What Is an Antagonist in Fiction Writing?

Dracula in the forest

Getty Images/Jay P. Morgan

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

To understand the role of an antagonist in fiction, think of the classic structure of an old western. The story's hero, wearing a white hat, is the protagonist. He is seeking to do good for the townspeople or villagers in some way. Standing between him and achieving that good, though, is the story's villain, wearing a black hat. He is the antagonist, and the protagonist must defeat him in order to complete whatever good deed is his task at hand.

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 and even when readers can raise questions about whether a character is really an antagonist at all.

Role Reversal

Count Dracula is one of the most iconic villains in English literature, and he certainly fits the classic definition of an antagonist. Jonathan Harker intends to marry Mina Murray, but the mysterious vampire Dracula travels to London and uses his charm to seduce Mina. To rescue Mina, Harker and his friends — Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, Dr. John Seward, Arthur Holmwood, and Quincey Morris — must hunt down and kill Dracula.

That seems pretty straightforward, except in Bram Stoker's classic novel, "Dracula," the antagonist drives the story and sets events in motion. Dracula's purchase of property in London prompts Harker's visit to Transylvania, and Dracula's desire to move to London and establish himself there drives the rest of the story. His targeting of Mina's friend Lucy Westenra motivates the others to respond and thwart Dracula's efforts. In this example, an argument can be made that the antagonist and his objectives are driving the story, and the protagonist and his friends are putting obstacles in place to try and thwart the antagonist's efforts.

Whether that interpretation of roles holds water is less important than the way Stoker gives his antagonist enough depth of character to allow readers to ask the question and explore its possibilities.

More Than One

In Margaret Atwood's dystopian "The Handmaid's Tale," protagonist Offred is confronted by multiple antagonists who make up the nation of Gilead. As a handmaid, Offred serves the commander and his wife, Serena Joy, and Offred's job is to help them produce offspring. The commander and his wife certainly are antagonists, as is Aunt Lydia, who helps run a re-education center where Offred was sent to be indoctrinated in preparation for her role as a handmaid.

Even Nick, a guardian of Gilead who Offred befriends, and Ofglen, a fellow handmaid, can be viewed as antagonists in the sense that Offred never can be sure whether she can trust them. In fact, there are almost no characters she encounters whom she can trust completely because she never knows what secret motives they might have. This secrecy and distrust, one could argue, is the real antagonist in the story, and the characters who stand between Offred and her freedom are simply representatives of that secrecy and mistrust.

Playing Both Sides

Like Dracula nearly a century before him, Thomas Harris' Hannibal Lecter has become an iconic villain, but is he a true antagonist? Introduced in the novels "Red Dragon" and "The Silence of the Lambs," Lecter plays a similar role in both stories. He assists the protagonists in stopping the stories' real antagonists. In the case of "Red Dragon," Lecter's insight helps FBI agent Will Graham track down a serial killer known as the Tooth Fairy. In "The Silence of the Lambs," he helps FBI trainee Clarice Starling track down another serial killer known as Buffalo Bill.

For as evil, manipulative, and self-serving as Lecter is, arguably neither Graham nor Starling would have succeeded without his help. In that sense, his counsel is an important tool for the stories' protagonists. However, Lecter has his own motives, and he secretly communicates with the Tooth Fairy behind Graham's back. In the case of Buffalo Bill, he knows more about the killer than he is willing to share, using his knowledge as a bargaining tool in his dealings with Starling and to set events in motion that create an opening for his escape.