Lord Voldemort represents an evil force in Rowling's wizarding world that threatens both Harry's life and all good wizards and witches. All seven books in the series build to an ultimate battle between good and evil. Along the way, minor villains are introduced by Lord Voldemort to try to get Harry to stumble and fail. This creates tension that keeps the story moving and adds to the stakes of that final battle.

This dynamic is prevalent throughout all forms of storytelling. In the movie world, one of the most famous protagonist/antagonist combinations is that of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in the original "Star Wars" trilogy. Darth Vader threatens not just Luke and his friends, but all that is good in the galaxy. Vader has allies that attempt to thwart Luke with lesser battles—building tension and keeping the story moving until Luke's final fight with Vader.

A Complicated Antagonist

The examples above are fairly straightforward examples of an antagonist. They're villains that clearly oppose a hero. Not all antagonists are so simple. Any entity that introduces conflict and obstacles could be considered an antagonist.

A rivalry, for instance, may provide a protagonist/antagonist dynamic without necessarily making one entity "good" and the other "evil." There can be a healthy competition that drives the story and creates conflict without hinging on ideas of good vs. evil.

Similarly, forces of nature can become antagonists in stories. A sailor could struggle against a massive storm that threatens their life. The storm isn't "evil," but it serves to create conflict that the protagonist has to resolve.

Another fairly common antagonist that falls outside of the "villain" category is the protagonist themself. Stories can delve into issues of internal conflict, and in that case, the conflict comes from within the "hero" of the story. The character simultaneously creates and solves the conflict.

Key Takeaways

  • An antagonist is an entity in a story that creates tension that the protagonist must solve.
  • The most basic example of an antagonist is a classic villain like Darth Vader, which stands in direct opposition to a clear hero, like Luke Skywalker.
  • Antagonists can also be more complex—they may be forces of nature, and even the protagonist themself can create their own conflict.