Rethinking the Traditional Protagonist and Antagonist

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In traditional writing, there’s almost always a clear protagonist and antagonist. The protagonist is the character (or idea) that represents everything good and right. The antagonist is the character (or idea) that represents everything bad and wrong. The story is, at the core, not about the characters at all, but whether good will triumph over evil. We anticipate that good will win out, but we still pay attention because we want to see the novel path that the author chooses to get good to the finish line.

In an article for Electric Literature, Elyse Martin points out that there’s been a surge toward trying to blur the lines with characters, particularly when it comes to female villains. The concept, Martin argues, is that writers and producers have been relying on the idea of female virtue to “rehabilitate” female villains–that is, they’re trying to give the villains a “cause” or reason for being bad, under the pretext that the villains really are inherently good, “were it not for x”. And in Martin’s view, that’s a mistake. We should just allow the villains to be bad, just because they’re bad.

Martin’s article stands as evidence of how people are playing with the protagonist/antagonist idea and how people are responding to it. I take Martin’s point in that, sometimes, there really is no underlying reason for being bad. Sometimes, a person has no deep trauma or backstory–they just really enjoy being an arsehole. That’s it. And the predictability of them being a jerk–and the protagonist later squashing them like a bug–is oddly comforting and enjoyable.

But I’m not so sure that, as writers, we have to draw a strict line all the time. Part of what makes life so challenging–and interesting–is that people aren’t 100 percent consistent. Great people can make horrid mistakes, like the loving family man choosing to cover for his boss’ lies. People who always have looked out for #1 can decide to do the right thing, like a death row inmate who donates his organs and gives others a second chance at life. Emotions can disrupt the usual logic, and reason can become clear. A million caveats can change decisions. A great example is in Star Wars, when Darth Vader–a main antagonist–becomes a hero by saving his son, Luke Skywalker, from another antagonist, the Emperor.

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In my view, blurry boundaries between antagonists and protagonists can make a book better. We can be on the edge of our seats because we aren’t sure which side they’re on, what they’re going to do, or who to really root for. This lack of clean lines creates intense anticipation and curiosity.

The key, I think, is knowing your audience and setting. If you’re writing for little kids who don’t have a ton of life experience and who can’t think as abstractly, for example, then black and white roles can be more favorable. But if you’re writing for adults, then they’re going to be able to understand far more nuances that color the characters in different ways. And in the same way, if you’re going for a more modern book with a realistic setting, then having a person who does only bad or good all the time can seem too fake.

So think about what your reader is going to need, as well as whether positioning your characters as antagonists or protagonists is going to make sense for the circumstances and plot line. If black and white works in one book and not another, then that’s OK. Let the books be what they must, and just have fun.