October 7th, 2015

The True Roles of Protagonists and Antagonists In Your Story

Les Edgerton

This week at WITS we are on a roll with the key characters in your story. Monday was 10 Tips for a Strong Protagonist from Shannon Donnelly. Today is a fantastic in-depth post from Les Edgerton. His last article for us was about how character’s actions determine both their character and their character arc.

Take it away, Les…

The following is part of another chapter of my proposed writer’s craft book, A WRITER’S WORKSHOP AT THE BIJOU, currently being marketed to publishers. All the material in this book is based on the movie Thelma & Louise.

Hope folks find this one informative as well and that it helps in their writer’s journey. Thanks for reading.

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The two most important characters in a novel are the protagonist and the antagonist. I’m going to define those terms as are many misconceptions about their roles in the story.

The Protagonist

The protagonist is simply the person through whose eyes and viewpoint we experience the bulk of the story. I feel it a mistake to assign moral qualities to either the protagonist or the antagonist. Therefore, I believe it’s misleading to use terms such as “hero” or “heroine” to describe the protagonist. Doing so assigns a moral value to him or her that is not only inaccurate, but that often leads to creating poor characters.

When you think of protagonists as “good guys” and antagonist’s as “bad guys” or villains, the temptation is great to create one-dimensional, cardboard, almost “cartoonish” characters. Dudley Doright and Snidely Whiplash.

By the same token, the term “antihero” is misleading. By its very name, it also implies a moral quality assigned to the character. The protagonist is neither a hero nor an antihero. They’re simply the person through whose persona we experience the story.

Do yourself a favor. Don’t think of these two characters as “good” and/or “bad.” I think you’ll find you create far more complex and compelling characters by not doing so.

Same way with that term that’s crept into our writing lexicon in the past few years. That main character thingy, or that even more insidious appellation, that “MC” monstrosity. That says… nothing.

Of course the protagonist is the “main character.” But, to refer to him or her with that term, negates somewhat the value of the protagonist. Describing the protagonist as the “main character” implies that it’s the story that’s mostly important (at the expense of character) and that’s simply not true.

All stories, regardless of genre, are pretty much the same. It’s the protagonist in his/her battle in the story to resolve the story problem that’s important. Plots are limited—there are only 6-8, depending on the source. Characters—particularly protagonists—on the other hand, are limitless.

The life of any story isn’t the plot. It’s how the protagonist and antagonist operate within the plot, not the clever and various ways in which the killings, bombings, kidnappings, love and/or sex scenes, naval button contemplations or whatever are depicted. Those things are incidental to the characters and only exist to serve the characters and provide the obstacles for the struggle.

The Antagonist

Likewise, don’t think of the antagonist in terms of villains. He or she is simply the person whose goal(s) conflict with those of the protagonist’s. Period. Again, just as with the protagonist, no moral value is assigned, at least in relationship to the definition of their character. Not the “bad guy” or “bad gal.” If you think of antagonists as villains, you’ll end up with Snidely Whiplash-type characters. One-dimensional, cardboard, cartoonish characters.

The antagonist, just like the protagonist, can be a good guy or gal or a bad guy or gal. Doesn’t matter. Novels aren’t morality plays. As Samuel Goldwyn said to the screenwriter who sent him a script with a theme of good and bad (badly paraphrased): “Don’t send a message. Western Union sends messages and they do it well. Send me a story.”

Can there be more than one protagonist or antagonist?


One protagonist, one antagonist per novel.

Now, that doesn’t mean they each can’t have multiple allies. They both can and both most likely will.

Are there exceptions? Probably, although I can’t think of any right now. Remember that just because a novel was published doesn’t “prove” it was any good. Doesn’t mean it’s a good model to follow, necessarily. Bad novels get published just about every day. But, do yourself a favor and don’t use a bad novel for a template. I can pretty well guarantee you that there aren’t very many good novels with “co-protagonists” and “multiple antagonists.”

One of the reasons this is true is that when you begin creating more than a single protagonist and/or antagonist, the reader’s focus begins to get diffused. We can “see” an individual. Once you begin creating crowds, it becomes harder to figure out whose story it is or who we should follow.

Let’s look at Thelma & Louise for particularly great examples of a powerful protagonist and an equally-powerful antagonist.

By the way, the strength of your novel depends on the strength of your antagonist, not your protagonist. Write that down.

The antagonist should be at least the equal in strength of the protagonist, and preferably stronger. This includes all forms of strength, including physical, mental, emotionally, resource-wise… in every way you can dream up. If the antagonist is weaker in any way than the protagonist, then the protagonist doesn’t have to do much to prevail, does he? And, you want the protagonist’s struggle to be uphill all the way.

The protagonist in Thelma & Louise is Thelma. Period. I know the title says Thelma and Louise, but it’s Thelma’s story. Louise is along for the ride and the primary role she serves is the Mentor role. Khouri was well-aware of that. If they were co-protagonists, wouldn’t she have given Louise’s big sex scene the same big stage as she did Thelma’s? She didn’t. It’s Thelma’s story, all the way.

Another factor that determines the protagonist is the character arc. You know, that old Freitag scheme that looks like a roller coaster? Only the protagonist gets that. His or her character has to undergo a significant change as a result of the struggle she’s undergone to achieve the story goal.

Only Thelma undergoes this change in the story. Louise changes a bit, but by and large, at the end of the story, she’s pretty much the same as she was at the beginning. Thelma, on the other hand, has had a profound change from where she began. You’ll see that change as we go along here.

And, the antagonist is… Hal the cop as played by Harvey Keitel. Is he a villain? Nope. Not in the least. He’s undoubtedly the single most moral character in the story. His goal is completely honorable and good… for those looking for good guys and bad guys in their fiction.

It’s just that his goal is in direct conflict with Thelma’s. His goal is to rescue Thelma and her friend, Louise. To save them first from going to jail and then, as the story evolves, to save them from being killed. Absolutely, 100% honorable goal.

Can you see how the terms “villain” doesn’t have a thing to do with Hal’s character? Do you think for a second that if Khouri thought in those terms—heroes/heroines vs villains—she could have possibly written these characters—particularly Hal’s? Not a chance in hell! If her knowledge of story had rested on those kinds of definitions, she would be writing direct-to-video screenplays, if even that.

Please—if you get nothing else from this post—never again think of your characters as hero/heroine and villain!

Are there characters in the story who provide obstacles for Thelma? Sure. Her husband Darryl is about as “villainy” as you could ever wish for.

Just about every male character in the story provide opposition. J.T. steals their money even though he does afford Thelma respect in their love-making. The state cop with the tailored uni and mirror sunglasses and male chauvinist hog attitude is villainy. The tanker driver with his pig-like gestures and intentions is villainy. Harlan, the would-be rapist is definitely villainy. The guys manning gas pumps when they stop, or are leaning up against building posts ogling them, are all minor variations of villainy.

And, guess what? Just about all of those characters fit the Snidely Whiplash mold. No antagonists in that bunch, except in a very limited, stereotypical role, basically as villainous. Louise’s boyfriend Jimmy, is pretty much a good guy, but he’s definitely not an antagonist. He’s one of their few “helpers” when he comes to Louise’s aid (and, by extension, Thelma’s). No opposition to Thelma’s goal there.

The one character whose goal provides consistent and powerful opposition to Thelma’s goal is Hal. She wants to escape; his goal is to catch her.

And it’s that dynamic that makes for complex characters and complex stories. Two individuals, each with a goal at odds with the other. Both with worthy goals. No “good vs evil” going on here at all. Each the very model of a great protagonist/antagonist. A very powerful antagonist.

Look at Hal’s strengths. He’s a lawman with tons of experience catching criminals. He’s got all the technological advantages possible. He’s got a virtual army of people to help him find and catch them. He’s got state of the art computers, communications, transportation, radar, phone tracking capability at his disposal. He’s got the state police along with the FBI at his disposal. He’s got a frickin’ helicopter!

He’s got all this arrayed against a housewife and a waitress in a car and little money and their destination known. He’s extremely powerful and about as strong of an antagonist as you could ever invent. When Thelma defeats him—which she does in the final scene—it resonates with the viewer since she hasn’t beaten a weakling at all but an antagonist that was stronger in just about every single way.


Think about how this story would have been had Khouri made Hal a nasty guy who hated women and just wanted to either kill Thelma and Louise or just wanted to put them in jail. She could have done that… if she thought in terms of “heroines” and “villains.” But she didn’t. She created a protagonist and gave her a worthy antagonist.

Perhaps why she won the Oscar for this story?

Do you have any questions for Les? Who are your favorite protagonist/antagonist duos in fiction? What makes them so compelling?

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About Les

Les EdgertonLes Edgerton is an ex-con, matriculating at Pendleton Reformatory in the sixties for burglary. He was an outlaw for many years and was involved in shootouts, knifings, robberies, high-speed car chases, drugs, was a pimp, worked for an escort service, starred in porn movies, was a gambler, served four years in the Navy, and had other misadventures. He’s since taken a vow of poverty (became a writer) with 18 books in print, including Finding Your Voice and HOOKED.

Three of his novels have been sold to German publisher, Pulpmaster for the German language rights. His memoir, Adrenaline Junkie is currently being marketed. Work of his has been nominated for or won: the Pushcart Prize, O. Henry Award, Edgar Allan Poe Award (short story category), Derringer Award, PEN/Faulkner Award, Jesse Jones Book Award, Spinetingler Magazine Award for Best Novel (Legends category), and the Violet Crown Book Award, among others.

Les holds a B.A. from I.U. and the MFA in Writing from Vermont College. He was the writer-in-residence for three years at the University of Toledo, for one year at Trine University, and taught writing classes for UCLA, St. Francis University, Phoenix College, Writer’s Digest,  Vermont College, the New York Writer’s Workshop and other places. He currently teaches a private novel-writing class online.

He can be found at www.lesedgertononwriting.blogspot.com/ and www.lesedgerton.net.

24 comments to The True Roles of Protagonists and Antagonists In Your Story

  • Wow, thanks for the alternative way to look at my characters.

  • Thanks, Older–it’s the only way I can look at them. BTW, in the clip above is an inside joke within the movie. The curly-haired guy who’s tracing their call is Marjoe Gortner. For those too young to remember, Marjoe was a child evangelist when he was a tadpole. Used to host capacity crowds in Madison Square Garden and “save” thousands of souls. At this state of his life, he had become a character actor as he is in T&L. The inside joke is that earlier, when we see him, he’s reading a soft porn magazine… Just one of those instances that it pays to be really old like me to know who these guys are…

  • Great points, Les. Thank you for writing this. I really appreciate the clarity in which you presented the differences between the two perspectives. I cut and pasted the strength of the novel point into my ‘items to remember’ document. I REALLY like that.

    AND, even apparent villains have positive intentions (from their point of view). If one looks at their goals from their perspective, the hero/heroine suddenly become the villain. So by putting the ideology into the shift you provided (antagonist/protagonist), it clears the road of right vs wrong debris, and allows for strong characters on both sides of the aisle.

    Timely. Thank you. -SRG

  • Les, A refreshing post for its insight, force and humor. A big-view smack upside the head is always helpful when driving through the sentence level of storytelling.

    What I can’t figure, reading your little bio above, is why you need to stray into fiction. . . . because as they say, truth is stranger than . . . Cheers.

    • Thanks, Tom–I appreciate it. Actually, most of my fiction is (very!) thinly-disguised autobiography. When I was very little, I bought into the Jack London school of writing–have experiences; weave them into stories.

      • That’s what I figured, Les. I’ll pick up some of your work. Would you agree the work of an author without at least some experience related to her/his story faces an uphill climb to capturing broad readership?

        • Since I’ve never enjoyed “broad readership” I’m probably the wrong guy to ask! I wish! But, joking aside, I don’t know if that makes much difference–the main thing that gains a wide readership is by writing a great story. And… some luck! The most autobiographical novel I’ve written is Just Like That, but most of my novels are taken from my life…

  • I love this clarity! Lots of characters in my working manuscript provide conflict, but ultimately, there’s only one person working against her main goal.

  • I have to admit to being a bit narrow viewed in my antagonists. I write Romantic Suspense so they do tend to be ‘bad guys’, but this has really opened my eyes to your message. I am really excited to make those folks more interesting/dimensional characters that usually have unscrupulous intentions towards my protagonists. I am always looking for ways to improve my writing, so thank you for a very informative post.

    • Glad it helped, Kori. Personally, I never pay attention to genres other than the only two genres that Nabakov recognized, namely, good and bad writing. Sometimes, when we step outside the boundaries of various genres and just strive to write a great story, we end up with an amazing book that transcends any genre. Just think: Mary Shelly didn’t have a body of work out there when she wrote “Frankenstein” and ended up founding a genre. She just wanted to write an entertaining story.

  • Hi Les! Thanks for hanging with us here at WITS. I adore this post. Bob Mayer talks about a conflict lock, that ties in nicely here, but I really like your clear explanations. I just approved some comments, so you might want to “take it from the top” when you get a moment. 🙂

  • You have just made something click about why my manuscript is still weak, that no critique partner has been able to put their finger on. I do have opposition that runs through the story but it is not strong enough. The villiany sub-antagonists are strong in their one-off scenes but it is the ongoing opposition from an infrequently-seen main antagonist that needs to be developed so it is clear to the reader throughout. Thanks Les!

  • A great way to look at characters. However, readers are still stuck in the hero/villain paradigm, probably from movies and TV. If you compare the book version to the movie or TV version, the movie version tries to make it clearer who is the hero and who is the villain. My issue is how to get around that.

    • Hi Jmcgarryxx! That’s the view of a narrow type of story and one of usually slight substance. The “daydream” kind of story. There are two kinds of stories–the daydream and the nightdream. (Jungian). The daydream story is a relatively shallow kind of storytelling. Basic form is “young man goes to beach to see girl, bullies show up and depant him and bury him in sand, humiliating him in front of fair maiden. Goes back home, pumps iron, learns martial art, comes back and whips bullies.” It’s a trite kind of story and usually appears in soon-forgotten tales. (Not always, but usually) It works at times in film for a lot of reasons, mostly having to do with the production values–characters thirty-feet tall, FX effects, music, etc. The daydream (not nightmare, although it can be) story, is one that goes much, much deeper. Not enough room to fully describe it here, but a much more complex kind of tale that delves much, much deeper into the psychology of humans and doesn’t depend upon cheap emotions to “carry the day.” It depends on reaching real emotion in the reader and not surface ones. A good analogy is music. Any musician knows that they can play some syrupy tune like “Wind Beneath Her Feet” (or whatever it’s called) at a wedding, and tears will flow. Emotion, cheaply-wrought and easily won. However, such a piece won’t affect a person capable of deeper feelings and more mature and educated. However, a Mozart tune, played by skillful players, reaches down much, much deeper to effect truer emotions. It’s harder to carry off, just as good literature is harder to carry off. I wish I had space here to fully explain this, but just don’t. You’re right that movies/TV often influence this kind of story, but that doesn’t make it a good model. Not going to make a value judgement here as to which is best–although it’s pretty clear which I favor! There’s a reason movies are lesser vehicles than books–mostly because of the demographic movies cater to, which is young, teenaged boys, simply because they’re they only measurable group which will attend a movie more than once. Looking back at your question, I may have misunderstood–were you speaking of the same work in both book and film form? If so, use the same movie, T&L–it’s very clear who the protagonist and the antagonist are in this, just as it would be in the book version had there been one. (Sorry, but I can’t bring myself to use terms like hero and villain!) I’d keep in mind who the intended audience is for 85% of commercial movies and determine if that’s where I’d want to use up my time creating for. Fair? I wish I had more space to go into this with the detail it deserves!

    • Sorry! Had to add another thought. Movies are often a poor model for literature also due to the audience. Studio movies (which are usually the ones we see at the Cineplex) are not only intended for teenaged boys in the main, they are also influenced heavily by foreign sales. It’s the foreign sales which allow most movies to be even made. Most studios get their funding up front by selling foreign rights and because of language and custom barriers, three things are needed to sell those rights. Namely, the things all cultures and languages can easily understand–overt sex, overt physical action (fights, knifings, shootings, bombings, et al… and, most important of all… helicopters… Those are the forces at play predominantly with film, at least with studio films. Hate to kind of cut and run, but need to go to bed–am leaving early in the ayem for North Carolina for Bouchercon! Hope you’ll forgive me!

  • Hey Les,
    such a great post here. Especially like your ode to the ” Jack London school of writing–have experiences; weave them into stories.”
    And you’re right about Hal. He was a super worthy antagonist!
    Hope Bouchercon is fun!

  • I’m getting confused about the idea of a protagonist and antagonist in a story like High Fidelity. I know Rob is the main character and the protagonist. But who’s the antagonist and why? I’ve read that he is also the antagonist, but I don’t think so and I also read that it’s not a very strong plot if you make the protagonist also the antagonist.
    If you can help me figure this out that would be appreciated.

  • lesedgerton

    Hi Steve, Unfortunately, I’m not familiar with the novel High Fidelity. A couple of things that you said I can reply to. For starters, you say “I know Rob is the main character and the protagonist. This seems redundant to me. The protagonist BETTER be the main character. Who else would it be? I’ve never understood why we even need a term like “main character.” The second thing is I don’t see how the protagonist can also be the antagonist, unless you’re thinking of one of those “man vs himself” supposed plots, which personally I can’t buy. That just sounds like one of those “boring guys contemplating his navel” kind of things where a narrator performs mental masturbation on the page. I don’t know if the book you named is something like that, but if it is, I guess I just wouldn’t pay much attention to it. Everything that gets published isn’t good and certainly not always a good model for writers. I wish I knew the story so I could answer you better, but it’s just not one I’ve read, alas.

  • lesedgerton

    Steve, to further answer your question, even though I’m not familiar with the story, I may be able to help you figure out who the antagonist is. First, what’s the protagonist’s story problem? Once you know that, then the next step is to see whose goal is directly opposed to his in resolving that problem. That will be the antagonist. Hope that helps!