Of course we already know what a ‘protagonist’ is, don’t we? And an antagonist. They are the ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ of fiction.
Whether they appear on stage or in films or between the pages of novels, protagonists and antagonists are pretty universal. In some stories they are obvious - the hero wears a white hat, the villain a black one - and the story is a ‘shoot-out’ of one kind or another between them. In other stories, the distinction is less clear: in a tragedy, for example, the main thrust of the story is often how a potential protagonist turns bad and is doomed by a series of wrong decisions.
There are darker stories than that in which the main character is more of an anti-hero, in effect a kind of antagonist, and his or her victims are the figures we would normally call ‘heroes’: think of a horror story centred around the villain, like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, to get more of an idea of how this works. And there are comedies, where the seriousness of the distinction is blurred and we are meant to reject any kind of dire consequences of a conflict between them with laughter.
But despite all these differences, there are common characteristics, usually totally unexplored and mainly imprinting on the unconscious in the minds of audiences or readers, which are quite strange when they are brought out into the light of day. For example, both protagonists and antagonists are often physically or mentally scarred - in many tales, a wounding has taken place before the story begins for the villain, while the hero receives his wound as part of the narrative. The Lord of the Rings contains the most obvious kind of example, with Sauron losing bodily form long prior to the first chapter, and Frodo getting wounded ‘by knife, sting and tooth’ in the course of his travels. There are less obvious examples: Jem, in Harper Lee’s masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird, receives a wound which is mentioned in the first chapter but not incurred until right at the end; in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennett’s ‘scar’ is to her family’s honour and is received later in the story.
What is perhaps even stranger is the indisputable fact that, in many great stories, the hero and the villain are somehow closely linked (spoilers here): think of Darth Vader as Luke Skywalker’s father, Harry Potter connected to Voldemort by his scar, Frodo linked to Sauron by the Ring. It is as though authors are, consciously or unconsciously, trying to draw their protagonists and antagonists together. In tragedies, as I have said, the protagonist and antagonist come so close that they switch places, as in Macbeth.
‘Well, of course,’ you might argue, ‘all stories are about the good guy eventually meeting the bad guy and fighting it out.’ And there’s some truth in that. But your understanding of stories would be greatly magnified if you looked a little closer and saw that the protagonist and the antagonist are more often than not two sides of the same conceptual coin.
Frequently in fiction, the antagonist is simply the protagonist who has made a few wrong decisions and taken a different direction. In fact, some of the tension in a tale is to do with whether or not the protagonist will walk down that wrong path himself or herself. Think of Frodo again in The Lord of the Rings: he is not that far from making choices that will lead to him becoming a degenerate figure like Gollum, a hobbit who long ago took a darker path. The inner contest that Frodo suffers on his journey is largely the temptation to succumb to that darker side as presented by the Ring. And of course, as soon as I say ‘darker side’, you will be reminded of Star Wars and the fine line walked by Luke Skywalker in the salvation of his father.
What is really going on here?
Well, the full depths of this are touched on in my book How Stories Really Work, but suffice it to say here that the protagonist is a personification of what the author is trying to do to the reader - i.e. take the reader through a series of steps on the way to a fulfilling resolution of one kind or another, dark or light. While the antagonist represents the other pole, the opposite end of a spectrum, the figure who embodies the darkest or most negative or most hollow perspective on things.
There’s so much more to this. We are on the edges of the physics of fiction here, and we could easily diverge off into the realms of the seven character archetypes, the kinds of relationships between them, and what it means when the protagonist and antagonist switch places. In brief, let us be satisfied for the moment with this:
No protagonist should ever be a two-dimensional hero if you want the story to succeed and to live on as a piece of art; no antagonist should be a simple black-hearted villain unless you’re writing a shallow melodrama. And the relationship, the bond between the two of them, is very close to being the beating heart of what a story is all about.
For more, read my book How Stories Really Work, available here.