Earlier this week someone asked me a great question about the terms Protagonist vs Antagonist. The question was whether the terms require a good versus bad duality between these two types of main characters.
The short answer is yes.
The long answer is complicated, so let’s start with a little vocab.
the leading character or one of the major characters in a drama, movie, novel, or other fictional text
a person who actively opposes or is hostile to someone or something; an adversary
The protagonist is just the name we use for the main character(s). They aren’t necessarily good or bad. They’re just the characters whose story we are telling.
The antagonist can be any character or thing that stands in the way of what your protagonist wants, but generally there is one main antagonist. I usually refer to the antagonist as the villain or “the big bad” because I write YA, Dystopian, and Fantasy novels where there is traditionally a larger evil the characters must overcome.
The characters decide for themselves if they are good or bad. The antagonist could be someone close to the protagonist that means well and is trying to help, but keeps getting in the way at the wrong times. The antagonist could also be nature which I would consider neutral. But we’ll get to that later.
"Is this word choice a typically taught concept, an encouraged view, or an accepted categorization method in the anglophonic world?"
Yes, to all three.
At the most basic level, the two terms represent the two main types of characters you would find in a story. The main character and the source of conflict.
The idea of good versus evil comes from the way we’re taught this concept in grade school. We learn to relate the terms to heroes and villains because good and bad are simple concepts for young kids to grasp. We know stealing is wrong and helping others is good.
Young kids have a harder time seeing things from the antagonist’s point of view because they can’t see past what they did wrong. They don’t quite understand things like morality, redemption, forgiveness, and acting out of distress. That’s why a story about a superhero stopping bank robbers is easy for a young child to understand.
From there we are taught about conflict and where it comes from.
Which brings me to Man vs. ___
This concept revolves around the idea that mankind (or something sentient) is always the main character. Even if a robot is your main character, it would still tend to have somewhat human emotions. That’s how a reader relates to your characters.
But, the source of conflict doesn’t have to be so easily understood. What better way to create conflict than misunderstanding?
There are several types of Man vs. ___ dynamics, so I’ve compiled a short list to give you a few new conflict ideas.
Man vs. Man
This is the most widely used dynamic, and for good reason. It reflects life. This is also where the Protagonist vs Antagonist concept comes from. The good versus bad.
But, you should consider all stories biased towards their protagonist. Very few stories narrate their protagonists in a bad light. For that reason, it’s not uncommon for the antagonist to appear evil. You just haven’t heard their side of the story.
Man vs. Self
This one is a little more introspective. This would be a coming of age story or a struggle with addiction. Something where the protagonist is his own enemy. Consider a character who sabotages their own relationships out of fear of commitment.
Man vs. Nature
Bad weather. Natural Disasters. Infectious disease. These are the “shipwrecked on a deserted island” kinds of stories. But, this could also be a story in which the protagonist is faced with genetic limitations, the natural order, and the inevitability of death.
Man vs. Society
Think social norms and laws. Here we would have a character that doesn’t agree with the majority, whether that be the government or its citizens. Examples would include civil rights activists before their time, taboo hobbies, anarchists, a restrictive government, or religious beliefs.
Man vs. Technology
I find this one a little harder to wrap my head around because it’s a relatively new concept. But there are actually several ways technology could cause conflict. You have your typical robot invasions, but you also have genetically modified organisms (think invasive man-eating weeds and oversized rats).
On the more realistic end, you have job layoffs due to new automated processes. There are morally and ethically questionable procedures. Weaponization. Oil drilling. Wire tapping and surveillance. There’s a whole world of opportunity for technology to create conflict.
Man vs. God
Traditionally, these are stories about finding religion, rejecting religion, and searching for the meaning of life. I find that these kinds of stories don’t have a real winner or a clear outcome. They tend to be a little more philosophical and neutral than the other Protagonist vs Antagonist dynamics.
Good examples might be coming to terms with a death, reconciling their beliefs in both science and religion, and questioning the less than pleasant aspects of their religion.
I'm sure there are probably other Man vs. ___ dynamics, these are just the most common I've seen. But leave any others you know in the comment section below!
To wrap this post up let me just say that no, the terms Protagonist vs Antagonist do not mean your characters have to be good versus bad. Your characters should be well developed enough for the reader to make that determination on their own. It isn't necessary for the antagonist to be a bad guy, only that the protagonist views them that way.
Hope that clears things up a little.
*Side note, I'm sorry I didn't post anything Wednesday. Things have been hectic and we were traveling in a car all day Wednesday. Next week will hopefully be better.
Don't forget to like, share, and subscribe!
Thanks for reading and happy Friday!