What Is the Role of the Antagonist?
Even people who would do just about anything to avoid conflict in their own homes or at their jobs often want a real troublemaker in a story they read or a show they watch. Most every protagonist needs somebody to pit will or brains or beauty against. A story can have one or more antagonists, but almost all require this role to be filled in order to create narrative tension that will keep the reader reading, the story unfolding, and somebody for both the reader and the protagonist to want to beat.
The antagonist actually has a widely varying and extremely important job. In good literature and the finest films, this character might be hard to spot, at least initially. The main character, or protagonist, might think this anti-version is really a best friend or true love. It is usually the reader or viewer who gets it first and spends the rest of the story waiting for the protagonist to recognize the bad guy.
A good storyteller, regardless of medium, invests an antagonist with at least some saving graces. Perhaps this individual was deeply wounded as a child, or perhaps he or she truly believes in a moral righteousness that the audience can see is misguided. Some of these characters begin on the protagonist’s side and are driven or seduced away by circumstances beyond their control.
A well-crafted antagonist helps the plot to unfold by tugging the narrative thread just enough to force the story forward. Often, an author gives the villain the opportunity to drive the story into new and unexpected twists and turns. Those that exhibit round or deeply human feelings, motivations, and needs are often easier to forgive, and they are also more likely to spin twists into the action that are surprising.
Genre fiction and films, such as works that deal with magic, murder, space creatures, and the like, are often less likely to have highly developed, complex antagonists. These types of stories are more likely to depend upon flatter characters with stock behaviors that are easy for the audience to recognize. The witch in the fairy tale, the troll in the folktale, and the insane murderer in the slasher film are examples of the types of bad guys that audiences love to hate and have no need to humanize.
I know some people who say that every good story needs an antagonist, but I have read and seen many great stories that have no clear bad guy, or no negative presence at all. Some of these stories even had a real sense of drama.
@ElizaBennett - There is actually an Edgar Allen Poe short story where the self is the antagonist, and the protagonist for that matter.
The story is called William Wilson. The main character is a scoundrel named William Wilson who discovers that he has a twin who has been foiling him ever time he wants to do something mischievous. It is hard to say who is the good guy and who is the bad guy, but by virtue of being twins they are the same.
I read a book recently that was an absolute disaster because it lacked a clear antagonist. I will refrain from mentioning the title because it is not worth picking up under any circumstance.
Basically, the plot involves a bunch of ranchers forming a vigilante gang to run cattle thieves out of Montana. But as the bodies start to pile up, their violence begins to seem more maniacal than righteous. That is because there is not one big evil cattle thief who can justify the way they respond. The thieves are nameless and faceless and mostly serve as things to get shot full of holes. It goes to show how important a bad guy is.
I want to dispute the point about genre fiction. The article isn't wrong - there is a lot of junk genre fiction - but there is also a lot that's good and has fully developed antagonists. Magneto from X-Men is a great example. The protagonists disagree with him, and he and his people are willing to do bad things. But he's not a cardboard antagonist.
He has a troubled background in the Holocaust, which builds sympathy, and his motives are not completely unsympathetic. If "regular" people are unwilling to live in harmony with mutants, well, the answer isn't for mutants to hide and make nice, but for them to take over!
@ElizaBennett - An antagonist, in literature, does have to be a person or a group of people. (Like the old TV show Get Smart, the whole organization KAOS was the antagonist.)
In the other sorts of conflict, the opposing force is not considered an antagonist, so not every story has one. The Perfect Storm, for instance, had no villain, just the storm; it lacked an antagonist.
Does the definition of antagonist require that it be a person? Because every story has a protagonist and the protagonist has to have some sort of conflict, but I know there's not always a "villain."
I remember learning about other sorts of conflicts, like man vs. nature and man vs. himself. Would nature be the antagonist? Could "self" be one?
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