Main Characters

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December 18, 2020

Protagonist vs. Antagonist

Every story needs a main cast, but which characters qualify? How do we know who is important and who plays a supporting role?  Let's talk about characters!

Stories have heroes. Stories also have villains.  Sometimes stories have neither. But that's a special case. Let's break things down first.


Protagonists are characters at the heart of your story: your story is built around them. They're the people you're meant to get invested in, the scoundrels you're rooting for to succeed. Normally, we think of these characters as the heroes of the story; as a reader, you should be interested in them, invested in what they do, and you want to see them win.

On the flipside, your antagonist  is a character who works against your protagonists. They usually aren't as prominent in the story, although they might become a focal point in later acts.  Either way, they serve an important role in the story. Antagonists create road blocks in the way of your protagonists,  and they're usually the characters your readers want to see fail.


Antagonists are usually described as the villain; but your readers should also feel invested in them to some extent, whether by making them so evil your readers will revel in theiir downfall or by humanizing them so your reader feels sorry for them in spite of their terrible behavior.

Follow the Leader

So what happens if you're writing a story where the roles are flipped? What if you're following villains instead of heroes?

That's where stripping these characters down to "protagonist" and "antagonist" and getting rid of labels like "hero" and "villian" is useful. Your protagonists might be the bad guys - and you might even build your story such that you and your readers want them to fail - but they can also be the main focus of your story and its action. Likewise, your heroes in that same story might be the antagonists fighting against your protagonist, and you might be rooting for them to succeed! Either way, the primary character  your story follows is your protagonist and the character who oppose them is your antagonist.

If your story follows a group of main characters , such as a horror story that starts with a group of teenagers going camping in the woods, the one who rises to become the leader is your protagonist. If your group wins as a team, the collective group can be your protagonist. 

Also, your antagonist doesn't have to be a living, breathing thing: if your protagonist is trying to survive alone in an uninhabited place, nature itself can be their antagonist. Or if your story centers on someone struggling against their own impulses or psychological issues, your protagonist can also be their antaogonist by virtue of being their own worst enemy


In first person narratives (where the story is told. from the narrator's perspective), your narrator will usually be the protagonist. This isn't always the case, and sometimes the narrator follows or chases the real protagonist of the story.

There's an especially famous example of this in 20th century American literature - where the narrator is a bit of a nobody and the real protagonist is the titular character living a decandent life in the 1920s. Can you name the novel? Give us a shout out on Twitter @storybilder with the name of the book, if you know it. #storybilderquiz

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