At the heart of any great story is conflict. There has to be someone (or something) standing in our protagonist’s way in order to make the story interesting and push the protagonist into action. That person or force is known as the antagonist.
Some classic examples feature clear heroes and villains (like Batman and the Joker, or Othello and Iago), while others are a bit more complicated.
What is an Antagonist?
The antagonist stands between the protagonist and his or her goals. The term comes from the Greek word antagonistēs, meaning “opponent” or “rival.”
While antagonists can take the form of classic villains, they don’t necessarily need to be human at all. In many stories, the antagonist is a force of nature, technology, or even an inanimate object.
For example, in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, there’s no other character tormenting Benjamin, but his reverse aging creates complex challenges for his life.
No matter its form, the antagonistic force should pose a realistic challenge to the protagonist that forces change or action.
Types and Examples of Antagonists
While your options aren’t limited to this list, the following are four of the most common types of antagonists in fiction.
1. The Evil Antagonist
Sometimes evil is just evil, with no redeeming qualities. Evil antagonists are bad for the sake of being bad, and besides antagonizing the protagonist, often serve as a terror to the greater public.
Examples of evil antagonists:
- Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series
- Sauron in The Lord of the Rings
- The White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia
- The Joker from the Batman comic books
2. The Opposing Force
Just as all protagonists aren’t necessarily “good,” not all antagonists are downright evil. Their job is to simply present a challenge for the protagonist that stands between him and his goals.
They might be family members, bosses, or rivals in a competition. Sometimes, they’re simply doing their jobs, but their work stands in direct conflict with the protagonist’s goals.
Examples of the opposing force antagonist:
- The shark in Jaws
- Richie in Eleanor and Park
- Time/reverse aging in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
3. Corrupt Entities
Some antagonists aren’t individuals, but rather entities that pose a challenge or threat to the protagonist’s goals.
A corrupt or immoral entity can sometimes act as a more systemic version of the evil antagonist.
Examples of corrupt entity antagonists:
- The Capitol in The Hunger Games
- Soylent Corporation in Soylent Green
- The Party in 1984
4. The Internal Antagonist
Especially in character-driven stories, it’s not uncommon to see a character’s own desires, conscience, or other motivations act as their antagonist.
The protagonist must work to overcome their fears or flaws in order to reach their happy ending.
Examples of internal antagonists:
- Elizabeth’s pride in Pride and Prejudice
- Gregor’s new body in The Metamorphosis
- Briony’s guilt in Atonement
More than Bad Guys
Every good story needs an antagonistic force to push the lead character into action. Sometimes they take the form of classic, cackling villains, while others are forces of nature or traits within the protagonist.
The more dynamic a character is, the more readers are drawn into the story.
Who is your favorite antagonist in film or literature? Feel free to share in the comments below!