As uniquely relatable and individualistic as your favorites may seem, fictional characters fall into distinct archetypes repeated throughout the world’s literature. We’ve all fallen for the charming stranger, cheered on the plucky sidekick, and wished awful things for the violent henchman. There are dozens of supporting character archetypes that can be used to flesh out your cast, but their roles are inconsequential without a protagonist and antagonist.
The protagonist and antagonist are the driving forces of a story because they create conflict—the necessary ingredient that keeps readers reading. Most of us think of these dueling forces in stark terms, such as good and evil. But that thinking is limited.
Personally, I prefer to focus on their roles within the story. Every tale has a goal. The protagonist pursues the goal (pro the goal), and the antagonist opposes them (against the goal). This open-ended perspective allows for a more nuanced development of both characters’ behaviors, motivations, and worldviews.
It also expands the archetypes beyond just two people. Your protagonist role can be taken up by multiple or sequential characters, and the antagonist role can be taken up by a group or a force of nature. These nuances lead to a wide variety of protagonists and antagonists, from the selfless hero and the diabolical villain to the compassionate healer and the unyielding hurricane.
So if you’re in the midst of creating characters for your story, read on to learn more about the classic archetypes—and how you can push them beyond the classic binary of good versus evil.
What is a Protagonist?
While the term “protagonist” may conjure up images of a knight in shining armor, this character (or characters) can take many forms. Your protagonist might be a streetwise hustler, an underdog seeking to prove themselves, or a seemingly ordinary person thrust into extraordinary circumstances.
No matter who they are, one thing is always certain: they will be the main character that the story follows.
Again, you’re more than welcome to throw out the rulebook here and get creative with who you want to center your story around. But if you’d like some guidelines, here are the typical types of protagonists found in literature:
- The Hero: A singular brave and likable character who’s willing to face whatever obstacles head-on. Like Tarzan and Frodo Baggins, these protagonists (while obviously flawed) are easy to root for.
- The Group Heroes: A collective group of people who are all fighting for the same result. Think of the crew of The Avengers and the kiddos in Stranger Things.
- The False Protagonist: A character who presents as the protagonist in the beginning but then is killed off or replaced in the story, allowing the real protagonist to take the lead. A great example of this is Ned Stark in Game of Thrones.
- The Tragic Hero: A deeply flawed protagonist who often presents as the villain when they’re first introduced. But through their journey, we learn to sympathize and support them. Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby is a perfect example of this type of character.
- The Villain: Remember, protagonist does not equal hero. Sometimes, the person driving the story is a villain—like Tony Soprano of The Sopranos.
What is an Antagonist?
The antagonist is the counterpoint to the protagonist. They oppose the protagonist’s goals and are often pitted against them in some way—whether it be through physical conflict, psychological warfare, or even just a difference of opinion. And they come in a variety of flavors.
- The Villain: Like the hero, this archetype falls into the classic binary of good versus evil. Disney characters like Cruella de Vil and Scar represent this type of antagonist well.
- The Group Villians: Again, there’s no limit to how many people can be on the opposing side. Sometimes the protagonist must take on a group of antagonists—such as the HYDRA organization in Marvel’s The Avengers.
- The Tragic Hero: Often a very flawed character in opposition to the protagonist who causes a lot of destruction by not realizing their own limitations. Much like Darth Vader in Star Wars, these characters can be sympathetic and complex.
- The False Antagonist: A character the author has the reader believing is the true antagonist of the story—until it’s revealed that they’re not working against our main character at all. Think Professor Snape in the Harry Potter series.
- Self: Sometimes, the antagonist and protagonist can be one and the same. The character’s inner turmoil can become the biggest obstacle they must overcome. Examples of this include Norman Bates and, of course, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
- The Force of Nature: A natural (or supernatural) phenomenon that the protagonist must confront and overcome. It can be anything from a storm or an asteroid to a disease or even advances in technology.
How the Protagonist and Antagonist Work Together
Now that we’ve looked at the different types of protagonists and antagonists, let’s briefly explore how they interact.
An effective character arc depends on how the protagonist and antagonist react to one another. No matter what, the protagonist’s choices should be in direct opposition to those of the antagonist. This is what gives the story tension and keeps the readers engaged.
Most tales fall within three different arcs: positive, negative, and flat. Positive focuses on changing an overarching lie that your protagonist believes. This lie perpetuates the conflict between your protagonist and antagonist until the lie is broken and a new truth is revealed. Negative arcs also focus on the lie, but in this case, the protagonist never discovers the truth and instead ends up destroying themselves—no happy endings here.
Alternatively, a flat arc involves a protagonist who doesn’t change and already has their truth figured out from the start of the story. They use that truth to overcome obstacles and save others.
Character arcs are broken down into multiple acts. The number of acts included, and the order in which they appear will depend on the type of arc you’re aiming for. But there’s a common belief amongst authors that Act 2 belongs to the antagonist. While you usually start your story off with the protagonist’s journey, the second act is typically dedicated to exploring the antagonist’s motivations.
There’s a lot to cover when it comes to how your protagonists and antagonists interact. So if you want to dive deeper click these links for more about characters, character arcs, and journey archetypes.
Struggling to Create Your Characters?
Creating compelling protagonists and antagonists can be tricky. If you need help developing your story and crafting your character arcs, check out my book coaching services. From talking through plotlines to exploring character dynamics, we’ll work together to create a story that resonates with your readers.