Protagonist vs. antagonist?

A protagonist is the leading, center character of a story. An antagonist is the primary opponent or foe of a story’s protagonist.

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What is the difference between protagonist and antagonist?

The difference between a protagonist and an antagonist largely depends on whether you’re discussing storytelling or real-life scenarios. 

Traditionally, the noun protagonist describes a leading character who drives the story forward, although contemporary English now uses “protagonist” for any leading figure of a cause. 

The noun antagonist simply means ‘an opponent’ or ‘adversary:’ one that fights against a struggle (and typically that of the protagonist). Writers typically use this term to describe literature, film, or theater, but there are other contexts where it is just as useful. 

What is the definition of protagonist?

Protagonist” is a late 17th-century English noun that derives from Greek prōtagōnistēs for ‘first combatant,’ and developed its essence in the context of Greek drama. During this time, a protagonist was known as the “first actor” supported by the chorus in a classical Greek tragedy.

Fast forward a few thousand years, and we now use the noun to describe any ‘leading or major character from a fictional story (e.g., drama, novel, screenwriting, video game, etc.)’ (“Protagonist” 1403). For example, 

  • “The fuzzy distinctions between the author’s life and that of his fictional protagonist are multiple and intentional.” — The New York Times
  • “Grand Theft Auto 6’s rumored female protagonist would be the first step on a long road.” — Game Rant
  • “Though Carrie Bradshaw is Sex and the City’s de facto protagonist — it’s her voice that narrates every scene — the show’s success has always been reliant on its depiction of a group of women…” — NYLON

While less accepted, contemporary definitions of “protagonistalso include: 

  1. ‘The main or most prominent figures from a real situation,’ or; 
  2. ‘An advocate or champion of an idea or effort.’ 

For example,

  • “[He] sees himself as the vaunted protagonist against the ropes in a seemingly losing battle against his antagonist.” — San Antonio Express-News
  • “And that makes Rahayel an unlikely protagonist in the fight for Lebanon’s future.” — Al Jazeera

Synonyms

[1] Antihero, chief character, false protagonist, figure, key, hero, lead, leading actor/actress, principal, star, title role. 

[2] Advocate, advocator, apostle, backer, booster, champion, espouser, exponent, expounder, friend, herald, hierophant, loyalist, paladin, promoter, proponent, supporter.

Antonyms

Adversary, antagonist, critic, enemy, foe, opponent, rival. 

Etymology of protagonist

The noun protagonist originates from Greek prōtagōnistēs, where the prefix prōto- means ‘first in importance’ and the suffix agōnistēs means ‘actor’ or ‘combatant’ (1403). According to The American Heritage Dictionary, Greek agōnistēs’ stems from agōnizesthai, where agōn is ‘to contest’ and agein is ‘to drive’ or ‘lead.’ 

What is the definition of antagonist?

In the context of storytelling, an antagonist is the opponent of the protagonist. But when we use the noun in everyday English, we are mainly citing an adversary: someone that actively opposes or responds in a hostile manner. 

For example, 

  • “Lord is the only antagonist who receives a full character arc and resolution by the end of the Wonder Woman sequel.” — Screen Rant
  • “Rondo, once a Celtic point guard and inveterate antagonist of all things Lakers, mans the backup point.” — The New York Times

If we look through NOED, the noun antagonist can also mean ‘a substance that impedes the physiological action of another,’ or a ‘muscle that counteracts another muscle in the body’ (“Antagonist” 65). 

For example, 

  • “[Naltrexone] is an antagonist (blocker) at the opioid receptors, mainly mu and kappa, and is not a controlled substance.” — Auburn Citizen

Synonyms

Adversary, archenemy, archfoe, bane, enemy, foe, hostile, nemesis, opponent, rival.

Antonyms

Accomplice, advocate, ally, amigo, champion, exponent, friend, partner, proponent, supporter. 

Etymology of antagonist

English antagonist is a late 16th-century noun adopted from French antagoniste and late Latin antagonista. However, the term originated from Greek antagonistes via antagonizesthai, where its initial meaning took the form of ‘to struggle against’) (65).

Should we use “protagonist” outside of the arts?

As shown above, the modern definitions of “protagonist” sound similar to that of a story’s, right? But we cannot forget that a protagonist is not always an advocate or champion, or vice versa. Yoda is an advocate for Luke Skywalker, but is he the protagonist of Star Wars? Absolutely not. 

Additionally, contemporary use of “protagonist” is often diluted by two false assumptions: 

  1. That its prefix is pro- for ‘in favor of’ (whereas the real root word is prōto- for ‘first in importance’).  
  2. A protagonist can be any noteworthy figure in a struggle. 

The second assumption is the most problematic when it attributes “protagonist” to a ‘supporter’ or ‘proponent,’ as there are many instances where supporting or main characters are not technically “protagonists” (Garner 742). 

The bottom line:

For the sake of clarity, scholarly sources implore writers to reserve “protagonist” for the foremost prominent figure(s) of a real-life situation or a fictional story. And we agree.

Identifying the protagonist vs. the antagonist

We now know that a protagonist is the leading character in a story, while an antagonist is their main opponent. But there’s still plenty of ambiguity around supporting characters, villains, or whether they require certain character traits for their role. 

To answer these questions and more, let’s start by addressing three common qualities of a protagonist

  1. A protagonist is the chief and leading character (or group of characters).
  2. A protagonist drives the plot forward.
  3. The main story arc is that of the protagonist

As we can see from this list, a protagonist can be any type of character so long as they are the main focus of the story (and no, the story doesn’t need to follow their point of view). But when it comes to the antagonist, there is only one requirement: to be pitted against the protagonist as their primary opponent. 

Examples of classic protagonist vs. antagonist dynamics include: 

  • Harry Potter vs. Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series 
  • Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader in Star Wars
  • Frodo Baggins vs. Sauron in The Lord of the Rings

Types of protagonists

In general, there are four categories of protagonists

  • Hero
  • Antihero 
  • False protagonist
  • Villain protagonist

The hero

Some of the most well-known hero protagonists are prototypical “good guys.” They are brave, selfless, and guided by a clear moral compass (and often a love interest). 

Examples: 

  • Buffy Summers from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Diana from Wonder Woman
  • Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games
  • Rey Skywalker from Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  • T’Challa/Black Panther from Black Panther

The antihero

The antihero is the “unlikely hero” that lacks some of the admirable qualities of the “hero.” But despite what the name implies, an antihero is not a “bad guy.” Antiheroes are relatable, complex characters that range anywhere between the grumpy do-gooder, virtuous satanist, principled rebel, or noble serial killer. 

Most antiheroes have questionable morals, sure, but their consistent quality is that they can do the right thing, and sometimes they do (but often for the wrong reasons). 

Examples: 

  • Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones
  • Sherlock Holmes from the Sherlock Holmes series
  • The Bride from Kill Bill
  • Tyler Durdan from Fight Club
  • Sabrina Spellman from The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
  • Dexter Morgan from Dexter

The villain protagonist

As noted by The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, an antihero is not the same thing as an antagonist or villain, where the latter is defined as “an evil antagonist” (Murphy 22). There’s a different term for that: the villain protagonist

The villain protagonist is a central, leading character who is not motivated by anything other than their self-interests. But what makes them different from the antihero, who can be selfish too, is that they consistently do the “wrong thing” and with bad intentions. 

Examples: 

  • Joe Goldberg from You
  • Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood
  • Patrick Bateman from American Psycho

The false protagonist

Lastly, we have the false protagonist or “decoy protagonist,” which is one that audiences don’t see coming. In this case, a writer develops a story’s protagonist only to suddenly kill them off or switch roles in a plot twist. HBO’s Game of Thrones (adapted from author George R. R. Martin) is notorious for false protagonists, where numerous main characters are killed left and right.

Even Disney got in on the action with The Lion King when Mufasa was suddenly killed at the hands of his evil brother, Scar (smh). But perhaps one of the most famous false protagonists is Marion Crane from Psycho, who survived nearly half of the film before her famous murder scene.

Types of protagonists

When it comes to creative writing, the antagonist takes the role of anyone who oppresses the protagonist’s goals. A few of the most common categories include: 

  • Classic villain
  • Everyday antagonist
  • Inanimate forces

Classic villain

The traditional role of the villain or villainess is to destroy the protagonist, to be the “evil bad guy.” And unlike the “villains protagonists” discussed earlier, villain antagonists are not the lead character. They take a secondary role to the protagonist and remain as the primary source of conflict. 

Examples: 

  • Freddy Krueger from Nightmare on Elm Street
  • Norman Bates from Psycho
  • Rose Armitage from Get Out 

Everyday antagonist

Despite the name of this antagonist, there’s no requirement for “everyday antagonists” to be “everyday people.” Their main distinction is that they are not evil and that their interests conflict with the story’s protagonist. We generally describe this antagonist as manipulative, cowardly, pathetic, selfish, or rude. But, sometimes, they just make the protagonist feel insecure.

Examples: 

  • Dr. Mann from Interstellar 
  • Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin
  • Lily from Black Swan 

Inanimate forces

Oftentimes, the antagonist is not a human or supernatural being with human-like qualities but rather an inanimate force. Nature is one of the most common inanimate forces, whether or not it’s actually “inanimate.” For example, the shark from Jaws is an inanimate force because it’s a non-human antagonist. 

Examples: 

  • Tornadoes from Twister 
  • Existentialism in Cast Away 
  • The world in Beasts of the Southern Wild 

Test Yourself!: protagonist vs. antagonist

Test how well you understand the difference between protagonist and antagonist with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. True or false: A protagonist can only be one person.
    a. True 
    b. False
  2. A story protagonist is pitted against the __________.
    a. False antagonist
    b. Main antagonist
    c. Everyday antagonist
    d. All of the above
  3. Which circumstance allows for more than one main protagonist?
    a. Group villains
    b. Group antagonists
    c. Group protagonists
    d. None of the above
  4. Which type of antagonist is associated with being evil?
    a. Everyday antagonist
    b. Classic villain
    c. Inanimate forces
    d. All of the above
  5. Antagonist derives from the Greek word ____________.
    a. Antagonizesthai
    b. Antagonista
    c. Agōnistēs
    d. Agōnizesthai

Answers

  1. B
  2. B
  3. B
  4. C
  5. A

Sources

  1. “Antagonist.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2010, p.  65.
  2. Asim, J. “An Immigrant Weaves His Love Stories Between Fact and Fiction.” The New York Times, NYTimes.com, 28 Sept 2018. 
  3. Azhari, T. “Tough times for Lebanon’s biggest optimist.” Al Jazeera, AlJazerra.com, 30 Jan 2021. 
  4. Burcham, C. “Wonder Woman 1984’s Ending Serves Max Lord, But Not Cheetah.” Screen Rant, ScreenRant.com, 17 Jan 2020. 
  5. Cuby, M. “What Is ‘Sex And The City’ Without Samantha Jones?” NYLON, Nylon.com, 11 Jan 2021. 
  6. Follette, J. “Follette: Medications for opioid use disorder, explained.” Auburn Citizen, AuburnPub.com, 2 Feb 2021. 
  7. Garner, B. “Protagonist.” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 742. 
  8. MasterClass. “Writing 101: Protagonist vs. Antagonist Characters.” MasterClass, 8 Nov 2020. 
  9. Muffin, R. “Protagonist.” The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, 3d ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009, p. 411. 
  10. O’Brien, S. B. “In his final act, Trump portrays both hero and victim.” San Antonio Express-News, ExpressNews.com, 11 Nov 2020. 
  11. Powell, M. “The Lakers, the Clippers and a Rare Fight for L.A. Basketball Primacy.” The New York Times, NYTimes.com, 21 Feb 2020. 
  12. Protagonist.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2020. 
  13. “Protagonist.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 1403.