what is an antagonist

What is an Antagonist? Definition & Examples

Because most stories involve conflict, most stories also involve an antagonist. Your protagonist—the main character—will struggle to achieve something important to them, and the antagonist will further complicate this struggle. Knowing who is the antagonist of your story, as well as what motivates them, will greatly improve your fiction, nonfiction, and storytelling.

Even if your story only has one character, that character will likely still face an antagonist. So, what is an antagonist? Let’s define it accordingly, looking at antagonist examples, the difference between the protagonist vs antagonist, and exactly what is the function of an antagonist in a story.

Antagonist Definition

Most broadly, the antagonist of a story is the person, group, force, or idea that opposes the interests of the protagonist.

Antagonist definition: the antagonist of a story is the person, group, force, or idea that opposes the interests of the protagonist.

Sometimes, the antagonist is a passive threat, like a boulder sitting in the road; far more often, the antagonist actively stands in the way of the protagonist’s interests.

Because protagonist and antagonist are antonyms, it’s easy to assume that the antagonist is the exact opposite of the protagonist. In some cases this is true: if the protagonist represents the forces of goodness and justice, the antagonist might represent forces of evil and injustice.

However, the real world doesn’t operate on clean-cut binaries, and neither does the feud between protagonist vs antagonist. Many stories juxtapose characters that bear many of the same traits, but have different or opposite motivations, resulting in the conflicts between protagonist and antagonist.

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What is the Function of an Antagonist in a Story?

The primary function of an antagonist is to complicate the protagonist’s journey. Whatever the protagonist desires, it will not be easy for them to achieve that desire, particularly because the antagonist stands in the way.

Whatever the protagonist desires, it will not be easy for them to achieve that desire, because the antagonist stands in the way.

This protagonist vs antagonist conflict helps generate meaningful themes in the story, because themes often represent broader challenges and human experiences.

So, who is the antagonist? It’s not just a who—it can also be a what or a where. Let’s look at some antagonist examples in literature.

Antagonist Examples: Antagonists in 6 Real Stories

Regardless of their backstories, the protagonist and antagonist each have opposing motivations and characteristics. So, even if you haven’t read the stories below, we’ve detailed the desires and traits for each character or entity, mapping out the conflict that shapes the broader story.

Here are antagonist examples in 6 different pieces of literature.

1. Sexism and Society in The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Protagonist: Offred, a handmaid to Commander Fred, a high ranking official in the dystopian republic of Gilead.

Antagonists: The Handmaid’s Tale has countless opposing forces. While Offred’s main opposition is Fred (her Commander) and Fred’s wife Serena Joy, Gilead’s society has been structured to oppose any woman who tries to escape the republic.

Conflict: Offred is a handmaid in the new republic of Gilead (formerly the United States). Gilead’s society forces handmaids into non-consensual intercourse with their Commanders as a way of resolving the low childbirth rates that plague the nation. Offred, forced to be a handmaid and separated from her own child pre-Gilead, resolves to survive and escape Gilead, despite society’s interest in her as one of the few reproductively viable women in its population.

Fortunately for her opponents, Offred has no means of escape. In Gilead, anyone could be a spy, a soldier, or a zealot, making it near-impossible to trust anyone, much less escape across the Canadian border.

Themes: In addition to the novel’s core themes of gender and society, it also discusses themes of religion, power & corruption, and the environment.

2. The Children in “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury

Read “All Summer in a Day” here.

Protagonist: Margot, a child who claims to remember what the Sun felt like before she moved to Venus.

Antagonists: William and the other children, none of whom can remember the Sun before living on Venus. These children envy Margot’s memory of the Sun, and bully her with the regularity of Venus’ rain.

Conflict: The Sun comes out once every seven years, and only for an hour. Despite being quiet and unassuming, Margot is frequently bullied by her schoolmates, who lock her in a closet right before the Sun comes out. Every child is desperate to see the Sun.

Themes: “All Summer in a Day” has themes of childhood, loneliness, and the experience of being an outsider.

3. The Ghost in Beloved by Toni Morrison

Protagonist: Sethe, a formerly enslaved woman in 1870’s Cincinnati.

Antagonist: Beloved, the ghost of Sethe’s eldest daughter, whom Sethe killed because she did not want her child to return to slavery. Beloved returns to Sethe’s home as an angry ghost before materializing as Sethe’s daughter. In a way, slavery is the actual antagonist of the novel, since all of its conflicts arise from the repercussions of the slave trade and the Civil War.

Conflict: Beloved demands Sethe’s infinite love and attention, to the point that Sethe loses her job and grows hungry just to keep Beloved satisfied. Sethe, in turn, wants to love Beloved so deeply that it might make up for having to kill her. This conflict comes at the expense of Denver, another of Sethe’s children, and the family that Sethe had tried so hard to unite.

Themes: Beloved covers themes of slavery, family, and mother-daughter relationships.

4. Reverse Aging in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Read “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” here.

Protagonist: Benjamin Button, the son of a hardware store owner who is born as a 70 year old man, and grows younger with time.

Antagonist: Benjamin Button’s primary foe is his own reverse aging, which is a rather abstract antagonist. What does “reverse aging” want? How do you stop it? (Like normal aging, it cannot be stopped.)

Conflict: Like all characters, Benjamin has no choice but to accept his mortality, but his reverse aging frequently causes problems in his life. Benjamin goes through divorces, gets rejected from colleges, and grows too weak to participate in sports. Additionally, Benjamin does not get the typical childhood he deserves, nor does he follow a life path that fosters lifelong relationships.

Themes: In addition to being a sort of reverse bildungsroman, this story has themes of family, relationships, and man’s own mortality.

5. Sykes in “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston

Read “Sweat” here. 

Protagonist: Delia Jones, a wash-woman in Florida. Delia lives life like clockwork and has an extreme fear of snakes.

Antagonist: Sykes, Delia’s abusive husband. Sykes works little and philanders a lot, preferring fat women to his own skinny wife.

Conflict: Delia wants a safe home and a clockwork life, working regular hours and going to church on Sundays. Sykes wants a wife who does all the work like Delia, but is also fat and beautiful. Sykes frequently tries to upset Delia, one day bringing home a six foot rattlesnake to mortify her. Delia, understandably, wants Sykes to no longer live with her.

Themes: “Sweat” raises themes of relationships, fear, and justice.

6. Racism in “Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu

Read “Paper Menagerie” here.

Protagonist: Jack, the son of a white father and Chinese mother. Jack’s mother has the ability to breathe life into origami animals.

Antagonist: There is no single antagonist in “Paper Menagerie,” but all of Jack’s problems stem from anti-Asian racism.

Conflict: Jack grows up loving his mother and her culture, until he experiences the everyday racism of smalltown America. His peers laugh at his origami toys for being made from trash, his neighbors comment on how “Chinesey” he looks and sounds, and he starts to encounter racial slurs against Asian Americans. Jack quickly turns on his mother and her heritage, blaming her for his inability to fit in.

Themes: “Paper Menagerie” follows themes of childhood, racism, and family.

Protagonist vs. Antagonist: 5 Tips for Generating Meaningful Conflicts

In each of the above antagonist examples, the protagonist seems unable to overcome the obstacles presented by the antagonist. What makes each opponent work for the story, and how do they generate meaningful conflicts?

To generate meaningful antagonist examples and create great conflict between your protagonist and antagonist, follow this 5 step process.

1. Identify Your Protagonist’s Needs, Desires, and Motives

Like people in real life, your protagonist has needs, desires, and motives. Those motives will shape the core of your story, including its main plot points and conflicts.

Your protagonist’s motives can be both abstract or concrete. A concrete motive might be every person’s basic needs: food, water, shelter, etc. It can also be a physical object: your protagonist might desire a million dollar Swarovski watch.

Abstract needs might be concepts like love, companionship, self-acceptance, fitting in, believing in God, forming a life philosophy, etc.

Again, these needs form the crux of your story’s narrative and your character’s own journey, so spend time formulating exactly what it is that motivates your protagonist.

2. Consider Your Protagonist’s Place in Society

Another important consideration is your protagonist’s place in society. This will help you formulate the protagonist’s needs and the adversity they will likely encounter.

Place in society matters to each of the protagonists in the above antagonist examples. Offred’s identity as a woman affects her ability to navigate Gilead; Benjamin Button’s identity as the son of a wealthy businessman affects his life trajectory, giving him a clear path that, like any upper-echelon child, he must follow.

When your protagonist’s place in society is clear, it will be much easier to formulate strong antagonist characters, because that antagonist will try to derail the journey your protagonist is on.

3. Think About Obstacles Your Protagonist Might Face

Your antagonist will be a reaction to your protagonist’s motivations and place in society. In other words, your protagonist should inform the obstacles they face.

Your antagonist will be a reaction to your protagonist’s motivations and place in society.

Consider Delia in Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat.” Delia wants a stable, clockwork life. A good antagonist for her will disrupt that clockwork life she works for.

Here enters Sykes, an abusive husband. As a man in the early 20th century, Sykes has both physical and legal power over Delia; as a man who hates his wife, Sykes uses those powers against her. Delia, a black woman, can only fight back with words, since she lacks the physical strength to counter Sykes, and can’t seek protection from the law.

Thus, Sykes disrupts Delia’s clockwork life, and Delia is on her own to find safety and refuge. For Delia, an abusive husband is the perfect obstacle to the life she wants to live.

4. Embody Those Obstacles in An Antagonist

Once you’ve identified the kinds of obstacles that will upset your protagonist’s journey, embody them in an antagonist.

Now remember, your antagonist also has motives, desires, and weaknesses (assuming they’re a person or living thing). It’s important for those motives to oppose the motives of your protagonist, because your protagonist is also standing in the way of your antagonist’s needs.

To pull again from “Sweat,” Delia wants a clockwork life, and Sykes wants a fat woman to be his wife. The story explicitly states that Sykes settled for Delia because he couldn’t find a fat woman to marry him. Even though he philanders with other women, Sykes is unable to find one to marry, and those frustrations are then taken out on Delia, who is everything Sykes wants but skinny.

In most cases, the protagonist also creates obstacles for the antagonist. If your antagonist is not a living thing—the sea, for example—then make sure that it still stands in the way of your protagonist’s needs.

5. Tie the Antagonist to a Broader Theme

Your antagonist, and the conflicts they generate with your protagonist, can lend themselves to broader themes and ideas.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, the story’s antagonists are primarily Commander Fred and Serena Joy. However, society at large also stands in the way of Offred. Trapped in a sexist society that condones ownership and assault of the female body, Offred has few friends and no clear escape. Each antagonist lends itself to the themes of sexism and the abuse of power, which make Gilead an inescapable hell.

Alternately: Craft the Antagonist and Work Backwards

In the above step-by-step guide, antagonist characters are developed as reactions to the protagonist. If you’re struggling to come up with a good protagonist for your story, try moving backwards!

Start by developing your story’s antagonist, giving great consideration to their motives and the themes they might represent. Then, develop a protagonist with conflicting motives and desires.

Through this five step process, you’re sure to create great drama between the protagonist and antagonist. However, to make this conflict truly convincing, you also need to consider the traits of your antagonist character. Here are some common traits that will make your antagonist more powerful and convincing.

Common Antagonist Characteristics

The following antagonist characteristics help create conflict and tension between the protagonist and antagonist.

Many antagonists are:

  • Highly motivated: They have their own goals, desires, needs, dreams, and hopes. Additionally, they’ll do anything they can to achieve those desires.
  • Stubborn: What is an antagonist if not stubborn? They won’t just give in to the protagonist’s wishes—they’ll put up a fight, since their own desires stand in opposition to the protagonist’s desires.
  • Adaptable: They will experience some sort of pushback from the protagonist, and they won’t achieve their own goals easily. Nonetheless, the antagonist will put up a fight, adjust to their surroundings, and come up with new ways to thwart the protagonist.
  • Relatably flawed: Most antagonists are human, and all of them are imperfect. A perfect antagonist would be impossible to thwart, and besides, the best ones are relatable to the reader. We should be able to understand their flaws, recognizing their humanness above all else. (This may not apply if your antagonist isn’t human, but the best ones are usually flawed, no matter their biology.)
  • Convinced they’re the protagonist: Everyone is the main character in their own lives, and that includes the protagonist and antagonist of your work. Unless you’re writing about supervillains, your antagonist doesn’t think that they’re particularly evil; and they likely think they’re the protagonist, and that your protagonist is actually the antagonist.

A common misconception is that the antagonist has to be evil, villainous, criminal, or deceptive. However, that’s not necessary to tell a great story. The antagonist can certainly be a well-intentioned, empathetic, caring individual. The sole defining characteristic of an antagonist is that they stand in opposition to the protagonist’s interest. They don’t even have to hate your protagonist—some of the best antagonists are loving, well-meaning individuals, who simply have conflicting motives.

Some of the best antagonists are loving, well-meaning individuals, who simply have conflicting motives

In fact, your protagonist can have evil, villainous, criminal, and deceptive traits! Neither character is inherently good or evil.

Things to Avoid When Crafting Antagonist Characters

While you have free range in crafting your antagonists, take precaution that you don’t end up with clichéd, stereotyped characters. In most stories, avoid the following tropes:

  • Evil Genius Supervillains: These characters are hardly relatable to the reader, even if they have tragic backstories and humble origins. If your story spans several books or fits within certain genre conventions, it may make sense to craft a character like this, but try to give them an interesting narrative that the reader can relate to.
  • Perfect Opponents: A character who wins every battle often creates monotonous conflict. There should be some back and forth: sometimes the protagonist wins a battle, sometimes the antagonist wins a battle, but neither should overpower the other. (This is assuming the antagonist is human: if your protagonist has a nonhuman opponent, they may be an obstacle for the protagonist to dodge or coexist with.)
  • Strangers: Depending on the plot, it might make sense for your protagonist to be unfamiliar with their opponent. But in most stories, it’s best that the antagonist has some established relationship with the protagonist, whether they’re family, a coworker, an ex, or even just a local barista with a bad attitude.
  • Stereotypes: Never assign racial, political, sexual, or gendered stereotypes to your characters, especially your antagonist. They might have certain beliefs or identities, but their role as an antagonist is based on their conflicting motives with the protagonist; their background should complement those motives, not define them.

Further Reading on Character Development

For more advice on crafting effective characters, take a look at these articles.

Craft Meaningful Antagonists at Writers.com

Are you ready to tell your story, you understand our antagonist definition, but you struggle to generate meaningful conflicts between your protagonist and antagonist? The classes at Writers.com can help! Take a look at our upcoming offerings in fiction and nonfiction, where you’ll learn how to craft great writing from the elements of storytelling.

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