Tips for Protagonists and Antagonists in Your Novel

Saturday, August 08, 2020
If you're a novelist for any age audience, your books will most likely have certain types of characters in them--whether you write YA paranormal romance, middle-grade historical fiction or psychological thrillers. Read about these two common character types below while you think about your work in progress. 

Protagonist: Every story will have one. The protagonist is the main person in your story. He or she (or they) is faced with a conflict that must be solved by the end of the novel (or you have some unsatisfied readers!). The protagonist may not always be 100% likable or completely honest and trustworthy (e.g., an anti-hero); but readers should feel empathy for the protagonist and be able to identify with him or her in some way. 

Tips for Building Your Protagonist:
  • Watch out for stereotypes—it is okay for a protagonist to be smart or not, funny, popular, likable, friendly, pretty—as long as it fits your story. 
  • Give your character a flaw or two, but watch out what you give them. Messy is good, a hoarder—depends on the genre. 
  • Your main character has to have a goal and be someone that your reader can get behind.
  • Your protagonist needs an internal struggle (stage fright, cheating tendencies, low self-esteem, OCD) and an external struggle (fighting a bully, breaking up with someone, destroying an evil spirit, getting the lead in the play).
  • Your protagonist has an overall goal for the book. Ask yourself: What does your character want or hope to achieve? If he or she could achieve anything with no obstacles, what would it be? EXAMPLE: Harry Potter wants to pass his first year of wizarding school & play Quidditch, winning the cup for Gryffindor. 
Of course, we love the protagonists. These are the characters we pretend to be. But then there are those characters we love to hate...

Antagonist: This is the character(s) (or situation) that opposes the protagonist. So basically, the antagonist represents or creates an obstacle, problem, or issue that the protagonist must overcome. The antagonist is NOT always human. Sometimes, it's nature. Sometimes, it's ourselves (addiction, for example). But for the purposes of this post, we are focusing on the human or paranormal bad guy.

Tips for Building Your Antagonist:
  •  Remember, your antagonist’s main reason to be in your novel is to provide an obstacle for your protagonist. EXAMPLE: Dorothy (our protagonist) in The Wizard of Oz wants to get home (goal). The Wicked Witch wants her shoes (the way Dorothy gets home). She provides an obstacle, plus a lot of drama! 
  •  Your antagonist should not be evil for no reason OR should have a redeeming quality. EXAMPLE: Voldemort rewards loyalty, and he is a smart, talented wizard who uses his intelligence for evil. But he had a very bad childhood. (Side note: Watch out for the “ABUSED” reason, as it is a common one, for why someone is evil.)
  • Give your antagonist a back story, so you can understand this person, even if all the background doesn't make it in the novel. 
  • Get to know your antagonist. What is your antagonist’s internal and external struggle? What is your antagonist's goal? Make a special note of any likable traits and his/her weakness (greed, self-love, power-hungry, etc) or anything special that happened in his/her past to make this person the “bad guy.”
It's important to really think about how your antagonist and protagonist work together to tell your story. A good "match" will make a very powerful novel or series. And who knows? Maybe your pair will go down in history with the best of them... Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, Harry Potter and Voldemort, Katniss and President Snow, Dorothy and the Wicked Witch of the West, and insert your characters here.

Margo L. Dill teaches novel writing for WOW! Women On Writing. Sign up for her monthly class at the link above; or if you write for young adults and middle grade readers, consider taking her novel class to write for that age group, which starts in September. Find out more details here. 


Sioux Roslawski said...

Margo--Great post. I especially appreciated the "the protagonist should have external struggle AND internal struggle" bullet. That reminder will help when I've left my slug-home and get back to work on another WIP.

Margo Dill said...

I think it is so easy for us to remember that the protagonist needs that, but the antagonist does, too.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

What? Oh, seriously? Something else I have to fix in my rewrite. Like you replied to Sioux, I've remembered to address this in my protagonist but my antagonist? She's just bad. No, really. She is. Take my word for it.

Jeanine DeHoney said...

Margo, this information will be so helpful for me when I get back to working on my novel. Hopefully that will be soon. Great post.

Margo Dill said...

Our poor bad guys often get the short end of the planning stick!

Cathy C. Hall said...

And sometimes those bad old antagonists are as memorable (and more interesting!) than the protagonist. J. K. Rowling is so good at building great characters...

My personal foible is making my sidekick more interesting/funny/memorable than the protagonist. Which is apparently fine in TV (Look at Barney and Andy...Barney won all the Emmys!) but not so much in a MG novel. :-)

Margo Dill said...

I think it's a common problem that many novelists have--what is the right balance for the sidekick to steal the show?

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