A villain. A hero. The cold, unrelenting weather.
“But I thought the antagonist was just the bad guy of the story.”
What is an antagonist?
Antagonist is the literary term for the character who works against the main character (the protagonist). The word is from the Greek antagōnistḗs which is formed from words that mean “rival,” “to struggle against,” and “to contend for a prize.”
Simply put, the antagonist is the one who gets in the way of what the protagonist wants. There is a fight, a conflict, or a battle of the wills. He can be anything — from a sinister villain to a gentle yet co-dependent sister.
The antagonist can even be a nonliving character, like a virtue, society, self, or a force of nature. And if the story’s protagonist is evil, then the antagonist can even be a hero.
Here is a roll call of words that are used to describe antagonist.
- deceive, frustrate, work against
- harm, strive against, oppose
- challenge, conflict, adversary
- enemy, foe, hostile
You can see that there’s so much more to developing an antagonist than just stamping “evil” on a character card and writing bad things for her to do throughout your story. Take these descriptions and then draw out a character with an agenda, one who rivals, struggles, and competes with your protagonist.
If your antagonist is a person, bring out his personality as much as you do the protagonist. If you choose a force or nature, do the same by giving it human descriptions and actions. Your story will be the better for it.
Examples from literature
“To Build a Fire” is a heart-wrenching short story by Jack London. In that story, the antagonist is unrelenting cold weather. Macbeth gives us Macduff, an antagonist who is a hero. And there is the Dark Lord Sauron, a classic villain and the antagonist in The Lord of the Rings. Three different types of antagonists, all railing against the goal of the main character.
I’m in the midst of writing my first novel and my antagonist is a person, the usual “bad guy” character. Since I’ve studied the term, I realize how shallow and undeveloped he is. I like the way the Greek defines the word (“to contend for a prize”), so I’ve added that phrase to his character card and even worked the imagery into the story.
Now that you have a better idea of the antagonist’s role in a story, make sure your character is one that fulfills that very important role. Study the antagonist in the novel you’re reading now and see how the author creates the tension and conflict between the main characters. Put what you learn into your writer’s toolbox and draw on it as you make your antagonist a memorable one.
This post is part of my Know Your Writing Terms series. Visit my writing terms page for links to all the posts in this series.