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What Does “Antagonist” Mean in Literature?

Updated on October 18, 2023Students

Every story needs an antihero, right? After all, without that bad person, there’s nothing standing between the hero and their goal . . . which makes for a pretty boring story.

But life isn’t always that straightforward, and neither is literature. Sometimes that “bad guy” isn’t a person at all, but takes the form of societal ills or political upheaval. In other stories, it’s the main character themself. That’s why the term “bad guy” can be too simplistic for this important role: an antagonist in a story.

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What is the meaning of antagonist?

In writing, an antagonist is defined as the character or force that opposes the protagonist. This pushback creates conflict in the story and builds tension. An antagonist can be anything opposing the protagonist: another character, the status quo, forces of nature, or even the protagonist themself.

In a work of fiction, the antagonist is often, but not always, the “bad guy.” Think about the seven types of conflict in literature:

  • Person versus person
  • Person versus self
  • Person versus nature
  • Person versus society
  • Person versus machine/technology
  • Person versus supernatural being
  • Person versus fate/destiny

In a story in which the conflict is person versus person or person versus supernatural being, there can absolutely be a “bad guy” antagonist. But what about a person versus nature or a person versus self story? You can’t realistically call nature a villain—and can the same character be both the protagonist and the villain in their story?

Antagonist vs. villain

This is why it’s important to remember the difference between an antagonist and a villain. In literature, the antagonist is simply the person or force that’s opposing the protagonist. In other words, the antagonist is the obstacle keeping the protagonist from reaching their goal. A villain, on the other hand, is a character whose malicious or evil behavior is crucial to the story’s plot.

In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the roles of protagonist, antagonist, and villain are subverted. Captain Ahab is the novel’s protagonist, as the narrative largely focuses on his struggle. He’s also the villain—his obsessive thirst for vengeance against an animal is his defining characteristic and his ultimate downfall. The novel’s antagonist is its titular whale, Moby Dick. This is because the whale is the obstacle the protagonist, Ahab, faces.

In a story with a person versus self conflict, the protagonist is also the story’s antagonist. Crime and Punishment is one such novel in which the protagonist’s struggle comes from his feelings about his actions and their repercussions.

It’s possible for there to be more than one antagonist in a story. Part or all of a story can be told from the antagonist’s point of view, and this can be done in first, second, or third person.

What are the characteristics of an antagonist?

Although it can be easy to imagine an antagonist as a conniving, dastardly bully whose only goal is to harm the story’s protagonist, this isn’t always the case. An antagonist literature character can be a well-intentioned yet misguided character simply trying to maintain the status quo. An example of this type of antagonist is O’Brien in 1984. An antagonist can also be good—if the story features a “bad” protagonist.

The only defining characteristic of an antagonist is that they’re standing between the protagonist and their goal in some way, even if the protagonist is an amoral or unlikeable character.

To recognize an antagonist character in literature, pay attention to the character’s behavior and motives:

  • Ask yourself: “What does this character want?” and “What is this character doing?”
  • Take note of how the character interacts with the protagonist

Antagonists can be subtle, and a story might have one or more minor antagonists who are agents of, or even victims of, the story’s main antagonist. Serena Joy in The Handmaid’s Tale is an example of this type of antagonist, as she enforces oppressive laws and structure but also suffers under these same laws herself.

Through the antagonist’s actions, a story’s themes are often made clearer to the reader. Their interactions with the protagonist and other characters can also illuminate literary devices like metaphor and foreshadowing.

Antagonist vs. protagonist

Protagonist and antagonist are antonyms. This means they are the opposite of each other.

In a story, the protagonist is the main character. This is the character who faces the story’s conflict and is changed by it in some way. The antagonist is the person or force standing between the protagonist and their triumph over the conflict.

A protagonist doesn’t always come face-to-face with the story’s antagonist. Although plenty of stories include confrontations between protagonists and their opposition, a story about a person versus society might instead show the protagonist prevailing by subverting societal expectations in some way, rather than ushering in a change. Generally, a story’s protagonist acknowledges the antagonist, or the antagonist’s role, in the plot, or it is made clear to the reader through other means.

Antagonist vs. antagonistic

The word antagonistic means showing or feeling active opposition or hostility. It is an adjective, and it describes feelings and behaviors that are associated with antagonists.

Antagonist, on the other hand, is a noun. It describes a character who exhibits antagonistic qualities. A character can be antagonistic without being an antagonist.

5 antagonist examples in literature

1 Grendel in Beowulf. Grendel is described as “a creature of darkness, exiled from happiness and accursed of God, the destroyer and devourer of our human kind.”

2  In the short story All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury, the children in the main character Margot’s class, who lock her in the closet, are the story’s antagonists.

3  In The Color Purple, Albert “Mister” Johnson, the protagonist Celie’s husband, is the primary antagonist through his bullying and controlling of Celie.

4  In Life of Pi, protagonist Pi Patel finds himself sharing a lifeboat with a tiger. The tiger and the ocean, two forces of nature, are the two antagonists challenging Pi in his attempts to get back to land and make sense of his life.

5  In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the protagonist and antagonist are the same person. Dr. Jekyll begins the story as a good-natured doctor who takes an experimental serum meant to isolate the worst aspects of his personality—transforming him into Mr. Hyde and preventing him from successfully separating these parts of himself.

Antagonist FAQs

What is an antagonist in literature?

In literature, an antagonist is the person or force that opposes the protagonist in the protagonist’s effort to prevail in the story’s conflict.

What is the purpose of an antagonist?

The purpose of an antagonist is to challenge the protagonist. This creates drama, which makes the story more engaging to readers and creates opportunities to showcase the protagonist’s strengths and flaws.

What are the different kinds of antagonists?

An antagonist can be a single character, or it can be a group of characters. Antagonists don’t need to be human, either—they can be animals, robots, aliens, or technologies. In some stories, the antagonist can be the protagonist’s culture, environment, fate, or even an attribute of themselves.

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