It’s Antagonist April, and all this month, I’ll be doing a deep dive into those characters that give our heroes and main characters opposition to their goals. This week, we’ll explore the characteristics of an antagonist.
Let’s get started!
What is an Antagonist?
Whether they’re called an antagonist, a villain, the opposition, the enemy, or an adversary, this character in your story is against whatever goal your protagonist or main character wishes to achieve. The antagonist “holds back the ruthlessly onrushing protagonist,” making their lives and plans more difficult throughout the story (Egri 116).
This particular character is an essential narrative component, helping to drive the conflict and the story forward. In fact, “[s]tructurally the opponent always holds the key, because your hero learns through his opponent. It is only because the opponent is attacking the hero’s greatest weakness that the hero is forced to deal with it and grow” (Truby 88).
If things go smoothly and without any problems, then you don’t have a story that will grab a reader’s attention. There has to be something present that pushes back on the main character, and that opposing force helps them reassess, reevaluate, and develop as a character throughout the story. Essentially, this happens because “the values of the opponent come into conflict with the values of the hero” (Truby 90). This clash in values creates the conflict that results in drama, and that dramatic engine helps drive the story forward.
Think about your favorite movie. Who is the main character? What is their goal? Who in the story opposes that goal and wants to prevent them from reaching it? That is your antagonist. They can be overtly oppositional or covertly oppose the hero. Still, their presence is needed to keep the story moving and the main character in a constant uphill battle to reach their intended goal.
A story’s antagonist is a force to be dealt with, and “by ‘forces of antagonism’ we mean the sum total of all forces that oppose the character’s will and desire” (McKee 317-318). It cannot be avoided; it must be faced by the hero and defeated by the end of the story. This is why an antagonist has to be presented as a formidable foe since “a strong enemy forces a hero to rise to the challenge” (Vogler 72). If the antagonist has no power or control over the main character’s world, situation, or goals, then they are not a viable opposing force.
This is why “[t]he Adversary must appear to be the most powerful character in the story” (Edson 57). They have to have a clear edge and advantage over the hero for there to be stakes for the hero to traverse and overcome. Classic Disney villains possess this quality and have all the power, control, and abilities that the hero of the story lacks.
Now that we know who they are, let’s discuss the various types of antagonists that exist.
Types of Antagonists
“The Principle of Antagonism: A protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them” (McKee 317). Not all stories require a Marvel-style villain or a James Bond-level threat. Some stories have a human opposition that’s real and not out to take over the world.
These are the antagonists in comic book movies, action movies, or Bond films. They are oppositional forces that are clear-cut and easy to see for the adversaries that they are. In these cases, “[i]f the antagonist is evil, or capable of cruel and criminal actions, he or she is called the villain” (Abrams 225).
Sports films like The Rocky movies and other sports stories also utilize this type of antagonist structure. The opposing team or person may not be a villain, but their actions could be seen as unethical or tainted by negative qualities in the eyes of the hero.
Environmental, Social, Governmental
The antagonist is an oppositional force that is part of a larger system. However, it should be noted that “like every other type of story, man-against-nature movies work best when there’s also a human Adversary present” (Edson 60). So, even if the main driver of the story is a volcano, the hero has to have a human antagonist present to oppose them.
In the 1997 film Volcano, while the L.A.-based disaster is at the forefront, our main character – OEM Director Mike Roark – still has to deal with the oppositional opinions and ideas of seismologist Dr. Amy Barnes as the disaster unfolds.
When it’s a story dealing with a natural disaster, I feel that the opposing forces can disagree on how to deal with the situation, which could result in the antagonist’s demise in some disaster-related way. This is evident in the 1996 film Twister, where the storm-chasing opposition, led by Dr. Jonas Miller, is “in it for the money, not the science,” a sentiment that ultimately gets him killed thanks to his arrogance.
Societal antagonism can rear its ugly head in the form of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other society-based ills. While these can be overarching backdrops for a story, these need to have a singular adversary for the hero to confront. In the 2007 film, Hairspray, Tracy Turnblad fights against a whitewashed system that refuses to allow integration on a local TV show. Her opposition is Velma Von Tussle, who represents the bigoted and racist views of 1962 society in human form in the story.
It’s the same with government systems. The main character may be fighting the system, but the system needs a representative antagonist for the hero to confront and fight against. In the 1994 film, The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne’s antagonist is Warden Norton, the human face of the prison system that Andy must fight against – and ultimately escape – in the story.
In the societal and governmental areas, you want “one single, powerful character who’s every bit as committed to preventing the Hero from reaching her goal as the Hero is to accomplishing it” (Edson 56).
While antagonists can often be bigger than life, imposing forces of evil and destruction, some antagonists are more realistic in their scope. Sometimes “[a]ntagonists may not be quite so hostile – they may be Allies who are after the same goal but who disagree with the hero’s tactics” (Vogler 71). A father who wants his son to forget about rockets and focus on his future in the coal mines, like in the 1999 film October Sky. The father wants what’s best for his son and wants him to have a realistic outlook on his future. This is in opposition to what the son wants, which in turn creates a realistic conflict.
This is why it’s good to remember that “[a]n Adversary is the main opposing force, but [they are] not necessarily a bad or evil person” (Edson 61). They might strongly disagree with the main character’s goals. They may want the main character to pursue something else, not do something they feel is problematic or even have had a tragedy in their past that influences their opposition.
Whew, that was a lot to cover! But we’re only getting started. I’ll be back on Wednesday as we continue to explore antagonists all month! See you then!
Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Harcourt Brace, 1999.
Edson, Eric. The Story Solution. Michael Wiese Productions, 2011.
Egri, Lajos. The Art of Dramatic Writing. Simon & Schuster, 2004.
McKee, Robert. Story. Harper Collins, 1997.
Truby, John. The Anatomy of Story. Faber and Faber, 2007.
Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Michael Wiese Productions, 1998.