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What is an Antagonist?

By Licia Morrow
Updated May 17, 2024
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An antagonist is the person working against the protagonist, or main character. The origin of the word "antagonist" is the Greek antagonistes meaning opponent, competitor, or rival. While the antagonist is not necessarily a villain, a character pitted against the main character is typically depicted in a negative way. Many forms of entertainment utilize the battle between a protagonist and his or her antagonist, including movies and literature.

Many antagonists are villainous and block the main character’s progress through evil plots and actions. King Creon, in Sophocles’ play Antigone, is a classic example of an evil antagonist. The main character, Antigone, must struggle against him in an attempt to give her brother a decent burial. Creon hinders her success in this endeavor by declaring her brother a traitor and decreeing that he must be left to the elements.

Another example of a villainous antagonist would be Iago in Shakespeare’s play Othello. Jealous Iago plots ways to bring the downfall of Othello, eventually succeeding in convincing Othello to kill his own wife.

This battle between “good guys” and “bad guys” can also be seen in movies. Cowboy Westerns, for example, typically revolve around a storyline in which a law-abiding, decent, courageous man is fighting against a ruthless, cruel villain or gang of villains. In this type of movie, the protagonist, often wearing light-colored clothing or the uniform of a law man, fights against obstacles put in place by the antagonist, who usually wears black clothing and is shown often in dark shadows to enhance his menacing actions.

However, a virtuous character can be considered an antagonist if he or she blocks the protagonist’s progress in other ways. An example of this would be the mother-daughter relationships found in Amy Tan’s works about Chinese-Americans, such as The Joy Luck Club. The mothers in these novels and short stories often block their daughters’ progression through the stories, not in evil or maniacal ways, but in an attempt to continually draw them back into Chinese tradition and culture.

Another example of an antagonist who lacks evil intentions would be Joanna Kramer in the movie Kramer vs. Kramer. After leaving her family, Joanna, played by Meryl Streep, reappears in her son’s life, threatening the relationship his father, Ted Kramer -- played by Dustin Hoffman -- has established with him. Her intentions are to re-connect with her son, but she hinders the progress Ted, the protagonist, has made throughout the movie.

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Discussion Comments

By cupcake15 — On Dec 28, 2010

Sunshine31-I love that story. I will say that many of the Disney films depict this type of struggle. The themes usually revolve around good vs. evil.

For example, in the recent Disney film “Tangled” this was an adaptation of the classic Brothers Grimm story of Rapunzel.

Here the indirect antagonist in the story is the women that raised Rapunzel. She actually kidnapped her as a baby and raised her as her own and did not allow her to leave her home.

This is really a great film that leaves you rooting for the main character and hoping that she gets reunited with her birth family. Like all Disney films, this one also has a happy ending and the antagonist always gets what they deserve in the end of the story.

By sunshine31 — On Dec 27, 2010

The relationship between the antagonist and the main character allow the reader to relate to the struggle of the main character.

Most people can relate because we have all had struggles with other people in our lives and this connects the reader to the main character. This connection often allows the reader to develop sympathy for the main character that is about to be wronged.

For example, in the Brothers Grimm classic, “The Little Mermaid” the main antagonist is Ursula who wants to control Ariel and offers her the opportunity to become human so that she could marry the love of her life, but in return Ariel must give up her beautiful voice.

Ursula really had no desire to really help Ariel and in reality she wanted to trick Ariel into thinking that she would help. Ursula wanted Ariel’s voice and wanted her to be a slave to her forever.

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