“Let’s face it, characters are the bedrock of your fiction. Plot is just a series of actions that happen in a sequence, and without someone to either perpetrate or suffer the consequences of those actions, you have no one for your reader to root for, or wish bad things on.”
The forefront of any good story lies in the characters who enact it. Your characters might be good, evil, or somewhere in between; but there is no refuting the fact that there will be a couple of characters that drastically affect the way your plot unfolds – the protagonist vs antagonist.
These main characters will typically fall under one of two categories: the protagonist, and the antagonist. One of the biggest misconceptions is that the protagonist has to be the good guy, while the antagonist is forced to take the role of the story’s villain.
However, this is not always true.
Sure, there are many stories where the protagonist happens to be the main hero or heroine. Spongebob Squarepants is a famous example, albeit a silly one. Spongebob is the main character and the protagonist of most episodes, while Plankton is the antagonist. In many episodes, Plankton actively works to steal the Krabby Patty secret formula from the Krusty Krab and disrupt the peace of Bikini Bottom. The categorization here is clear.
But it isn’t always so simple.
In the movie Megamind, the villain is the main character and protagonist of the story. And, spoiler alert, he ends up becoming good by the end of the movie. But before this shift in personality, he actively does evil things such as kidnap Roxeanne Ritchie and fight against Metro Man. But Metro Man, despite being a stereotypical “Superman,” isn’t the protagonist of the story. This is Megamind’s journey, not Metro Man’s.
(If you want a more in-depth analysis of Megamind, check out Schaffrillas Productions on Youtube. His video Why Megamind is a Subversive Masterpiece goes more in-depth with characterization and with what I was just saying)
And to further debunk this common misconception, it is also possible that the antagonist is not a human force.
A strong example of this concept is in the show Girls Last Tour. The story focuses on two young girls who roam around in their post-apocalyptic society, which happens to be void of humans. There is no one actively fighting against their will to wander the land, or to survive. So who would be the antagonist in this story?
This leads us to the main six conflicts in literature. These are important because they set the stage for the type of problems your protagonist will be facing. Without one, or perhaps a combination of these forces, there will likely not be any drive for the reader to continue reading your story.
The six are:
- Man vs Self
- Man vs Man
- Man vs Society
- Man vs Nature
- Man vs Technology
- Man vs Supernatural
If one wanted to define the meaning behind “protagonist and antagonist” in simple terms, they could easily say: “The protagonist is the main character and the main force that is driving the plot forward. The antagonist, regardless of form, works against the protagonist and their goal.”
With these six conflicts in mind, it is very possible to consider the antagonist as a force of nature, or possibly the protagonist’s own mind. Depending on the story you want to create, it is possible to use more than one of these concepts at the same time.
The Hunger Games, for example, is a wonderful example of this idea. You could argue that the antagonist is President Snow. But looking at the bigger picture, are the citizens of the Capitol doing anything to stop the Games? No, because they enjoy them, and they’re living in the lap of luxury.
The true antagonist behind The Hunger Games is society itself.
Regardless of what form the antagonist takes, their impact on the story is important. If no one tries to act against the protagonist’s goal, then it might be too easy for them to achieve said goal. Or, in some cases, it could take away the purpose of the protagonist altogether.
Imagine What’s New, Scooby Doo? without any mysteries to solve, or Tom and Jerry without Tom.
The narratives simply wouldn’t be as riveting.
Going back to the film Megamind, this concept is actually addressed. When Metro Man disappears, or “dies,” Megamind is finally able to run free in the city and commit as many crimes as he wants to. But later, he reflects, that without a hero to stop him, there is no point in playing the “villain” role and that his purpose has been defeated.
This leads him to try and recreate his purpose in life by filling the void of Metro Man with another “hero.” This doesn’t quite work in the way that he hopes, but I digress.
The point is that, in certain cases, without the antagonist, the protagonist does not serve a purpose. It all depends on the story that you want to tell.
So, when you’re writing any type of story, what are the key things you need to know in order to create a good protagonist or antagonist?
If you don’t know where to start when creating your protagonist, think about it as if you are creating your main character.
Some questions to consider are: What does your protagonist want? What is their goal? How will they achieve this goal? What kind of person is your protagonist?
A character’s personality is a crucial factor in determining how they will get from point A to point B. For example, a reckless protagonist might jump into action and danger, while a cautious one might go to great lengths to avoid it.
The protagonist, (or in some cases protagonists), will act as the central being who moves the plot forward. So you want to make sure your protagonist will do just that. They need to be an important character in whatever setting you conjure.
Creating your antagonist might be a bit harder.
Try to think about your protagonist’s goal. What could possibly be a major force standing between your character and their goal?
Perhaps it’s another character with a relatable goal of their own, evil or not. Or maybe it’s the cruel society the protagonist was born into. Whatever entity your antagonist becomes, it is up to the writer to create one that makes sense for your story.
Once again using The Hunger Games as an example, it wouldn’t make much sense if we deemed characters such as Cato, Marvel, or Glimmer as the antagonists of the story. Although they pose a threat to Katniss as she enters the games, it was a situation that they were all forced into.
Someone had to be chosen (or volunteer) for the games, so in retrospect, it is more of society’s fault rather than the players’.
A good tip to keep in mind whilst creating your antagonist is to make them “defeatable.” It wouldn’t be a wise idea to create a video game with an impossible level, so you shouldn’t do the literary equivalent.
By creating an unbeatable antagonist, you are stopping the protagonist from moving the plot forward. Perhaps it is alright for the protagonist to grow stronger in order to defeat whatever forces are standing in their way, but what is the point if the reader can’t see all of that hard work pay off?
With this being said, let’s look at this from a protagonist standpoint. In order to conquer their antagonist counterpart, it is important for them to grow stronger throughout the story with proper character development.
It is alright to have a static (or unchanging) character as your protagonist, but it is usually better to use a dynamic one. Watching a character improve and conquer their battles can be rewarding for the readers, especially if they have been rooting for them for a while.
This definitely implies that there needs to be a “power balance” between your protagonist and your antagonist. Neither should be over or underpowered.
How interesting would Stranger Things be if the main cast could simply walk into the Upside Down, grab their missing friend Will, and waltz right out? Or to give another example, would Infinity War be as good if the Avengers were able to destroy Thanos in the first thirty minutes of the film?
Of course not!
The struggle between your protagonist vs antagonist will create most of the tension in your work. This rings true for not only writing but for film too. Of course, there are other ways to create tension in your writing.
However, your protagonist’s struggle to achieve their end goal will be the overarching focus of your plot. In most cases, your protagonist and antagonist will work to develop each others’ character. This can be true even if your antagonist isn’t human.
Society can play a major role in how a protagonist is raised as a child, especially in dystopian writing. Similarly, a key interaction between the protagonist and antagonist can serve as an opportune moment for character development on either end.
No matter what your protagonist and antagonist look like, there is no question that they will be two of the most important parts of your story. It is essential to craft them with the utmost thought and care before weaving them into whatever work you are trying to create.