Writing an Antagonist: Who They Are and How They Work

Posted on Jul 13, 2021

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Written by Gloria Russell

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Everyone knows that all stories need a hero. But we often overlook that stories need an antagonist, too. 

Think about it like this: every story needs conflict. A story’s not interesting if the hero gets everything they want without any resistance–we need tension, drama, stakes, and compelling characters to keep us invested the whole way through and make the hero’s victory worthwhile. These are the building blocks to writing a great novel.

Enter: antagonists. 

We’re here to talk about the opposition today! We’ll figure out what they are, how they function in stories, and give you some examples of antagonists you may have seen before. We’ll even get into some common misconceptions about them, so if you think you already know everything there is to know about them, stay tuned! 

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What is the best definition of Antagonist? 

An antagonist is a character opposing the protagonist. They’re the character presenting obstacles or challenges that keep the hero or main character from getting what they want. It’s really that simple! An antagonist doesn’t have to be the main villain of a story–there are usually more than one antagonists in any given story. 

What is the role of the Antagonist? 

Your protagonist has their goal, whether it’s to get together with their significant other, save the world, or overthrow the government. Your anti-hero’s goal is simple: stop the protagonist from getting what they want. 

An antagonist might stop them in a million different ways, and it all depends on the story. In a romance, maybe the antagonist is a bitter ex-boyfriend who doesn’t want to see his ex-girlfriend happy, so he keeps trying to sabotage her new relationship. In a fantasy story, they could be an evil warlock bent on destroying humans for good. 

Like we mentioned earlier, the role isn’t always necessarily the main villain. Your main villain is almost certainly going to be an antagonist–if they aren’t doing anything to trouble your heroes, then they’re probably not a great villain–but anyone who gets in the protagonist’s way is technically an antagonist. 

Is the Antagonist the bad guy? 

So, when we were talking about villains, I listed some examples of antagonists doing some morally bad things. This is pretty typical–heroes are generally good guys, so a bad guy is usually going to be the one to get in their way. 

But this isn’t a hard rule. This character doesn’t have to be evil in a moral sense! If your protagonist is a villainous character who does awful things and the antagonist is trying to stop them, they’re still the antagonist–they’re just morally good or lawful. 

The thing to keep in mind is that bad and good are moral terms that describe the moral value of someone’s actions. The bad guys want to blow up New York, so the Avengers save the day. Dr. Doofenshmirtz wants to blow up the Tri-State area, so Perry stops him. Perry wants to keep the Tri-State area safe, and every single day of his life, Dr. Doofenshmirtz is one heck of an obstacle. 

But maybe there’s the Grinch looking to destroy Christmas. That’s not a super cool thing to do, and the audience knows it, but the Grinch is still our protagonist. We don’t want him to succeed, really, and we’re not rooting for him to rip up that Whoville fun–he’s our protagonist, but he’s not a good guy. Similarly, the Whos down in Whoville are impeding him, so they’re antagonists. They aren’t bad guys, but they are antagonists. 

What is an example of an Antagonist? 

We’ve defined character traits and explained what their role is in a given story–now it’s time to look at some examples! 

Disney Antagonist Examples

Lord Farquaad and Monsieur Hood from Shrek 

Shrek’s goal, from the get-go, is pretty simple and pretty obvious. He wants to be left alone in his swamp to hang out and be gross, and when a bunch of fairytale creatures show up on his land, this becomes impossible. 

It’s true that the fairytale creatures being there prevent him from achieving his goal, but they were sent there by Lord Farquaad–they didn’t come on their own accord. Lord Farquaad is the one kicking them off their own land, refusing to cooperate, and ripping the legs off gingerbread men–he’s the antagonist, not the creatures. He’s also the main antagonist, because he drives the central conflict of the film. 

We also have Monsieur Hood, who’s basically Robin Hood, and who wants to do some highway robbery while Shrek and the gang are coming back from their quest. Monsieur Hood is an antagonist, because he’s literally standing in the way of what our protagonists want. However, he’s not the main antagonist. 

Mother Gothel and the Stabbington Brothers from Tangled 

Disney is famous for its villains for good reason–they’re consistently well-branded and reveling in their misconduct, and it’s a blast to watch. Mother Gothel is no exception! 

Rapunzel wants to leave the tower, explore the world, and figure out who she is. Mother Gothel wants to keep Rapunzel in the tower, prevent her from exploring the world, and keep Rapunzel’s identity a secret. She spends most of the movie trying to hunt Rapunzel down and recapture her. She’s our main antagonist. 

We also have the Stabbington brothers, our secondary antagonists. They want revenge on Flynn for stealing the crown, and they join up with Mother Gothel to achieve this goal. 

Sauron, Orcs, Sarumon, Smeagol from Lord of the Rings 

Naming every character that could fit into this definition in Lord of the Rings would probably take a minute–Lord of the Rings is an enormous series with a half a billion characters. However, it’s a great chance to pick apart some antagonists and differentiate between main, secondary, and miscellaneous. 

Our main antagonist is Sauron. Defeating Sauron is our central goal–he’s doing the most to destroy our protagonists’ hopes and dreams and worlds. We also have Sarumon and Smeagol, secondary antagonists who work to prevent the protagonists from getting that one true ring to Mordor. 

We also have a sea of orcs. These guys are also opposite the protagonist, since they’re working to prevent our characters from defeating evil, which is their goal. 

Again, they’re not categorized as bad guys because they’re fighting for evil–our protagonists just happen to be fighting against that evil. 

Zuko from Avatar: the Last Airbender 

Zuko’s one of the best antagonists ever! Let’s talk about why. 

At the start of the story, his entire purpose is to capture the Avatar. The Avatar is our main protagonist, so this makes Zuko an antagonist. It’s pretty cut and dry for a while… and suddenly, the tables turn. 

Zuko changes his villainous ways, denounces his evil father, and switches sides in the third season. He joins the Gaang, and at this point, he stops opposing the protagonist. He’s no longer preventing Aang from achieving his goals–he’s helping him, which means he’s now a protagonist. 

Firelord Ozai from Avatar: the Last Airbender 

Unlike Zuko, Firelord Ozai sticks to being an opp the entire time. He’s driving the main conflict–his desire to take over and destroy the entire world is exactly what Aang spends the entire show training to prevent. 

Zuko provides an additional challenge, because he’s also trying to capture Aang, but he isn’t the one trying to take over the world. He just wants to get back on his dad’s good side. Ozai, on the other hand, is pretty hell-bent on world domination. 

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More Antagonist Examples

Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman 

You might think antagonists don’t exist in literary fiction, but you’d be wrong! Antagonists get more complicated when it comes to more character-driven work. It kind of takes the nuance out of your complex coming-of-age narrative if you’ve got a cloaked villain stroking his beard in the background. 

Willy Loman is a great example of a protagonist who’s also an antagonist. He wants to fulfill the American Dream through his role as a salesman, but he’s also delusional. He’s insecure, he’s volatile, and throughout the entire play, he is his own worst enemy. He prevents himself from achieving his goals, and the drama from the play comes from watching him implode. The American Dream isn’t stable, and neither is Loman. 

In literary fiction, antagonists are usually kind of complicated. You’ll have the protagonist be their own antagonist, or have the antagonist be a misunderstood family member–when in doubt, ask yourself who it is that’s preventing the protagonist from achieving their goals. In Death of a Salesman, it’s Willy Loman. 

The School and Erasers from Maximum Ride 

Maximum Ride’s a book series about bird kids who escape their lab and wreak havoc on America, all the while struggling with their weird existence as bird kids. The lab is known as The School, and that’s our main evil force opposing the bird kids. 

The School constantly pursues the kids in an attempt to recapture them for further scientific tinkering. This creates the main problem the kids face throughout the series: they want their freedom, and the School wants them captured. These guys are our main antagonists. 

We also have Erasers, the goons The School sends to recapture or kill the kids. Erasers aren’t the ones creating that main conflict, but they are definitely posing a problem–these are secondary antagonists. 

Hades and the Minotaur from The Lightning Thief 

Hades stole a lightning bolt from Zeus, and Percy has to go get it back. Hades is our main antagonist in the Lightning Thief! You may have heard Greek Mythology buffs complain about how this series makes Hades into something of a villain, since in traditional Greek mythology, he’s really just hanging out. 

But, one more time: Hades isn’t an the main opposition in this story because he’s evil. He fits the trait because he’s got, and wants to keep, the thing Percy, our protagonist, needs to succeed in his quest. 

The Lightning Thief and the Heroes of Olympus series is full of fun secondary antagonists, but for an easy example, let’s consider the Minotaur. When Percy’s trying to get into Camp Half-Blood, the Minotaur is literally physically in his way, preventing him from achieving this goal. Bam, antagonist. 

Cersei from Game of Thrones 

Remember when I said that literary fiction can create some complicated antagonists? So can any genre, if the author plays their cards right. Cersei’s pretty obviously a villain in Game of Thrones–right? 

Well, it’s complicated. Game of Thrones is told from many characters’ points of view, and almost every character wants to end up on the Iron Throne, Cersei included. She prevents many of our more likeable characters from being on the throne and does a ton of awful stuff to prevent them from even getting close, which does make her an public enemy number 1. 

However, from her own point of view, she’s a protagonist. People like Margaery Tyrell and Ned Stark become antagonists, preventing her from keeping the throne. 

She’s definitely an anti-hero, but she’s also kind of a protagonist, which makes for a fun, complicated reading experience. 

Who is your favorite TV, movie, or book antagonist? Let us know in the comments below!

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