Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Antagonist or Protagonist?

ANTAGONIST: An opponent or adversary opposing action of another
PROTAGONIST: Principal character, supporter of a cause, from Greek = First Actor

Recently, whilst working on my WIP, I examined principal character interaction to solve some issues. Something interesting revealed itself. Let me explain (keeping names aside so as not to reveal plot spoilers!). There is an antagonist, one of my hero’s nemeses. He opposes the hero’s actions and becomes an untrustworthy adversary. However, he is opposing the hero because of something he believes in, a ‘cause’ (see ‘Protagonist’ above). Likewise I have a protagonist who, at the beginning of my story, opposes most things and people he comes across, including long-standing friends (see ‘Antagonist’ above).

I started to wonder whether one character could be both an antagonist and a protagonist within the same novel. If you have a hero whose ideals oppose those around him, does he become an adversary-in-kind? And if your antagonist decides to side with those surrounding our hero, does he now become a protagonist for supporting their cause? Are these dual characters pro-antagonists, or anti-protagonists? (I’ll let you fathom that one out!) I was certainly intrigued.

For those characters that grow and mature throughout the course of a novel, it could be feasible for them to cross over. For instance, a hero who was initially opposed to an ideal, could be swung by experiences and outcomes to support it in the end. As for the adversary, his beliefs in a cause that began with good intentions could turn foul and fester to become evil. Although this would categorise him as an antagonist, at some point his personal story arc will crescendo placing him centre stage as the ‘first actor’, therefore he will surely have ‘protagonist’ status?

In the end I decided, at least within the confines of my novel, a single character could be both an antagonist and a protagonist. Each character after all, if written well, is made up of many facets and according to Jung, we all possess shadow aspects of the self. At any given moment we may be displaying one part of ourselves while keeping another hidden. From time to time, our other selves leap from the shadows and flip our emotions switch, reprogramming us and steering an alternative course. Sometimes we recover and regain course, at other times we become lost at sea.

Do you have cross-over characters in your novel? Do you think one character can be both an antagonist and a protagonist? How do you categorise/define your main characters?


  1. A very interesting and thought-provoking post. This is something I've been pondering myself recently, as I thought about the motivations of both my protagonist and my antagonist. Essentially, they were very similar; it just so happens that the antagonist is driven by selfishness, whereas the protagonist isn't. But both believe in a 'cause'. And I guess the boundaries become even more blurred in this case because one is dealing with motivations that would have seemed acceptable in the past but less so now - like revenge killings as part of a blood-feud, for example - so a protagonist's support of a 'cause' might involve attitudes and actions that nowadays we'd think of as more 'antagonistic'. Or I may just be rambling, here. ;)

    I certainly think characters can swap characteristics, show their shadow side one moment and quell it the next; and then they may well appear to other characters as protagonist at one point, antagonist at another. But how they appear to a reader is always going to depend on how we choose to play those characteristics up or down, and show what they mean to character themselves, I think.

    1. Thanks for your detailed comment Beth. I'm glad you found the post thought-provoking. I do love it when we can delve deep into the minds of our characters and really explore their natures.

      I agree that, in the case of historical fiction, there are story elements and character motivations that would be unacceptable to modern society. Therefore, as you say, a Protagonist's cause could be a murder to avenge another's death. Murder is unforgivable in modern society, but an honourable response in the Dark Ages.

      Although reader interpretation can be pivotal, if we get it right, the reader is very much held in sway of our own intentions within our stories, of who we want them to see as good or evil. I'm a bit of a Loki and like to trick my readers. Have to wait and see if they notice!