The Four Types of Antagonist
An antagonist is a character or group at odds with the protagonist or other characters. Although a protagonist can exist alone, an antagonist requires someone to antagonise. Whilst every story features different antagonists depending on the setting and characters, antagonists in general can be grouped into four distinct categories, each of which contain their own attributes.
A villain is a villain. Some characters are just outright evil, and that is fine. Whether through nature or nurture, characters can be partially or entirely evil. There is a habit amongst writers to attempt sympathetic backstories for villains to explain—or even justify—their actions, or provide them with redemption or closure. At times, these can be successful, though often they are not only redundant, but counterproductive and remove the mystery of the character.
Hannibal Lector is a prime example of an evil antagonist, as he is manipulative and corrupting purely for the sake of it. He devours his victims and revels in his brilliance as most of his crimes are unknown to the authorities.
Similarly, Voldemort’s motivations are an integral part of his character, and all his actions are evil. Gollum from Lord of the Rings would also fit into this category, as although he has empathetic qualities and a tragic arc, he acts out of malice and is driven by his own greed.
A normal, everyday character can fulfil the antagonist role, simply by opposing the protagonist. They could be good, bad, or a blend (as any fully-fledged character should be) but through either their principles, employment, task, or out of necessity, they oppose the protagonist and work against them.
Inspector Javert from Les Misérables is simply doing his job, yet acts as antagonist to Jean Valjean throughout the epic novel. His vocation sets him up in opposition to the protagonist, yet he the reader can empathise with and understand him.
The xenomorph in Alien is simply fulfilling its lifecycle and marking out its territory, yet to Ripley and her crew it is a deadly threat.
A superior antagonist is anyone—or anything—that naturally dominates the protagonist. Nature, society, religion, or an invading force, all fit the superior category. The protagonist is the underdog, destined to lose but for their own cunning and brilliance, or that of others around them.
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four pits an ordinary man, Winston Smith, against a totalitarian state. The antagonist is the state, and its representatives are simply mouthpieces.
The Children in the Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham are extra-terrestrial, and they are superior to the human characters around them. In the same way, the Terminator series sees humanity fighting against machines, where both one-on-one and as a society humanity is inferior, and the inevitability of the future also becomes an antagonist in its own right.
Internal antagonists are often less of an entire character and more an aspect of a personality, as the protagonist’s own conscience, desires, or other subconscious reactions or motivations battle with their conscious will. The internal antagonist creates conflict within rather than without, and although harder to define, often appears unnoticed.
In Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Gregor wakes up transformed into a new creature. He then faces himself as an antagonist, as he struggles to resolve his mind with his new body.
Jason Bourne, in Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity, suffers from amnesia after being shot. Whilst he battles several external antagonists—evil, opposing, and superior—he also has his own mind at odds with him, as he cannot remember who he is or why he has certain abilities. His memory becomes another antagonist, and his newfound conscience sets him against his own past.
Although antagonists can be categorised, their attributes need to be organic based upon their characters and surroundings, and multiple types can be used together. Stories do not need to be limited to one antagonist, either, nor do characters; each character can have their own antagonist, as each is the protagonist of their own story. Effective antagonists will ensure your narrative is memorable and your other characters are suitably challenged.
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© 2018 Seb Reilly
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Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.