So, antagonist and protagonist…Firstly, what are we talking about?
The protagonist: the hero, the main character, and the one you want to identify with, the one you are saddled with through the course of the story. They are the story’s central focal point. Luke Skywalker, Superman… It’s their job to overcome the challenges presented by the antagonist.
The antagonist: the villain, and the conflict that drives the plot. It doesn’t have to be a person (in the movie Armageddon it’s the meteor). In the case of serious drama, it can be things like a tragedy the protagonist has to come to terms with or a personal issue they need to overcome.
Protagonists and antagonists need each other to exist. One without the other doesn’t function. The Batman/Joker conflict is one of the most clear cut archetypal examples of this in modern pop culture, and DC so aware of it that in a series called ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, by Frank Miller, Batman retires and the Joker goes into a catatonic state because without the one, the other has no reason to continue. It has often been said that the reason Batman is such a popular character is because he has such interesting villains.
So, next question: What’s the point of telling you this?
The point is, that on their own, a protagonist is a really boring character. Without the antagonist, there is no story. If you want a compelling protagonist you need an interesting antagonist. It’s the situation that tests and pushes the protagonist and turns them into the characters that we know and love. Batman in a city without crime is just a Goth with daddy issue. Harry Potter was just another baby until the antagonist broke into his house and turned him into ‘The Boy Who Lived’. The reason we love these characters is because of the struggles they go through and the conflicts that they overcome. Without them there are no heroes.
From a creative side, antagonists are far more interesting, because they know what’s going on. They’ve come up with a plan that they’ve put into action to change things. They have depth, they have drive, and their goal is to change things from the way they are into something different. In contrast, the hero can only run around in the dark, trying to figure out how to stop them, and put the world back to zero. Even in the case of an uprising story like ‘Star Wars’, where a farm boy takes on the evil established Empire, the goal is to bring peace, to make the galaxy a safe (read boring) place. The hero’s goal is to put himself out of a job of being ‘the hero’.
So, if you’re a writer and you want to your story to have real depth, and you want your protagonist to be someone readers love, come up with a great antagonist. Someone, or something, that truly rattles the protagonist to their core. If it’s a thing, make it personal real, something that could happen to anyone of us. If it’s a villain, make them deep, complicated, intense. Find justification for their actions. The best villains are the ones readers can on some level relate to. Everyone knows that they can’t really be Batman, but everyone, on some level, could be The Joker.
To wrap things up neatly for you, here is the who, what, why, and how of antagonists and protagonists:
What: Antagonist and Protagonist
Who: The villain and the hero
Why: They need each other to exist and function, and to drive the plot
How: Write an antagonist that truly rattles the protagonist to their core and find justification for their actions
Want to see some great examples of antagonists and protagonists? Check out these thriller, horror, and mystery reads.