Protagonist drives the plot forward.
Antagonist tries to stop him.
Now before we get into more detail, the Protagonist is not a Hero or even the Main Character. And the Antagonist is not a Villain or the Influence Character who tries to get the Main Character to change his ways or values.
The Protagonist is the Prime Mover of the effort to achieve the Story’s Goal – that and nothing more. The Antagonist is the Chief Obstacle to that effort. In a sense, Protagonist is the irresistible force and Antagonist is the immovable object.
Protagonist and Antagonist are archetypal characters. That means they have a dramatic function in the story:
Hero is a combination character who is a Protagonist who is ALSO a Main Character (the one we identify with) and also a good guy (with good will toward others).
Villain is another combination character who is an Antagonist who is ALSO the Influence character (trying to change the Main Character’s heart and mind) and also a bad guy (with ill will toward others).
In this article, we’re going to put aside those other aspects and focus solely on the archetypal function of these two essential archetypal characters.
Where do the Protagonist and Antagonist come from? When people come together in groups for a common purpose, one emerges as the voice of change and another as the voice of the status quo.
The character who wishes to affect change is the Protagonist and the one who wants to maintain or return to the status quo is the Antagonist. Over hundreds of generations, storytellers documented these two archetypes (and others) because it is what they saw in real life. And so, eventually, the archetypal characters became part of the conventions of story structure.
But why do these two characters emerge in groups in the real world?
When we try to solve problems in our individual lives, we use all our faculties – reason, skepticism, etc. When we gather in groups to solve common problems, we get a lot more done if we specialize so that one person becomes the voice of reason and another the resident skeptic. This way, each of the specialists can give his or her full attention to the problem from his perspective, and as a whole, the group gets a deeper dive into the issues that if we all tried to do all the jobs ourselves.
So, in a sense, the functions that emerge in a group, represent the same traits we have in our own minds as individuals. For example, in our own minds, we survey our environment and consider whether or not we could improve things by taking action to change them. The struggle between the drive to change things and the drive to leave them be is the same struggle represented by the Protagonist and Antagonist in a story.
So, in a word, the Protagonist represents our Initiative, the motivation to change the status quo. The Antagonist embodies our Reticence to change the status quo. These are perhaps our two most obvious human traits – the drive to alter our environment and the drive to keep things the way they are. That is likely why the Archetypes that represent them are usually the two most visible in a story.
Functionally, the character you choose as your Protagonist will exhibit unswerving drive. No matter what the obstacles, no matter what the price, the Protagonist will charge forward and try to convince everyone else to follow.
Without a Protagonist, your story would have no directed drive. It would likely meander through a series of events without any sense of compelling inevitability. When the climax arrives, it would likely be weak, not seen as the culmination and moment of truth so much as simply the end.
This is not to say that the Protagonist won’t be misled or even temporarily convinced to stop trying, but like a smoldering fire the Protagonist is a self-starter. Eventually, he or she will ignite again and once more resume the drive toward the goal.
What, now, of the Antagonist? We have all heard the idioms, Let sleeping dogs lie, Leave well enough alone, and If it works – don’t fix it. All of these express that very same human quality embodied by the Antagonist: Reticence.
To be clear, Reticence does not mean that the Antagonist is afraid of change. While that may be true, it may instead be that the Antagonist is simply comfortable with the way things are or may even be ecstatic about them. Or, he or she may not care about the way things are but hate the way they would become if the goal were achieved.
Functionally, your Antagonist will try anything and everything to prevent the goal from being achieved. No matter what the cost, any price would not seem as bad to this character as the conditions he or she would endure if the goal comes to be. The Antagonist will never cease in its efforts, and will marshal every resource (human and material) to see that the Protagonist fails in his efforts.
Without an Antagonist, your story would have no concerted force directed against the Protagonist. Obstacles would seem arbitrary and inconsequential. When the climax arrives, it would likely seem insignificant, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
As with the Protagonist, don’t be trapped into building an Antagonist with a mean personality. There are many stories with Antagonist’s who are actually right in trying to stop the goal.
Think of James Bond for a moment. The “Bond Villain” is almost always the Protagonist – starting some new scheme with a goal to change the world. Bond himself is the Antagonist, as strange as it may seem, for his job is to prevent the change and/or put things back the way they were. So, as described earlier, it may well be that the Protagonist is the Bad Guy and the Antagonist is the Good Guy. Or, in fact both may be Good or both Bad, as often happens in more sophisticated stories.
The important thing is that the Antagonist must be in a position in the plot to place obstacles in the path of the Protagonist, not just to make the quest more difficult (another archetype does that), but to actually try to prevent the Protagonist from succeeding.
Now that you know a bit more about who the Protagonist and Antagonist really are, see if you can’t refine their dramatic functions in your next story or even the one you may currently have in development
Learn more about Archetypal Characters