Updated: Mar 27, 2020
What is an antagonist?
To some writers, that’s a stupid, stupid question. Because everyone knows what an antagonist is.
It’s the bad guy.
In a thriller, it’s going to be something along the lines of a border-crossing drug smuggler. In a romance, it’s the lecherous fiend intent on getting his evil clutches on the damsel in distress. And in a fantasy piece, take your pick of any mythical or otherwise made-up monster you want to.
The antagonist is everything the main character wants to stop or avoid: what he, she or it never wants to give control to. We’re talking evil incarnate here.
Unless, that is, we’re not.
Because, really, we don’t have to be. There’s a lot more than meets the eye – if you want there to be.
When you’re trying to define what a protagonist is, start out by setting fiction aside altogether. Think about real life instead, specifically in regard to how many all-out evil-incarnate kinds of people you’ve met in your lifetime.
I think I’ve met maybe four or five.
But other than that, I would say that most non-likable individuals I’ve interacted with tend to fall into the “temporary annoyance” category. That even includes the one person I ever truly wanted dead: my old volleyball coach.
He was hurtful and spiteful, a self-righteous male chauvinist pig at the time. But I wouldn’t call him evil incarnate. I don’t think I would have even as an understandably outraged 15-year-old.
Yet if I ever typed that story out, he would be the obvious antagonist regardless of how mundane the details were when put them into black and white.
For the record, my point in saying all of that isn’t to bash my old volleyball coach. It’s to establish how antagonists can come in varying shapes and sizes.
In the story-writing world, it can make them much more interesting that way.
Admittedly, I have lived a very privileged life. Also admittedly, fiction isn’t reality, privileged or otherwise.
It does, however, have to be based on reality if it’s going to resonate with readers… even when it comes to writing out the so-called bad guys.
You normally know this character as “the bad guy” that comes complete with Jaws or Darth Vader theme music, right along with beasties out for your blood or the iron, force-wielding fists of tyrannical order.
But really, an antagonist is simply anyone or anything that gets in a protagonist’s way of reaching a given goal. Usually, yes, he, she or it will fall somewhere in the unlikable to outright evil range of possibilities. However, there’s no real lid on the “bad guy” box. Think of it more as an open box in a rather spacious room.
That spacious room allows for stereotypical villains who are, in fact, evil incarnate. They start out disgustingly malicious and they end the same way.
But it also leaves space for antagonists who:
Are evil but redeemable, as proven by the story’s conclusion
Turn out to be allies through a twist in circumstances or mistaken identity
Represent the kind of sad flaws we “normal” humans display – nothing criminally bad but unkind all the same
Aren’t bad guys at all since the protagonist is actually a shady character
Are bad guys, but so is the protagonist.
An antagonist can also be a force of nature or that little voice of doubt in the back of the protagonist’s head saying, “You can’t do this. Why do you even bother trying?”
There’s so many ways you can take an antagonist when you really let one loose. So much so that it might end up surprising you.
Editor’s Note: Read the next post on antagonists here.