When you’re in the exciting first flush of a new story, one of the things you might be most drawn to are your central characters—the rapscallions who get themselves into all sorts of trouble and guide the events of the plot. Some of the most important people to populate your pages will be the protagonist and the antagonist.

But wait… what’s the difference between a protagonist and an antagonist, exactly? Do you really need both to tell a good story?

We’ll take you through everything you need to know about your protagonist vs. antagonist conflict, including some examples from literature and pop culture.

What is a protagonist?

A protagonist is the central point-of-view character in a novel, short story, film, or stage play. Their choices are what guide the events of the plot. An effective protagonist will make the reader empathise with their journey, and it’s through their experiences that the reader is able to experience the world of the story.

Often, we think of the protagonist as being the “good guy” or the hero of a story, but this isn’t always the case. Protagonists can be morally grey or or even unethical, but they always perceive themselves as the hero of their own tale of woe. A protagonist is simply the main character. Their journey towards their ultimate goal, and towards understanding themselves a little bit better, carries the story from beginning to end.

A protagonist is the main character of a story, while an antagonist is their primary source of conflict.

What is an antagonist?

An antagonist is the main adversary to the protagonist of a story. The antagonist’s goals will always be in direct conflict with the goals of the protagonist. An antagonist might be a villainous character set on nefarious ends, or they might be a good character who wants or needs something different from what the protagonist wants.

When these two opposing goals come together, it creates conflict. Each character, the protagonist and the antagonist, need to react to this conflict and look for ways to overcome it. This pattern of action and reaction is what moves the story forward.

Traditionally, antagonists have often been the “bad guy” of a story, a malevolent force for the hero to defeat. As noted, however, that isn’t always the case; many of the most complex and interesting antagonists in literature believe their actions are in pursuit of what’s right.

What’s the difference between protagonist vs. antagonist?

The protagonist and the antagonist are the two central characters of a story. A protagonist is the main point-of-view character, while the antagonist is the opposing force who stands in the way of the protagonist’s goals.

The protagonist is often the hero of the story, while the antagonist is usually the villain. But you can have a villainous protagonist and a heroic antagonist, or two complex characters who are neither entirely good nor evil. If you were to take a classic protagonist vs. antagonist story—for example, Superman vs. Lex Luther—and flip it around, telling it from the villain’s point of view, then suddenly the protagonist is the villain, while the antagonist is the hero. The protagonist is simply the main character whose experiences and emotional journey drive the story, regardless of whether the character is good or evil.

Regardless of whose story you’re telling, you might find it helpful as a writer to spend some time thinking about how the story might look from another character’s point of view. This will give you a deeper understanding of who your characters are as human beings and what their motivations are.

Types of protagonists

A story’s protagonist isn’t one-size-fits-all. Let’s take a closer look at the different kinds of protagonists you can build your story around.

The classic hero

Often when we think of a protagonist of a story, we think of a heroic figure who flies in to save the day. Certainly, they’ll encounter conflicts and obstacles on their way to victory, but the reader always knows that the hero will somehow find a way to defeat the villain in championship of those who can’t save themselves.

The heroic protagonist might have magical powers, or they might be endowed with great courage, resilience, and leadership. We’ve seen them again and again from ancient literary sagas to comic books. These heroes are effective because they inspire readers and viewers to grow into heroes themselves.

The heroic protagonist is one of literature’s most recognizable archetypes.

The everyman

An everyman protagonist is a leading character who is utterly normal in every way. They’re meant to be a representative of the reader. They won’t have any superpowers (at least not at first), they might work a boring and slightly mysterious office job that even they don’t fully understand, and they’re probably rather socially awkward. These protagonists have nothing extraordinary about them, but, through the events of the plot, they’re thrown into extraordinary circumstances.

These protagonists are effective because they show the reader what they themselves could be capable of. They’re also universally relatable, which makes them easy to follow and empathize with.

The antihero

Antihero protagonists don’t exhibit the traits we would normally associate with heroes. They might be conniving, cowardly, or morally suspect. Readers love rooting for them, even if we wouldn’t necessarily fancy running into them in a dark alley. These protagonists will often have a dramatic and thrilling character arc that takes them through both external and internal conflict, leading them on an unlikely journey to heroism.

Some antiheroes begin as antagonists, then slowly evolve into unwilling heroes. These protagonists are particularly popular in sequels and spinoffs, in which the antagonist of the preceding installment of the series is given a chance to tell their story.

Not all protagonists are pristine—you can have villainous protagonists, too!

Types of antagonists

A well-drawn antagonist can be a show stealer, but they don’t all think or act the same way. Here are the different kinds of antagonists your story might feature.

The classic villain

The villain antagonist is one of the most famous kinds of conflict you can have in a story. These are the sorts of mustache-twirling baddies you see holding up jewellery shops and plotting world domination (sometimes both in the same week).

These evildoers have a special place in readers’ hearts, but they’re not as popular in literature as they used to be. Why? Because today’s audiences know that no one is completely evil; everyone—on the page and in life—truly believes they’re doing the best with what they’ve been given. That’s why we’re drawn to villains with complex character development and humanity.

That doesn’t mean you can’t have a bad guy as your main antagonist! It just means that a well-developed antagonist will have meaningful things to fight for and to lose, just like your protagonist.

The well-meaning objector

Antagonist characters aren’t always out to sow chaos and discord wherever they go. Sometimes they’re driven by necessity or a strong belief that’s in conflict with what your protagonist believes.

This might be a supporting character like a parent, best friend, or love interest who has different ideas than the protagonist about what’s right. For example, maybe two close friends find themselves on opposite sides of a controversy at their school or workplace. Or maybe your protagonist’s parent is standing in the way of their plans for the future because the parent thinks they know better.

Sometimes, the primary opponent of a story isn’t a nefarious villain—they’re a good person who believes they need to take action to do the right thing.

Some antagonists create conflict because they have contradictory beliefs or ideas.

The impersonal force

The big problem your story’s main character is facing might not even be a person. Sometimes, the primary antagonist is an external force like a natural disaster, illness, or cultural norm.

In these cases, the antagonistic influence doesn’t have anything personal against the protagonist. However, the trajectory of this influence—whether that’s blowing through a town, ravaging a physical body, or spreading fear and mistrust through societal stigma—creates a major challenge that the protagonist needs to overcome.

This type of antagonist is particularly effective in character-driven fiction, because it forces the main character to push themselves to and beyond their limits, growing and maturing in the process.

Can you have multiple protagonists and antagonists?

Some stories do have multiple protagonists. For instance, dual-perspective novels from the point of view of two love interests or a group of friends. However, in these cases there will almost always be one true protagonist that the reader forms a particular emotional connection to (hint: it’s usually the one that’s introduced on the first page). In the case of group protagonists, all of the other characters will usually be connected in some way to the true protagonist.

You can also use what’s called a “false protagonist,” which is a literary bait-and-switch device. These stories begin by following one protagonist until part way through, at which point that character is removed and the central perspective switches to someone else. This was done to great outcry in Game of Thrones.

Some stories use “false protagonists,” changing perspectives part way through.

As for antagonists, you can absolutely have multiple antagonists throughout your story. This is because stories need multiple layers of conflict. However, there will usually be one primary antagonist whose conflict with the hero guides the plot.

For example, in the Harry Potter series, Voldemort is the series’ primary antagonist. Draco Malfoy, Severus Snape, and Dolores Umbridge are all supporting antagonists.

How to write powerful protagonists and antagonists

Literature is peppered with heroes and villains, protagonists and antagonists of all shapes and sizes. But you may notice that the most enduring and powerful of these duos have one element in common: the protagonist and antagonist reflect each other in some way.

It may be that the antagonist represents what the protagonist could have become if they had been set on a different path. The trope of two brothers or two best friends clashing against one another is timeless for this reason; they began in the same place and diverged, and that divergence became their undoing.

Or, your antagonist may reflect the inverted values of what your protagonist holds closest to the heart. For example, if the protagonist is a free spirit who believes in choice and free will, their main antagonist might be someone who believes in a strict, controlled world order.

To develop a strong protagonist and antagonist in your writing, consider how each of them forms one half of a larger whole. That satisfying sense of balance and completion is what will make them memorable to your readers.

We’ll see a few effective examples of this next.

Examples of protagonists and antagonists

Here are some of literature’s most memorable protagonist and antagonist duos.

Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham

The folk hero Robin Hood and his nemesis are polar opposites in every way. The sheriff, as the enforcer of justice, represents law, order, and restriction. Robin Hood, as the outlaw, represents freedom and mobility. If you were to tell the story from the sheriff’s point of view, you’d end up with something not unlike a western.

Each is a threat to the other’s way of living. Yet despite their conflict, each secretly envies the other, too. Robin Hood envies the stability of having a roof over his head, while the sheriff envies Robin Hood’s freedom. This is a good example of how each character is an inversion of the other.

The most memorable protagonists and antagonists are reflections of each other.

Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty

The self-proclaimed world’s greatest detective Sherlock Holmes has outsmarted numerous baddies in his time. Early stories followed an episodic crook-of-the-week format, but eventually his author decided he needed a nemesis. Someone to really push Holmes to his limit.

Professor Moriarty is the only person who can match Sherlock’s mind, but he uses his powers for personal gain and anarchy. This antagonist example shows the reader who Sherlock Holmes could have become if he had made different choices, and who he might still be if he falls from his path.

Peter Pan and Captain Hook

Peter Pan and James Hook are some of storytelling’s most memorable dueling duos, again because they’re inversions of each other. Peter Pan luxuriates in never having to grow up, while Captain Hook was forced to grow up and embody everything that Peter feels is wrong with adulthood.

In many renditions, Captain Hook is envious of Peter’s freedom and signature flair. Peter doesn’t envy Captain Hook; on the contrary, he’s afraid of him—afraid of becoming him if he himself ever leaves childhood behind. They fit together well in a story because they embody opposite ends of a spectrum.

The main characters’ conflict moves the plot forward

In writing fiction, learning how to create characters that engage readers is one of the most important skills you can have. Since the protagonist’s journey is what carries a story, ensuring they have a compelling conflict creator will make that journey even more meaningful. Now, you can use these tips to develop protagonists and antagonists that bring your story to life.