What Is an Antagonist?

Definition and Examples in Literature

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In "Othello", Iago Is the Antagonist to Othello's Protagonist. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

An antagonist in literature is usually a character or a group of characters that oppose the story’s main character, who is known as the protagonist. An antagonist may also be a force or institution, such as a government, with which the protagonist must contend. A simple example of an antagonist is Lord Voldemort, the notorious dark wizard in the Harry Potter novels of J.K. Rowling. The term “antagonist” comes from the Greek word antagonistēs, which means “opponent,” “competitor,” or “rival.”

How Writers Use Antagonists

Conflict—a good fight—is why we read or watch. Who doesn’t love loving a hero and hating a villain? Writers use the antagonist-versus-protagonist relationship to create conflict.

After the “good guy” protagonist struggles to survive the “bad guy” antagonist, the plot typically concludes with either the defeat of the antagonist or the tragic downfall of the protagonist. Antagonists often serve as foil characters to protagonists, by embodying the qualities and values that fuel the fires of conflict between them.

The protagonist-antagonist relationship can be as simple as a hero versus a villain. But since that formula can become overly predictable, authors often create different types of antagonists to create different types of conflict.

Examples of Antagonists

As the most common type of antagonist, the “bad guy” villain—driven by evil or selfish intentions—tries to hinder or stop the “good guy” protagonist.

Iago in “Othello”

In William Shakespeare’s play “Othello,” the heroic soldier Othello is tragically betrayed by his own standard-bearer and best friend, the treacherous Iago. As one of the best-known antagonists in literature, Iago, for unknown reasons, is out to destroy Othello and his wife Desdemona. Iago tricks Othello into wrongly believing that the ever-faithful Desdemona had been cheating on him and finally convinces him to kill her.

At one point in the play, Iago plants the seeds of doubt about Desdemona’s faithfulness in Othello’s mind by warning him of the infamous “green-ey’d monster” jealousy.

“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey'd monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss,
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger:
But O, what damnèd minutes tells he o'er
Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!”

Still believing Iago to be a loyal friend, Othello fails to comprehend Iago’s real motivation, to convince him to murder Desdemona out of unplaced jealousy, and live out the rest of his life in misery over his tragic mistake. Now that’s a villain.

Mr. Hyde in “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”

In Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic 1886 novel, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Dr. Jekyll is the protagonist, while his own alternate persona, Mr. Hyde, is the antagonist. Through his depiction of the chilling, unpredictable transformations of the virtuous Dr. Jekyll into the murderous Mr. Hyde, Stevenson portrays the war for control between the “angel” and “fiend” he contends live in all people.

This concept of the internal antagonist is perhaps best expressed in this quote from Chapter 10, in which Dr. Jekyll comes to realize that he is being consumed by the evil side of his own persona:

“With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to the truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two.”

Walter White in “Breaking Bad”

In the acclaimed AMC Network TV series “Breaking Bad,” Walter White is a classic example of a heroic antagonist. After Walter, a high school chemistry teacher, learns he is dying of lung cancer, he turns to making and selling the illegal drug crystal meth in order to ensure his family’s future financial stability. As his criminal skills improve, Walter becomes fantastically successful, wealthy, and dangerous, embracing his villainy, and simultaneously repelling and captivating viewers.

When Walter’s wife, Skyler learns of her husband’s secret life, she expresses her fears for his safety. In the following passage, Walter demonstrates his unexpected pride in his criminal prowess, barking at her:

“I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks!”

In the story’s final episode, Walter admits to himself that concerns for his family’s financial future had merely been an excuse for his actions:

“I did it for me,” he said. “I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really … I was alive.”

The Party and Big Brother in “1984”

In his classic dystopian novel, “1984,” George Orwell uses a foil character named O’Brien to reveal the story’s real antagonists—a tyrannical government called the “Party” and its omnipresent citizen surveillance system, “Big Brother.”

As a Party employee, O’Brien is assigned to convince the story’s protagonist, a citizen named Winston, to embrace the Party’s soul-sucking ideology through mental and physical torture.

After one of his lengthy torture sessions, O’Brien tells Winston:

"But always – do not forget this, Winston – always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.”

Non-Human Antagonists

Antagonists are not always people. In the novel, “The Last Battle,” by C.S. Lewis, a treacherous ape named “Shift,” orchestrates events that result in the final days of the land of Narnia. In the Bible’s Book of Genesis, an unnamed snake beguiles Adam and Eve into eating the forbidden fruit, thus committing humanity’s “original sin.” Natural disasters, like earthquakes, storms, fires, plagues, famines, and asteroids are other often-seen, non-living antagonists.

The Villain Misconception

A villain is always an “evil” character, but as shown in the preceding examples, not all antagonists are necessarily evil or even true villains. While the terms “villain” and “antagonist” are sometimes used interchangeably, this is not always true. In all stories, the primary cause of the conflict is the true antagonist.

Antagonist Key Takeaways

  • An antagonist in literature is usually a character or characters that oppose the story’s main character, who is known as the protagonist.
  • Antagonists may also be forces, events, organizations, or creatures.
  • Antagonists often serve as foil characters to protagonists.
  • Not all antagonists are “villains.”
  • The true antagonist is always the basic source or cause of the conflict in the story.

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