Creating captivating and enticing characters can be one of the most challenging aspects of creative writing. Not only do you have to consider their individual traits, but also their place and purpose in the narrative.
Typically, stories within the popular sphere tend to feature a back-and-forth between one or more protagonists and an opposing antagonist. However, this does not always have to be the case!
Below, we’ll dive deep into how you can approach this vital narrative decision, exploring your options surrounding the use or subversion of a protagonist vs. antagonist approach.
Does a story always have to have a protagonist and an antagonist?
Conflicts, resolutions, hardships and triumphs form the crux and underlying foundation of most novels and films. The conflict between protagonists and antagonists has represented the heart of many of history’s most compelling tales.
You might think that in order to successfully achieve and implement these pieces of the puzzle, you will need to set up both a protagonist and their opposing antagonist.
But despite it being a common trope of many famous storylines, there are many ways to rethink this approach and stamp your very own creative imprint on the page.
Breaking the mould of a clear-cut one-sided good vs. evil battle to instead create complex characters with their own strengths and flaws, you can make the audience question who the antagonist truly is.
By definition, an antagonist is a character or entity that reappears throughout the story, causing harm or creating obstacles and challenges for the primary protagonists.
Contrary to popular thought, an antagonist can also be represented in a wide variety of forms, from a positive figure to an entity, idea or goal your main character may be striving to achieve.
So, do you need the interplay between a protagonist and an antagonist?
The answer lies not in a simple yes or no answer, but in the way we approach the idea of how protagonists and antagonists can be represented within a narrative.
Things to consider when creating protagonists and antagonists
1. Types of antagonists
Before we dive into the centre of this question, we must first define what it means to be an antagonist. What are their defining features and how are antagonists typically represented?
This type of antagonist, usually referred to as the ‘villain’ of the story, is both easy to recognise and easy to implement in your narrative.
Whether they are motivated by a will to dominate or a desire for money, revenge, power or supremacy, characters under this category rarely stray from their goal and will stop at nothing to achieve it.
The opposing antagonist is not simply good or evil; rather, they simply serve the purpose of counteracting a primary protagonist.
Any manifestation or type of character can fill this role. They simply need to represent an opposition in some way.
This could be in the form of a competing athlete, a coworker, a love interest or a family member – even secondary characters who play a minor role can fit within this distinction.
Beyond physical form, this type of adversary acts as a superior or dominating force in the protagonist’s life.
Government, society, nature or spirituality can all serve to create a presence-style antagonist, which acts as an overarching opposition to the desires, goals and wishes of the main character/s.
Sometimes we are our own worst enemies, our very own antagonists.
Mental struggles, laziness, shyness, physical barriers or an inability to communicate can serve as a means to prevent us from achieving our goals and objectives.
Particularly evident in first-person writing, this approach takes the opposing role from external to internal.
2. Character arcs
A character arc represents the inner journey undertaken by each individual within your fictional world.
In many literary cases, these arcs continue in a linear fashion – meaning that a character presented as good stays within this arc, and an evil character the same.
Effectively, this means that whichever side of the fence these characters fall upon (hero, villain or neither), their actions generally remain within that same sphere.
By exploring the outer confines, however, your characters can have an arc that represents a distinctive shift away from the audience’s perception of them.
For example, a previously honest and righteous individual can turn dishonest and immoral, and vice versa.
At its foundation, this tactic allows you to fundamentally redefine the roles of your characters throughout the progression of the storyline.
As in life, transformation is natural and occurs often. This means that your narrative’s protagonists and antagonists do not have to remain within their expected character arcs.
For instance, Severus Snape represented a classic opposing antagonist villain throughout the majority of the Harry Potter novels, until his underlying good intentions were finally revealed at the culmination of the series.
3. Blending the two together
Sometimes, there is no clear distinction of whether a character is a protagonist or an antagonist.
Whether their intentions are unknown, their actions are both positive and negative, or they are their own worst enemy, a primary character can be both a protagonist and an antagonist at the same time.
This can also extend to the creation of an ‘anti-hero’. This type of character has become increasingly prevalent in both literature and film/TV writing.
Equipped with complexity and a constant dichotomy of good and evil, characters of this ilk can play the role of the protagonist and antagonist all in one.
In the case of TV writing, the character of Tony Soprano is a prime example of this amalgamation.
While Tony is the primary protagonist of The Sopranos and therefore generally garners the approval and support of the audience, he is also a deeply flawed mob boss who carries out unspeakable acts of violence and infidelity.
At any time, his character can serve as a protagonist we support or a typical antagonist we might root against, changing from episode to episode.
Creating multi-layered characters battling this type of inner conflict between right and wrong allows you to move away from the traditional straight-down-the-line approach of a hero vs. villain narrative.
4. The classic approach
Of course, the back-and-forth conflict between protagonists and antagonists has formed the basis of many great tales throughout history.
From screenplays to epic works of fiction, this arrangement allows for the introduction of dramatic highs and lows throughout the narrative.
Under the guise of this approach, the antagonist is typically revealed early, with insight given into their story or motivation.
For instance, the ever-present evil of Sauron (the primary antagonist in The Lord of The Rings) is immediately revealed in the prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring. This establishes a clear and defined antagonist from the outset.
In the context of creating ongoing obstacles and instances of conflict for your protagonists, a distinctive antagonist can answer the call.
Defeating or overcoming this antagonist also offers a clearly defined purpose for your main characters.
This time-old tradition of storytelling also offers you (as the writer) a simple and effective way to engage with the reader, as it creates a swinging pendulum of highs and lows to keep the audience on edge.
At the end of the day, the decision is all up to you. Before you consider taking the classic protagonist-and-antagonist approach, first consider the nature of your story.
Do you wish to create clearly defined roles of good and evil, or could the addition of an anti-hero who represents both be a better fit?
Whichever approach you decide to take, remember that you do not have to stick to the time-old traditions in which a protagonist and antagonist pit it out against each other in a final battle.
This is particularly relevant if your writing falls outside the genres of adventure, sci-fi and fantasy novels, in which this classic approach is typically undertaken.
Character arcs represent an ability to redefine the perception of antagonist throughout the progression of the story. Even if they begin as one of the four primary types, a transformation can reveal that they were not who readers thought they were.
In line with this idea of transformation and change, the role of your protagonist and antagonist can also be wrapped up all in one.
Ultimately, your handling of this decision should be centred upon what works best for the progression of the narrative, working in line with your underlying themes and message.
Rather than attempting to shoehorn in the creation of a protagonist vs. antagonist arrangement, you can redefine the concept entirely!