a character who pursues the primary goals of the plot of a story
a character who stands in opposition to advancing the primary goals of the plot of a story
In most kinds of storytelling, there is a central figure whom the story centers around, and often there is someone who works against them to foil their plans. While many students may not realize it, if they can recognize the forces of good and evil in a story, a television show, a movie, a comic, or a video game, then chances are they already understand the fundamental differences between a protagonist and an antagonist in literature.
The protagonist pursues the goals of the plot of a story, which may differentiate them from other main characters, mentors, or sidekicks. A protagonist is often also called the hero of the story, although he or she can also be reluctantly chosen or cynical about the whole ordeal. However, most protagonists display common traits, which set them apart from the other characters:
The antagonist of a story stands in opposition to the protagonist’s goals. An antagonist is often called the villain, but an antagonist can also come in the form of a group of people, an institution, a force in nature, or a personal conflict or flaw the protagonist must overcome. The best way to discern the antagonist is to ask who is standing in the way of the story’s goal? The antagonist often shares some of the most notable traits as the protagonist, although for different reasons. Common traits of many traditional antagonists include:
Note Bene: Sometimes the protagonist is evil and the antagonist is good, like in Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Richard III. The key is always to ask who is advancing the plot’s goals, and who is standing in the way? In Richard III, Richard’s goal is to take and hold the throne; however, he is defeated in battle by Henry, the Earl of Richmond, who becomes King Henry VII and begins the Tudor dynasty in England.
Although this activity can be used for multiple grade levels, below are Common Core State Standards for Grades 9-10. Please see your Common Core State Standards for the correct grade-appropriate strands.
ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text
ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.3: Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme
ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.6: Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature
Students may find it helpful to keep track of the important characteristics of the protagonists and antagonists that they identify as they read. Use the example below to have students depict and provide analysis of these characteristics as they read. The following example utilizes Arthur and Mordred from The Once and Future King: