What are the Protagonist and the Antagonist? Writing lessons for writers.
I’ll be writing about the video What are the Protagonist and the Antagonist? SPOILERS for Terminator 2. Tips on how to write a book, from the Writing, Talking, And Dog Walking series I’m doing on YouTube with Jonathan McKinney.
If you’re a writer you’ll have heard the terms “protagonist” and “antagonist,” and you might have a baseline familiarity with what they are, but you might not have a complete understanding of the meaning. So to make it clear what they are, I’m going to explain exactly what these words mean, and reference the film Terminator 2 as an example of a Protagonist and an Antagonist.
Some people will use the term “protagonist” as interchangeable with main character or hero, but it’s inaccurate. Protagonist literally means “the opponent of primary importance,” descended from Greek. It’s important to understand that a Protagonist cannot exist without an Antagonist. Without an Antagonist, there is no Protagonist.
The Antagonist can be human, but it isn’t necessarily. The Antagonist can be a force of nature or fate for instance. But for the sake of this piece, I’ll be writing about the Protagonist and the Antagonist when they both take the form of an active character within your story.
In order to be a Protagonist, you are the opponent of something else, which immediately makes your story interesting due to the presence of “Conflict.” Conflict is essential for story telling, but more on that another time.
Terminator 2 is an excellent example to use when explaining the Protagonist and the Antagonist, because the Protagonist, Terminator, and the Antagonist, T-1000, are both in pursuit of the same thing, John Connor, and they can’t both have it. They are locked in conflict. Terminator wants to protect him, T-1000 wants to kill him, they are both actively pursuing their goals, and are almost perfectly matched.
Whilst ALMOST perfectly matched in strength and ability, in Terminator 2, the Antagonist is actually slightly superior to the Protagonist. In a straight fight, the T-1000 would in. This means the Protagonist has to go on a journey, a character arc, in order to achieve his goal over the Antagonist.
Terminator 2 is a really simple and clear story to study to properly understand the concept of the Protagonist and the Antagonist, because they are both single minded in their motivations and story goals. When you’re writing, you’ll likely find you write both Protagonist and Antagonist having multiple goals, multiple motivations, around the one main goal, but the pure and clean conflict between Terminator and T-1000 is an excellent introduction.
One of the reasons Terminator 2 is such a popular and excellent story is because of the very clear lines of conflict between the Protagonist and Antagonist. Going into this film you know exactly what you’re rooting for, exactly what you’re invested in, and exactly what the story is. More complicated layers of motivation does not necessarily make a story better. Having no distractions from the main storyline makes it easy to care about what happens.
If your story is too complicated and you’re feeling like it’s overwhelming and hard to follow, it’s worth looking at the main conflict between your Protagonist and Antagonist and refocusing in on that. Simple and focused story telling is not a bad thing.
I’ll write in future about different ways of writing the Protagonist and the Antagonist, and how you can have different layers of relationship and motivation between them all, but clear lines of conflict are always good in your story.
You can find more writing advice on our YouTube channel where we’ll be releasing a piece of writing advice every day to help you become a better and more confident writer. If you have any writing questions, comment below and we will try to do a video for every question we get!