Definition of Antagonist

In literature, an antagonist is a character, group of characters, or other force that presents an obstacle or is in direct conflict with the protagonist. The antagonist is most often one character who has a goal that opposes the protagonist’s goal and will try to stop the protagonist from getting what he or she wants.

The word “antagonist” comes from the Greek for “a competitor, rival, or opponent.” In Greek, the parts of the words are “anti-,” which means “against” and “agonizesthai,” which means “to contend for a prize.”

Difference Between Antagonist and Villain

The definition of antagonist states that this character or characters works in opposition to the protagonist. This does not mean, however, that the antagonist is necessarily a villain or that the antagonist’s motives are inherently evil. For example, the protagonist of a story might be a person wrongly accused of a crime who is on the run; the chief of police acts as an antagonist in the story not because he is a “bad guy,” but because his goal is the opposite of the protagonist’s goal, and he will present obstacles to the protagonist. A villain, on the other hand, is a character who has evil intentions. While not every antagonist is a villain, it is generally true that all villains are antagonists to the main character.

Common Examples of Antagonist

We are all familiar with examples of antagonists in our own lives—an antagonist is any person who stops us from getting what we want. The antagonist may play a very small or very large part in our lives. Consider the following situations:

  • You’re in line for a promotion. A friend of yours gets the job instead.
  • Someone cuts you off as you’re driving to work, making you late.
  • Your grandmother’s will is read, and your estranged brother has inherited everything. You had already made plans for the money your grandmother told you that you would inherit.

Significance of Antagonist in Literature

Almost all works of literature contain at least one antagonist. Conflict is a key aspect of storytelling, and the presence of an antagonist is usually the main source of conflict. If the protagonist were able to get everything he or she desired easily, there would be no real story to tell. Therefore, the antagonist’s act of working against a protagonist or creating obstacles for the protagonist is an important element of most literature. There may be more than one antagonist in a work of literature, and some characters may function temporarily as antagonists even if they are generally working toward the same goal and/or on the same side as the protagonist.

There are a few different types of antagonists:

  • Individual characters—This is often the most easily identified type of antagonist, and is a person who acts in opposition to the protagonist.
  • Groups of people and institutions—Groups of people, such as a clique at school, or institutions, such as a religious group or spy organization, may act in opposition to the protagonist.
  • Character flaws within the protagonist—Sometimes a protagonist will have an obvious flaw that keeps him or her from achieving the main goal. This may take the form of a moral failing or lack of necessary ability.
  • External, impartial force—Natural disasters can act as antagonists, such as tornadoes or hurricanes. Societal forces can also be antagonists, such as norms that keep characters from economic advancement or out of particular relationships.

Examples of Antagonist in Literature

Example #1

So times were pleasant for the people there
Until finally one, a fiend out of Hell,
Began to work his evil in the world.
Grendel was the name of this grim demon
Haunting the marches, marauding round the heath
And the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time
In misery among the banished monsters,
Cain’s clan, whom the creator had outlawed
And condemned as outcasts.

(Beowulf as translated by Seamus Heaney)

Grendel is a monster in the most literal sense, and acts as the first antagonist in the Old English epic Beowulf. As the narrator explains, the lives of the Ring-Danes were fairly calm until Grendel arrived to wreak havoc. Grendel’s appearance causes the protagonist, Beowulf, to go out and fight.

Example #2

I hate the Moor,
And it is thought abroad that ’twixt my sheets
He’s done my office. I know not if ’t be true,
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety. He holds me well.
The better shall my purpose work on him…
I have ’t. It is engendered! Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.

(Othello by William Shakespeare)

Iago is one of William Shakespeare’s most famous villains. In this antagonist example, Iago is not merely working against Othello due to different motivations, but does indeed have evil intentions. Iago’s jealousy of Othello having gained a promotion and purportedly sleeping with Iago’s wife sets in motion the rest of the events of the play. In this excerpt, Iago explains that he has heard the rumor about Othello and Iago’s wife and that he has created a plan to bring Othello down.

Example #3

And then the dispossessed were drawn west–from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out.  Carloads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand.  They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless…

(The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck)

This is an example of antagonist wherein the opposing force is a natural phenomenon. Steinbeck wrote his novel The Grapes of Wrath in response to the events that he saw transpire after the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. As stated in the above excerpt, the dust storms and drought that occurred in the United States in this period affected many tens or even hundreds of thousands of people.

Example #4

In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy.

(1984 by George Orwell)

The Party in George Orwell’s 1984 is an example of antagonist in which the opponent is an entire institution. In this dystopia, the Party is represented by the image of Big Brother, yet the Party is otherwise faceless and relatively anonymous. It works against all of the citizens of Oceania. When the protagonist of the novel, Winston Smith, discovers the full horrors of the Party he acts to bring about its downfall. In the above excerpt, Winston realizes how pernicious the dogma of the Party is and that no matter the lack of logic, whatever the Party says must be accepted as truth. Winston then attempts to fight against this institution as an individual.

Example #5

“Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.”
“Yes, sir. I know it is. I know it.”
Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game, all right—I’ll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren’t any hot-shots, then what’s a game about it? Nothing. No game.

(The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger)

As in 1984, the antagonist in The Catcher in the Rye is the institution of society. In this excerpt, Holden Caulfield’s teacher tries to tell him to play by the rules of society to get ahead. However, Holden is contemptuous of the idea of this game, and of society in general. He sees the overall goals of society as antithetical to his own.

Test Your Knowledge of Antagonist

1. Which of the following statements in the correct antagonist definition?
A. A malicious character that acts out of spite to thwart the protagonist.
B. A character or other force that opposes the protagonist.
C. A character that works alongside the protagonist toward a common goal.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following act as an antagonist in L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz?
A. The tornado, because it puts in motion the challenges that Dorothy must face.
B. The Wicked Witch of the West, because she tries to kill Dorothy and her friends.
C. The Wizard of Oz, because he puts an obstacle in Dorothy’s path on her quest to get home, namely defeating the Wicked Witch.

D. All of the above

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J. K. Rowling, the protagonist Harry Potter and his good friend Hermione Granger are tracking down objects called Horcruxes. Halfway through the quest, Harry becomes obsessed with tracking down another set of objects called the Deathly Hallows. Hermione doesn’t like this idea, as she shows here:

“Harry, this isn’t a game, this isn’t practice! This is the real thing, and Dumbledore left you very clear instructions: Find and destroy the Horcruxes! That symbol doesn’t mean anything, forget the Deathly Hallows, we can’t afford to get sidetracked—”

Is Hermione an antagonist in this case?

A. No. She is Harry’s good friend and therefore she only wants what’s best for him.
B. No. Hermione and Harry are working toward the same goal, ultimately, and therefore she can’t be an antagonist.
C. Yes. Harry is the protagonist and thus when another character tries to thwart his goals, that character is at least temporarily an antagonist, as Hermione is in this case.

Answer to Question #3 Show