I’m pretty sure that everything in this post applies to fiction in general and not just anime but I rather not take any chances.

I like the word antagonist and I use it a lot. But I might be using it differently than some of my readers. I often get comments along the lines, I don’t believe that so and so was an antagonist, they were actually a victim, or they had good intentions or to me, they are the good guy…

This leads me to believe that there might be a bit of a semantic clash between how I use the word and how others do.

it’s a clash of Titans…

Protagonist and antagonist are two fairly common concepts. A protagonist is the main character. They are the one (or ones) whose story it is and are often used as the point of view character. By contrast, an antagonist is a character that is used by the story as an opponent, obstacle or foil to the protagonist.

I sound like I know what I’m talking about. You shouldn’t be tricked. I haven’t really had any sort of literature class since high school and it was in French so there may be something lost in translation as well. In any case, this is what I dimly remember being taught and also the way I’ve been using both protagonist and antagonist in my reviews.

Most of the time it sort of lines up neatly with protagonist = good guy and antagonist = bad guy. After all, the main characters are often depicted as good. There is still a strong bias and general belief that audiences don’t want to read stories about people they don’t like. Even if the protagonist is some type of criminal or heavily morally compromised, most stories will always give them a lot of good traits to make up for it or throw in a redemption arc or at least makes it clear that these people are redeemable.

and then there are some characters who can’t be redeemed and are still liked

And I get it. It’s difficult to cheer for and get invested in a character you would rather not see any more of. I have a deep love of trolls and an appreciation for jerks and even I like a protagonist I would be friends with. But that isn’t a hard set rule.

Alternatively, the term antagonist is often used interchangeably with villain. They are the ones who oppose our good guy character and so they are bad guys. Makes sense. Even if everything is in shades of grey and there no true bad guys or good guys, the story usually frames it so that the audience is at least emotionally invested in the protagonist’s victory.

But there are exceptions. There are (few and far between) actually bad guy protagonists. Main characters you love to hate and don’t really want to succeed. In those cases, the antagonist may even be both classical good guys and narratively framed as moral and righteous characters.

here’s a fun exercise, who is the protagonist of Death Note?

More often though, it’s a little more subtle. Antagonists don’t have to be villains. They can be of course but the range is much wider. There are a lot of stories where no one is bad. Where a character has goals which contradict those of the main character but they are lovely people and their goals may be just as good, simply different and incompatible.

I mean look at Sports anime. Every single rival team is, for at least some time, antagonists. If they win the match or tournament or whatever, it means that our heroes lose. And that’s sad. I don’t want that. They worked so hard. They should win. As a viewer, I’m very engaged in the protagonists’ victory.

But the rival team aren’t bad guys. Not at all. They usually worked just as hard. They are the same kind of people with the same values and goals. They are often friends with the main characters. But for a season, they are the opponent, the obstacle to overcome. You could argue they are the antagonists of the moment.

it is!

Basically, that’s how I use the word antagonist. They can be a good person or a victim of circumstance. In some cases, if you just angle the perspective a bit, they could even be considered a hero. But for all intents and purposes, the narrative uses those characters as opponents or obstacles to the protagonist.

Did I just write an entire post to try to justify in my own head why so many of my favourite characters are antagonists? Who knows?

12 thoughts

  1. I actually really like villian protagonist role , say Ainz in Overlord . I guess Light is also a good example of Villain Protagonist but I feel like he was less likeable in certain regards . Maybe Walter White could considered Villian protagonist as well .

  2. Antagonists and villains make a show more interesting. It’s like having a goal that the MC needs to accomplish. I’ve encountered many antagonists from my experience of watching anime, both good and evil, but I think the best antagonist is the protagonist itself who is trying to fight his inner demons, are is having conflicts with his mental state. I thin I haven’t seen an anime like that, but I would like to watch it in the future.

    1. The most obvious example that jumps to mind is perfect bleu. It’s pretty much litteral but there are more subtle series as well. Hunter x Hunter went through an arc like that, actually now that I think of it, it’s pretty common in long running action shows.

  3. Actually, I think your understanding of protagonist and antagonist is spot on. The antagonist is simply someone whose own agenda or purpose or POV in some way rubs up against or contradicts that of the protagonist. It doesn’t *have* to be villainous in character in the sense of the antagonist wishing ill toward the protagonist – it’s just a different perspective.

    And I was actually thinking “sports anime” just before I read your paragraph making that very point. “Haikyu”, “All Out”, and “Tsurune” are all superb examples of the opposition not being the “bad guys” but simply the people on the other team. Indeed, they often make the point that antagonists are actually necessary in the sense of providing us with a context against which to test our own ideas and understandings. So important, in fact, that we often learn more from our antagonists than we do from fellow travellers.

    One of the best expositions I’ve ever seen on this point is available on the following link, especially between 10:21 and 13:32

  4. That’s pretty much what antagonist means. Anyone who antagonises the protagonist. Sports anime are the perfect examples. Just like protagonists aren’t necessarily heroes, antagonists aren’t necessarily villains.

    (It’s actually a little more complex if you look at the history of the term, because “protagonist” and “antagonist” weren’t originally a pair. It’s “protagonist – deuteragonist – tritagonist” and “agonist – antagonist”. The terms were paired up because literary critics analysed plot in terms of conflict: the most important character in the story and their nemesis – protagonist and antagonist.)

    Random aside: Back when The World God Only Knows aired, some of the userbase of the animesuki forums would nominate “the bugged game” as best antagonist of the year: enogh so that it could be voted for. As far as I can remember it didn’t win.

      1. I just checked; it made 4th place. Orihara Izaya won. (And, interestingly, for this thread, the category was still called “Best Villain”; it got renamed later. I didn’t remember that.)

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