Antagonists are the core of any story. They are the ones who set the inciting incident into motion. They are the ones providing resistance and conflict in the protagonist’s life. It is essential to understand our antagonist to understand our story, because it will fundamentally be the antagonist’s and our protagonist’s goals opposing that will create the major conflict of the story.
Today I’m going to go over some basic types of antagonists to start this little mini-series off.
Not all antagonists are made equal. We have several different varieties of antagonist, kind of like a box of chocolates.
Let’s start off with an obvious one: the villain. Villains are pretty standard as antagonists go.
Now, many think that the antagonist and the villain are one and the same. At times, this can be true. It’s kind of like hot tubs. All Jacuzzis are hot tubs, but not all hot tubs are Jacuzzis. This is the same with villains: All villains are antagonists, but not all antagonists are villains.
So what differentiates them from other antagonists?
Let’s look at some definitions first.
Villains: ‘evil’ character intent on hurting others.
Antagonists: a character (but not always) who opposes the actions of the protagonist.
From these definitions alone we can see that what separates them is ‘intention’, or in other words ‘motivation’. We can see that while the villain has the goal to cause harm, the antagonist’s goal is to oppose the protagonist. So, whilst the villain can have both goals as an antagonist, not all antagonists will have the goal to harm.
Most important of all is that (usually) they will be blind to their own villainy.
These guys are like villains in that they are ‘evil’ and cause harm to our protagonists, but they have one big difference. They don’t see that they are causing harm, in fact they think rather the opposite. They believe they are doing a service to others, and actually, deep down, seem to set out with good intentions. However, their way of getting to the ‘doing good’ bit is evil and they cause harm none the less. Even their personality may not come across as ‘evil’ at times – they are not so much an evil person rather the things they do to achieve their goals are evil.
As an antagonist, they will oppose the protagonist at almost every turn, with their goal in direct conflict with the hero, believing the hero to be the antagonist in their own story, after all they are the ones with heroic goals (in their minds).
The Envious Antagonist
These guys are not evil like their villainous counterparts. They are pretty ordinary people. And, as their name suggests, their opposition to our protagonists comes from envy. This is an ordinary emotion that most (if not all) of us will have experienced at one point or another. This envy will drive them to treat others, mainly the protagonist, in a bad way simply out of spite.
These antagonists will often seem to have it all: popularity, beauty, wealth, everything. But deep down they are hiding their own personal insecurities behind it all.
The Ethical Antagonists
These antagonists are also not evil, and are driven once again by emotions. This time, though, it is their morality. Now that may seem quite good. And it is. To a point. Hey, these guys could even masquerade as heroes!
Which is why they are so concerning.
They aren’t evil, in fact they are very good. But they are good to a fault, taking it to the extreme, putting themselves on a self-appointed mission to save everyone. This could include or be in spite of our protagonists – ergo putting them in the frame as an antagonist. And as soon as their goals come into conflict with the protagonist’s? We have a problem.
It is important to note that these antagonists provide the perfect opportunity to explore moral grey areas, since their moral code will adhere to that of society, but also mustn’t match up with our protagonist’s moral code somewhere along the line. And out of nowhere comes conflict. Moral conflict. Beautiful.
Most importantly, each of these antagonists MUST believe they are the protagonist of their own story. This is not just reserved for the Anti-Villain. Each one of them has their own goals, which they believe in fully. So when our protagonist comes skipping along, and gets in their way, our protagonist becomes the antagonist in their story. So, this conflict works both ways, though it will be told from the protagonist’s standpoint.
Antagonists don’t always have to be people either. There are three other types of antagonist.
Person vs. Self
In this example, the protagonist must face something internal, for example alcoholism or drug addiction, coping with betrayal, even (taking it back to the ethical antagonist) being good to a fault and always helping others to the detriment of themselves.
Often we will find that this internal conflict will be represented externally by a person. But the main conflict is against themselves. This also relates to the ‘lie they tell themselves’ (I’ll make a post on this at a later point to elaborate).
It is also common to find a bit of this in most stories, though it won’t be the central antagonistic force. The protagonist will often have to overcome some internal battle with their fatal flaw in order to be able to defeat their antagonist at the end.
Person vs. Nature
This is a different kind of antagonistic force, often one that cannot be defeated but simply has to be endured. For example, the protagonist gets stuck in a snow storm and fights to survive, or escaping a sudden volcano eruption, or a tsunami. Natural disasters tend to be the theme here. There is no personification of this antagonist.
Person vs. Society
This tends to be the protagonist having a problem with the status quo. The Hunger Games is a good example of this because Katniss is against the idea of society putting all these kids into an arena to fight to the death – and so, over the course of the series, rebels against this system.
Everyone is in the character’s way in this example, yet ‘everyone’ is not the problem. ‘Everyone’ just goes along with the way things are, after all what can they do? But our protagonist is the one who fights against that, finding issue with the system. But often they are not exactly fighting against a person, per se, but the society and how things are done.
Often the antagonistic force will be represented by a person. In The Hunger Games this is President Snow.
That’s enough for one day I think.
Next time I will be looking at the different levels of antagonist, and how these differing levels can play out in our stories.
As a side note, if you want to know more about the ‘lie the character tells themselves’, or as it is also put ‘the lie that the character believes’, I would suggest taking a look at K. M. Weiland’s post on it at the following link: http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/character-arcs-2/