If you want to know the difference between a protagonist and antagonist in writing, read the article below. For more advice on writing, check out my free online writing course.
What is a protagonist and antagonist?
A protagonist is the main character of a story. The audience follows this character as the person pursues a goal, such as catching a criminal or winning a boxing match. An antagonist is any character who tries to prevent the protagonist from achieving the goal.
Most stories have one protagonist. However, they often have more than one antagonist. That being said, one of these antagonists tends to stand out. This character puts more pressure on the protagonist than other opponents and plays a bigger role in the plot. I like to refer to this central antagonist as the main villain.
What is the difference between a protagonist and antagonist?
The defining difference between these characters refers to what each wants in the story - their wants are in direct conflict with each other. If the protagonist wants to achieve a certain goal, the antagonist has a want in the story that, if accomplished, would prevent the protagonist from accomplishing theirs.
For example, in a crime story, the protagonist may be a detective with a goal to catch a murderer. The main villain in this story would be the murderer. The villain's goal is to get away with the crime. If the villain wins, the protagonist loses, and vice versa.
How is character development different for a protagonist and antagonist?
As a writer, you want your audience to root for your protagonist as the character pursues a goal. This does not necessarily mean your protagonist must be likable. To get your audience behind your story's hero, you need to let your audience to identify with the character. A good way to do this is by giving your hero something to lose if their goal is not accomplished.
For example, in a thriller story, the protagonist may be committing a crime, like robbing a bank. However, the character needs the money to afford a medical treatment for his daughter. If he fails to rob the bank, his daughter will die - he has a lot to lose. Even if your audience doesn't approve of bank robbery, they can still identify with this protagonist.
To develop a great antagonist, you want to use empathy as well. Your audience should understand where this character is coming from, even if the character is responsible for horrible acts that the audience disdains. I recommend two techniques for creating empathy with your villain:
(1) Give the antagonist some trauma from earlier in life that's responsible for their twisted behavior in the present. For example, maybe your villain was beaten by a stepfather, then grew up to kill men who remind him of the stepfather.
(2) Give the antagonist an admirable end to fight for, yet have them try to get there by vicious means. For instance, possibly your villain is fighting against corporate corruption, but part of their plan involves murdering corporate executives.
Even if you create empathy for your villain, you still want to play up this character's dark side. The depth of this dark side relates to the genre you're writing in. For instance, if you're writing a horror story, you want your villain's dark side to be extreme. This person might be a sadistic killer.
If you happen to be writing a love story, your antagonist shouldn't necessarily be murdering other characters, however, a dark side should still be pronounced. Possibly this villain is a serial liar, who hurts other characters emotionally without regret.
Physical, mental, and cultural traits of your protagonist and antagonist
When developing any character, you should be mindful of three major categories: the physical, mental, and cultural. Physical traits refer to a character's appearance and bodily capabilities. Mental traits refer to a character's disposition and psychological capabilities. Cultural traits refer to the context in which the character lives (ex, what's their job), plus has lived through life (ex, where they grew up and in what kind of family).
Your protagonist and antagonist should not have the same blend of traits across all three categories. To create drama in your story, you want your villain be more imposing than your hero in terms of the traits that would determine the winner in their "clash of wants." For example, if you were writing a boxing story, your antagonist should be bigger and stronger than your protagonist.
That being said, you should give your hero and villain at least one trait in common. This should be a characteristic your protagonist does not like about themself. I view this like a "dark mirror." The commonality can force your hero to recognize the severity of their own flaw, look inward, and try to fix it. A thread of internal growth can make your story more compelling.
For more tips on creating a great hero and villain, check out these two videos I made...
Protagonist character development
Antagonist character development
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I'll teach you techniques for character development, plot, theme, and emotional impact in my free online writing course.
What Is a Theme of a Story?
In this article, learn what a theme of a story is, plus get some tips for writing a great theme for your book or screenplay. For more writing advice, check out my free online writing course.
What is a theme of a story?
A theme is a commentary about the world that the story makes.
Even though the events of a story are often focused on just a few characters and places, those events speak to the world in general. For example, a story where a vicious criminal gets away with murder at the end is making a very different commentary about society than a story where a vicious criminal is arrested at the end.
The story where the criminal gets away with the crime would be making a statement about the world being unjust, while the story where the criminal is captured would be making a statement about the world being just.
How do you write a great story theme?
Your theme emerges from the story events
You don't necessarily write your theme within the pages of your story, as you would a character description or plot event. Rather, the theme is a takeaway the audience would have after finishing your story.
That being said, though your theme may not be written on your pages, it should play an important role in the writing of your story. You should be mindful about the commentary on the world you'd like to make as a writer and choose a theme for your story early on. As you write, your theme can evolve, but having a solid starting point will help.
The characters and plot you create should be focused around your theme. For example, if you wanted to make a commentary about corruption, you may want to develop a character in your story who takes a bribe. The plot could then get into the consequences the character suffers after taking the bribe. If, for instance, you wanted to make a commentary about family dynamics, your story may not call for a character who takes a bribe.
Your protagonist's want and need play a key part in your story theme
Your protagonist should have a want - an external goal they pursue - and a need - an internal personal problem they should address to lead a better life.
Your story's two most impactful threads are the ones that follow your main character's want and need. Thus, they carry a lot of weight with your theme. By the end of your story, if your hero achieves their want and/or need vs. doesn't achieve their want and/or need, the commentary the story is making could be drastically different.
Let's say your main character has a want to win a big boxing match. Through the story, he trains really hard. If he wins the match at the end, your theme may be something like, "Hard work can lead to success." However, if your character loses the match at the end, your theme would instead be something like, "Despite hard work, success is never guaranteed."
For more advice on main characters, check out my post on character development for a protagonist.
Your story should have just one theme
When creating your theme, focus is critical. As mentioned, all the character and plot development of your story should revolve around your theme. If you try to make multiple commentaries about the world in one story, its events may feel unconnected.
Your story would have more force if you kept the events concentrated, all working in conjunction to declare a singular message about the world.
Want more writing tips?
I cover theme, characters, plot, and emotional impact in my free online writing class.
Free Creative Writing Course
If you're looking for a free creative writing course, check out my online storytelling class. Learn how to turn your idea for a book into a full-length novel with comprehensive video lessons and a blueprint document.
What is a creative writing class?
A creative writing class is one that teaches fiction, narrative non-fiction, or poetry. My course is primarily focused on fiction, though many of the principles taught would apply to narrative non-fiction too. For more on what distinguishes these two types of writing, check out my post on narrative writing.
My class doesn't address poetry, which varies quite a bit from the other two forms. However, if you're looking for a course on that subject, plenty exist.
I teach the topics of character development, story plot, story theme, and emotional impact...
What is character development?
Character development is the technique of humanizing a fictional character. The more human a character feels, the more effective the character development. The process doesn't call for one type of humanity over any other. You may develop a character who's a righteous freedom fighter and another who's a serial killer. As long as they both feel human, you've done well as a writer.
For more on character development, check out these video clips from my writing class...
How to write a protagonist
How to write an antagonist
What is the plot of a story?
The plot of a story is the sequence of events its characters are involved in. The plot should build in a dramatic way toward the answer to this question: will the main character - ie, protagonist - achieve their central goal?
This goal should be set fairly early in the story, after an event - known as the inciting incident - disturbs the hero's world and forces them to want something they lack.
For instance, in a thriller story, the inciting incident could be a bank robbery that results in the death of a civilian. The crime causes the protagonist - an FBI agent - to want something: to catch the robber.
The story would then follow the FBI agent as he pursued the antagonist criminal through a series of obstacles. It would build to a final showdown between the hero and villain, when the audience finally gets to know if the robber is caught or escapes.
For more on story plot, watch this video clip from my writing course...
How to write a story plot
What is the theme of a story?
The theme of a story is the commentary about the world the story is making. For instance, in the story discussed above - about an FBI agent pursuing a murderous criminal - if the events end in justice, ie the criminal getting caught, the story would be making a different statement about society than if it ended in injustice, ie the criminal getting away.
In the justice variation, the theme might be something like, "The world may be dark at times, but ultimately justice is served." In the injustice variation, the theme might be something like, "Despite the efforts of good people, some violent ones never pay for their crimes."
For more on story theme, watch this video clip from my writing course...
How to write a story theme
What is emotional impact in storytelling?
Emotional impact in storytelling is how frequently and strongly a story makes its audience feel emotion.
As a writer, you need to create an emotional connection between your audience and characters with good characterization. If your characters feel like real humans, the humans in the audience will relate to them. Once you accomplish this, when your characters confront obstacles and go through ups and downs, your audience will have an emotional reaction, essentially going on the ride with them.
This emotional ride is what a typical audience member is signing up for when they sit down to read a novel or watch a film. If you ask someone what their favorite book or movie is, the answer you get tends to be based on the person's emotional experience.
For more on emotional impact in storytelling, watch this video clip from my writing course...
The importance of emotional impact in storytelling
Take the creative writing course
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If you're interested in getting started with narrative writing - or simply want to know what it is - this article is for you. For even more knowledge on narrative writing, check out my free online writing course.
What is narrative writing?
Narrative writing is written storytelling. Technically, for a story to meet the definition of narrative writing, it should be written down. However, spoken stories follow a similar flow.
When you were a kid, did something wild ever happen to you and a couple friends, then you told a bunch of your classmates at school the next day? If so, you've already done something that's almost identical to narrative writing - all that was missing was writing the story on paper, typing it on a computer, etc.
What are the types of narrative writing?
Two major categories of narrative writing exist: fiction and non-fiction. Fiction is the telling of stories that didn't actually happen in real life, while non-fiction is the telling of stories that did.
Before we get into the differences between the categories, let's look at what a story is. At a basic level, a story is a communicated group of events that centers around at least one subject character and builds to a conclusion about those events.
The subject character is typically a person, but can be an animal, mythological figure, or any other type of entity with the capacity to think (whether real or not). You can't write a story about a rock in the dirt. At least one character needs to be conscious.
Okay, now let's take a closer look at the two categories of narrative writing...
What are examples of fiction writing?
Fiction writing mainly covers novels, short stories, comic books, plays, screenplays (the written basis of a movie), and teleplays (the written basis of a television show), though does span other formats. As long as the events in the story aren't a direct retelling of actual ones, the story is considered fictional.
Often, fictional stories are inspired by real incidents, though aren't a direct account of them. For example, in real life, a screenwriter may have witnessed a person rescuing somebody from a burning car. After the writer got home, he was motivated to write a story that opens with someone pulling somebody else out of a vehicle in flames. However, since the writer invents the characters in the story, and places them into various invented situations after the rescue, this story would be considered fictional.
What are examples of narrative non-fiction writing?
As mentioned, non-fiction writing involves stories that directly chronicle real events. However, not all non-fiction writing is considered narrative.
For writing to be considered narrative non-fiction, it needs to unfold like a story. Again, that means it unfolds as a communicated group of events that centers around at least one subject character and build to a conclusion about the events.
For instance, chronicling the rise of a real musician from unknown performer to world-famous singer would be considered narrative non-fiction. It centers around a subject character (the singer) and events that build to a conclusion (the gaining of notoriety as a musician).
Books like biographies and memoirs are considered narrative non-fiction, as are journalism articles that tell real stories about real people. A news article about the weather, for example, would not be considered narrative non-fiction - though the article is covering a real topic, it lacks a subject character.
On the other hand, a magazine or newspaper article on a real person wouldn't be considered narrative if it only listed highlights from the person's career (ex, a profile) or briefly reported on some event the person was involved in (ex, mentioning the person won a local pie-eating contest).
However, if an article went into depth about challenges a person went through and how those challenges shaped the person's life, the article would be considered narrative.
What are good narrative writing techniques?
A good story revolves around a main character the audience can identify with, who takes on a difficult challenge. The audience should be emotionally engaged as it follows the character from one event to the next. Finally, the conclusion the story builds to should make a commentary on those events that shines insight on life in general.
To learn about these techniques, be sure to check out my free online writing course.
You might also like my post on how to write a book with no experience.
Story Plot: 5 Writing Tips
Check out my 5 tips for your story plot below. Want even more writing advice? I'm currently giving out an entire online writing course for free.
How do you write a good story?
If you're writing a book, screenplay, or any other type of story, you want to hook your audience at the beginning, keep it captivated through the middle, and wow it with an exciting ending.
Story Plot Tip #1: Shake up your protagonist's world with an inciting incident
The very beginning of your story should be focused on characterizing your protagonist and possibly some of their allies. No major conflict has necessarily begun yet. You can show your hero working, interacting with friends, or doing just about anything else that composes their status quo.
Then, things change.
The inciting incident is an event that shakes up your hero's world. It typically occurs toward the beginning - but not always the very beginning - of your story. An example of an inciting incident in a mystery could be a young woman vanishing. In a romance, it could be your hero's fiance leaving her a week before their wedding.
The inciting incident directly leads to something known as the call to adventure, which is a challenge the hero is lured to take on. In the mystery story just mentioned, the call to adventure could be the hero - say, a retired detective - coming out of retirement to help find the missing woman. In the romance, the call to adventure could be the engaged woman who was left pre-wedding venturing back into the dating world after being out of it for five years.
If you'd like more writing tips for creating your story's hero, have a look at my post on character development for your protagonist.
Story Plot Tip #2: Give the hero something to lose
The term "stakes" refers to what the hero stands to lose if they don't accomplish the call to adventure's challenge. Giving the hero something to lose builds an emotional connection between the character and the audience and enhances the drama of your story plot.
For example, in the mystery discussed, if the detective doesn't accomplish his goal of finding the missing woman, his long-standing reputation as the town's best police officer will be tarnished. That reputation means a lot to him, meaning he has a lot to lose if he fails.
If you're liking these tips so far, take my free online writing course. You'll learn a lot more techniques like these.
Story Plot Tip #3: Complicate the challenge with tough opponents
To build drama, your hero's goal should be difficult to attain. Turn up the conflict with formidable opponents. In the mystery we've been talking about, the hero cop is searching for a missing woman, while the criminal who abducted her is trying to evade suspicion.
Give this criminal - the central villain - a skillset that makes him hard to catch. The villain could be be technologically crafty, able to destroy digital footprints leading to him.
In addition to your central villain, incorporate other opponents who'll apply pressure to your hero in different ways. For example, a younger cop on the police force is jealous of the hero and attempts to sabotage the hero's investigation so he can find the missing woman first and get the credit.
For added effect, one of your opponents can be revealed to your hero as a surprise relatively late in the story. For instance, a character your hero thought was an ally could be exposed in a twist as an accomplice to the villain. This twist shouldn't just go into the story for a shock factor, but move the plot forward, ideally complicating your hero's challenge even more.
For example, since your hero wasn't expecting this character to be a problem, your hero is led into a trap by him. Once the surprise opponent's true intentions are revealed, your hero is stuck in an isolated cabin with this dangerous liar, unarmed.
If you want more writing tips for opponents, check out my post on character development for your villain.
Story Plot Tip #4: Raise the stakes
As mentioned, stakes refer to what your hero stands to lose if they fail to accomplish their goal. Through the story, as the hero runs into obstacles from opponents, the stakes should grow in scope - your hero should stand to lose more than at the start of the story.
For example, in our detective story, at the beginning, the hero's reputation as a top cop is on the line. Through the the story, the character's reputation remains at stake. However, the villain winds up learning that the hero is after him and getting close. To remain uncaught, the villain tries to murder the hero.
Now, a lot more is at stake than the hero's reputation - if the villain remains on the loose, the hero could end up dead.
Story Plot Tip #5: End with a showdown
After your story's climax, the audience should have an answer to whether the hero accomplishes their goal. To build up drama before that answer is revealed, the climax should be your story's most intense scene. Structuring the scene as a showdown between your hero and central villain is an effective way to deliver that intensity.
In a crime, action, or thriller story, the idea of a showdown may seem pretty evident - the hero and villain could face off in a gunfight or car chase. However, the idea of a showdown can be applied to any genre. No need for guns or explosions.
In a story about art, for instance, the climactic showdown could involve painting. The villain - a painter who cheats their way into a big art competition by stealing the hero's painting - is exhibiting it to the judges. The hero, who begins the story as timid and gains the confidence to stand up for herself, breaks into the building and paints something on the wall, much better than the painting the villain stole. The judges are at first disturbed by the break-in, however, soon notice the quality of the painting and are forced to give the hero the prize.
If you want even more writing tips, be sure to take my free online writing course.
Check out my 5 character development tips for your antagonist in the article below. I also included a video clip from my online writing course where I go over the topic. Want even more writing advice? I'm currently giving out the entire writing course for free.
What's an antagonist?
Any character who tries to prevent your protagonist - ie, the hero - from achieving their goal in the story. For instance, in the film Rocky, hero Rocky has a goal to win a championship boxing match. The opposing fighter, Apollo, is an antagonist since he's trying to win the match instead of Rocky.
Stories can have more than one villain, however, I'd recommend choosing a single main antagonist who'll be responsible for most of the obstacles preventing your hero from achieving their goal.