RELATED TERMS: Narratology; Agon; Protagonist; Actantial model (Greimas); Actant
The term antagonist is derived from the Greek word antagonistes, meaning opponent, competitor or rival. The antagonist may be a character, group of characters, or an institution representing the difficulties and obstacles against which the protagonist must struggle, preventing the protagonist from achieving his/her/its/their quest, goal, destination or destiny. In an agonistic model of narrative, such as that conceived by A. J. Greimas for example, which conceptualises the helper and the opponent as actantial contraries, the actantial role of opponent may be played by a single character, who may be human or non-human, or by a series of human or non-human characters.
Drawing upon another binary distinction, that of friend and enemy, the antagonist may also be called the archenemy or arch-foe of the protagonist.
Employing a yet further dualism, that of hero versus villain, the former may be regarded as protagonist and the latter as antagonist.
The antagonist may also represent a major threat or obstacle to the main character simply by their very existence, without necessarily actively targeting him, her or them. In short, as John Yorke (2013) says, in discussing screenwriting and cinema, antagonism is “the sum total of all the obstacles that obstruct a character in the pursuit of their desires.”
Yorke further suggests that, while antagonists can be external, such as in the James Bond films, antagonism can manifest itself in many different ways, perhaps most interestingly when it lies within the protagonist, such as in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Thus, cowardice, drunkenness or lack of self-esteem can serve as internal obstacles that prevent a character reaching fulfilment. Furthermore, antagonists can be both external and internal, as in the film, Jaws. Nevertheless, Yorke claims, in the context of cinema, quoting Alfred Hitchcock, they all have one thing in common: “The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.”
Yorke, J. (2013) ‘What makes a great screenplay?’, Guardian, p. Review 2-4. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/mar/15/john-yorke-best-screenwriting (Accessed: 16 March 2013).