The other day a person whom I admire posed an interesting question to me? What is the difference between an antagonist and an antihero?
I have to admit that I paused a good while to consider my answer before spouting something rather lame—suggesting correctly that I needed to refresh my memory that there was even ANY difference between the two types of characters. I will use the word “hero” here generically, obviously referencing either a male hero or a female heroine. In this day and age of equality, actors and heroes are either male or female.
Fiction stories with clear protagonists and antagonists are simple to follow and keep readers grounded as to which side each is on. The protagonist is the hero, the main character, the advocate or champion of a particular cause or ideal. The antagonist is the villain, the adversarial character to the hero, the one who actively opposes or is hostile to the hero and his or her cause.
But for thousands of years, dramas have never been that simple—even in Ancient Greece, simple was boring! Characters were and are complex with good and bad traits, and it’s that complexity of character and personality that draws the reader, or draws in the viewer in the case of television or film, into the story to connect with the characters.
Enter the Antihero!! This individual is often described as one whose ideals are contrary to the protagonist. However, that also is the basic definition of an antagonist. So what makes one character an antagonist (the villain) and another an antihero, often a leading character who gains considerable sympathy and admiration from the reader or viewer?
Consider this! The villain or antagonist is always in opposition to the protagonist. This character actively opposes or is hostile to the hero, although the antagonist may not necessarily be mean or a bad person.
The antihero, on the other hand, can be initially antagonistic but who evolves over time to be a protagonist. The antihero may have ideals contrary to the protagonist, but ultimately gives in to the goals and desires of the hero. Antiheroes go through mental, and maybe spiritual, conflicts within themselves and this fatal flaw impacts the decisions they make. Often the antihero teams up with the protagonist, not at all costs, but possibly to get some personal reward—doing the right thing for personal reasons rather than for the greater good.
Examples of antiheroes would include Wolverine from the X-Men, Walter White from Breaking Bad, Conan the Barbarian, and Severus Snape from Harry Potter. All of these characters differ from an antagonist because they are notable figures conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities but who ultimately decide to do the right thing. An antagonist (the villain) never decides to do the right thing and is usually (hopefully) defeated by the end of the story.
The antagonist is often the most disliked character in the story—the fly in the ointment, so to speak—but the antihero is the character that elicits sympathy and admiration from readers and viewers because they connect with antiheroes on a more personal level since antiheroes are conflicted characters with tragic flaws, as most of us are in real life from time to time.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!