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Antagonist

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English Literature

Imagine the Harry Potter series without Voldemort, or Sherlock Holmes without Moriarty. The plots would suddenly become as boring as a shopping list without these main antagonists. The figure of antagonist is an essential part of a story, as they provide the main source of conflict in a text. An antagonist provides conflict to the protagonist as they try to achieve their goal. Read on to discover how to develop a great antagonist, as well as some examples of antagonists in well-known novels.

Antagonist Meaning

An antagonist is a character, idea, concept, or institution that opposes and ‘antagonises’ the protagonist, also known as the main character. The antagonist is traditionally villainous - but not always. An antagonist does not always have to be a character. An antagonist could be an idea or concept.

Purpose of an antagonist

The purpose of an antagonist is to provoke the protagonist. The antagonist creates a point of conflict that the protagonist fights against. This could concern values such as justice or a disagreement with a character's goals or principles.

Etymology: ‘antagonist’ is derived from the Greek word ‘antagnistḗs’, meaning ‘opponent’ or ‘rival’.

Synonyms for ‘antagonist’

  • Adversary

  • Opponent

  • Enemy

  • Foe

  • Rival

Antagonist Character Development

To develop an antagonist, it is important to base the antagonist’s character on the protagonist’s character. Consider how you can show the contrast between the two. Is the contrast reasonable enough to create a great, exciting, and intriguing conflict? The antagonist must set up challenges for the protagonist. The journey of the protagonist in overcoming these challenges is what creates a story.

Tips for creating your own antagonist

  • Consider the protagonist’s traits and goals. What sort of traits should you give the antagonist to make the protagonist’s journey to obtaining their goals difficult?

  • Create a believable antagonist. Think about how people can relate to the antagonist in some way. It helps if the antagonist has traits that are not necessarily justifiable, but readers can understand their reasoning to an extent.

  • Make your antagonist a true challenge to your protagonist’s quest. It should be difficult for your protagonist to achieve their goals, so your antagonist should create a conflict that puts them through their paces.

Antagonist Examples

Pride and Prejudice (1813)

The antagonist in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) is Mr. Darcy. Pride and Prejudice (1813) explores the relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Readers also follow the journey Elizabeth’s sisters embark upon as they aim to find a husband.

Issues that fuel the conflict in the novel include pride, prejudice, social conventions, and self-awareness. Darcy is an example of a conflict-creator type of antagonist because he does not have traits that can typically be considered evil. His character, however, does not align with the protagonist Elizabeth Bennet’s attitudes in life.

A Christmas Carol (1843)

The antagonist in Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol (1843) is Ebenezer Scrooge, who is also the protagonist of the story. Scrooge is an example of when the protagonist is their own antagonist. It is his nature as an unpleasant, mean man that creates the conflict: his behaviour leads him to the fate of dying after having lived a miserable life.

Scrooge is confronted with this internal struggle when the three ghosts of Christmas visit him to teach him a lesson. These are the Ghost of Christmas Past (symbolic of memory); the Ghost of Christmas Present (symbolic of generosity and goodwill); and the Ghost of Christmas Future (symbolic of Scrooge’s fear of death).

Scrooge is confronted with the ghost of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, who warns Scrooge that his continued behaviour and attitudes will cause him to have the same fate: dying alone at the end of a miserable life, loved and remembered by no one.

1984 (1949)

The antagonist in George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) is Big Brother/The Thought Police. The novel details the surveillance state and repressive regime that protagonist Winston Smith lives in. The overarching threat is Big Brother, which represents the heavy surveillance that citizens live under.

Big Brother is not a person but a concept - again, antagonists do not always have to be a character. The other, more direct and immediate antagonist in the novel is the Thought Police. Winston is actively evading this entity and it is they that eventually ensnare him.

Great Expectations (1861)

The antagonist in Charles DickensGreat Expectations (1861) is Miss Havisham. Great Expectations follows orphan and protagonist Pip, who aspires to achieve a higher social class and win over his love, Estella. Miss Havisham works against protagonist Pip’s attempts at doing so. As the antagonist, Miss Havisham creates conflict by preventing Pip from obtaining his wish.

Types of antagonist

The protagonist as the antagonist

In this scenario, the antagonist of a text is the protagonist themselves. The protagonist is the cause of conflict. This conflict is usually an internal struggle occurring within the protagonist. It could be centred around doubts about their abilities or doubts about their values.

A great example of this can be seen in William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth (1606). Lord Macbeth, the Thane of Glamis, is the protagonist, as it is his journey that the audience follows. His quest is to obtain the throne of the kingdom. Macbeth could be considered his own antagonist because he views characters such as Duncan and Banquo as obstacles to his goal. His internal conflict is fuelled by his greed and ambition, evident in his increasingly erratic actions to vanquish those he believes are his enemies on his quest to seize the throne.

A villain

In the traditional view, an antagonist is a villain. This word ‘villain’ implies that there is something evil at play, that the character has mortal attitudes that are typically seen as wrong. For example, the villain could do evil actions and have a typically unfavourable opinion on themes such as justice. What makes this particular type of antagonist stand out is that they will have traits that are seen as evil. Their evil traits serve as a source of conflict as they oppose the protagonist’s attitudes in some way.

An example of a villain type of protagonist is Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations (1861). Miss Havisham comes between Estella and Pip's romance, as she encourages Estella to break Pip's heart.

Conflict-creator

Unlike the ‘villain’ type of antagonist, antagonists viewed as ‘conflict-creators’ may not necessarily have traits that are traditionally evil. As an antagonist, they are a source of conflict because they act in opposition to the protagonist’s goals or attitudes.

An example of a conflict-creator type of antagonist is Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813). Mr. Darcy is not traditionally evil and does not do villainous things, but he opposes Elizabeth's, the protagonist's, attitudes in life.

Inanimate forces

This type of antagonist is specifically not a character. An antagonist in general does not have to be a character but can be an idea or concept. You can think of this antagonist as an ‘inanimate force’, which can sometimes be nature itself.

For example, Big Brother in George Orwell's 1984 (1949) is an inanimate force antagonist because it is a surveillance state. This is not a character but a concept. Winston - the protagonist - must be wary of Big Brother as it threatens his life in this surveillance state.

Another example of an inanimate force antagonist is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which features the repressive Republic of Gilead as the antagonist to protagonist Offred’s survival.

Antagonist vs Protagonist

The opposite of ‘antagonist’ is ‘protagonist’. The antagonist creates the conflict. The protagonist reacts to this conflict, which drives the story forward.

Examples of the protagonist

Pride and Prejudice (1813)

The protagonist in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is Elizabeth Bennet. Readers follow Elizabeth’s exploration of her relationship with her love interest, Mr. Darcy.

A Christmas Carol (1843)

The protagonist in Charles DickensA Christmas Carol is Ebenezer Scrooge. Readers follow Scrooge’s experience as the three ghosts of Christmas take him through his past, present, and future. They show Scrooge how he should change his behaviour to escape the fate of a lonely death following a miserable life.

1984 (1949)

The protagonist in George Orwell’s 1984 is Winston Smith. Readers follow Winston’s experience under a repressive surveillance state, known as Big Brother. Big Brother is the overarching antagonist of the novel.

Great Expectations (1861)

The protagonist in Charles DickensGreat Expectations is Pip. Pip is an orphan and blacksmith’s apprentice who navigates the world he is in to obtain a higher social class and win over his love, Estella.

Antagonist - Key takeaways

  • An antagonist is a character, idea, concept, or institution that opposes and ‘antagonises’ the protagonist, also known as the main character. The antagonist is traditionally villainous.

  • An antagonist does not always have to be a character. An antagonist could be an idea or concept.

  • ‘Antagonist’ is derived from the Greek word ‘antagnistḗs’, meaning ‘opponent’ or ‘rival’.

  • Synonyms for ‘antagonist’ are ‘adversary’, ‘opponent’, ‘enemy’, ‘foe’, and ‘rival’.

  • To develop an antagonist, it is important to base the antagonist’s character on the protagonist’s character. Consider how to show the contrast between the two. The antagonist must set up challenges for the protagonist. The journey of the protagonist's overcoming these challenges is what creates a story.

  • Types of antagonists are a villain, a conflict-creator, inanimate forces, and the protagonist as their own antagonist.

  • Tips for creating your own antagonist

    • Consider the protagonist’s traits and goals. What sort of traits should you give the antagonist to make the protagonist’s journey to obtaining their goals difficult?

    • Create a believable antagonist. Think about how people can relate to the antagonist in some way. It helps when the antagonist has traits that are not necessarily justifiable but readers can understand their reasoning to an extent.

    • Make your antagonist a true challenge to your protagonist’s quest. It should be difficult for your protagonist to achieve their goals, so your antagonist should create a conflict that puts them through their paces.

Antagonist

The protagonist and antagonist are essential components in a text. The antagonist provokes the protagonist to act and drive the story forward.

An antagonist is a character, idea, concept, or institution that opposes and ‘antagonises’ the protagonist, also known as the main character. 

The antagonist is traditionally villainous but not always. A villain is a type of antagonist.

In a story, an antagonist provides a point of conflict that the protagonist must overcome. 

Macbeth from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606) is an example of a protagonist who is also an antagonist.  Macbeth is the main character whose story the audience follows, and his greed and ambition create an inner conflict where he feels he must remove all perceived obstacles or threats to gain what he wants - the rulership of the Kingdom. 

Final Antagonist Quiz

Question

What is an antagonist?

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Answer

An antagonist is a character, idea, concept or institution that opposes and ‘antagonises’ the protagonist, also known as the main character. The antagonist is traditionally villainous but not always. An antagonist does not always have to be a character. An antagonist could be an idea or concept

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Question

Is an antagonist a villain?

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Answer

One type of antagonist is a villain. However, an antagonist is not always a villain, as they do not always have to have villainous traits or do villainous actions. Their aims may simply be in opposition to the main character's aims, but that does not mean their aims are typically villainous. 

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Question

What is an antagonist in a story?

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Answer

In a story, an antagonist antagonises the protagonist, also known as the main character. 

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Question

Who are the protagonist and antagonist?

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Answer

A protagonist is the main character in a story. An antagonist is a character, idea, concept or institution that creates conflict in a story. This provokes the protagonist to react and make decisions and this drives their story forward.

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Question

What is the purpose of an antagonist?

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Answer

The purpose of an antagonist is to provoke the protagonist. The antagonist creates a point of conflict that the protagonist fights against. 

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Question

How do you develop an antagonist?

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Answer

To develop an antagonist, it is important to base the antagonist’s character on the protagonist’s character. Consider how you can show the contrast between the two. 

Show question

Question

What is an example of an antagonist in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843)?

Show answer

Answer

The antagonist in Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol (1843) is Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge is an example of when the protagonist is their own antagonist. It is his nature of being an unpleasant, mean man that creates the conflict of his behaviours leading to a fate of dying having lived a miserable life.  

Show question

Question

What is an example of an antagonist in George Orwell's 1984 (1949)?

Show answer

Answer

The antagonist in George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) is Big Brother/The Thought Police. The overarching threat is Big Brother, which represents the heavy surveillance that citizens live under. Big Brother is not a person but a concept, so note that antagonists do not always have to be a character. The other, more direct and immediate antagonist in the novel is The Thought Police. 

Show question

Question

What is an example of an antagonist in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations (1861)?

Show answer

Answer

The antagonist in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1861) is Miss Havisham. Miss Havisham works against protagonist Pip’s attempts at winning over his love, Estella. As the antagonist, Miss Havisham creates conflict by preventing Pip from obtaining his wish.  

Show question

Question

What are the types of antagonists?

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Answer

The four types of antagonists are the villain, the conflict-creator, inanimate forces, and the protagonist as their own antagonist.

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Question

Explain the type of antagonist: the villain.

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Answer

The villain is an antagonist that does evil actions or/and has typically evil or unfavourable opinions and moral attitudes. 

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Question

Explain the type of antagonist: the conflict-creator.

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Answer

The conflict-creator may not necessarily have traits that are seen as traditionally evil. This type of antagonist may have characteristics or do actions that are in opposition to the protagonist's goals or attitudes.

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Question

Explain the type of antagonist: inanimate forces.

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Answer

Inanimate forces as an antagonist refer to an idea or concept and not a character. This could also refer to nature as an antagonist. 

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Question

Explain the type of antagonist: the protagonist as the antagonist.

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Answer

The antagonist of the text is the protagonist themselves. The protagonist is the cause of conflict. This conflict is usually an internal struggle the protagonist has with themselves.

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