Understanding the protagonist and antagonist dynamic in storytelling

‘Protagonist and Antagonist in a story are the messengers of the storyteller’

In AD 54, a young prince was all set to sit on the throne of his kingdom. The boy was somewhat reluctant and did not want to be the king. But both destiny and his mother played their cards. At the mere age of 17, he was handed over the reins of a glorious empire stretched across three continents, the Roman Empire.  

Soon after assuming the throne, the emperor implemented various reforms and in one instance was empathetic to the disaster victims. 

The young prince let his mother(her plan from the offset) and the three other competent men helm the empire and spent his time being all artsy. ‘’He had little of the Roman appetite for blood and conquest, which makes him look far more appealing to us than the Romans,’’ writes Smithsonian. 

As his rule progressed, the feeble-voiced Greek and music-loving boy became the man who would go down in history as the persecutor of Christians and a true embodiment of tyranny. It was Nero.


this ’evil’ despot being brought alive as a character in a story. The storyteller is poised to posit him as a somewhat morally ‘gray’ antagonist. His presence in the story is divided into two phases. At first, he exuded goodness in some form, but then his metamorphosis came in the second phase. The good became evil.

Nero wouldn’t be the first character to be written this way. There are stories in books, TV shows, and movies where such a character trope is commonplace. So, what am I even concerned about? Am I planning to write on Nero and his exploits?

Not really; what fascinates me the most is how the protagonists and antagonists are treated in much of storytelling literature,  the latter’s nature and dispositions. Lastly, I have mentioned how one of the most popular forms of Storytelling, i.e Anime treats the problem of antagonism or evil. 

What is a story?

Source: Pexel, Suzy Hazlewood

There is no inherent structure that the world exhibits. But, it does demand an understanding of it; otherwise, human history would have stayed put.

 For instance, if I say there is a car on the road. This phrase is simply a mode of being in a time-space setting. But, to make sense of it, we have developed vocabulary, propositions, grammar, syntax, etc. Which then allows us to transcend a mere existence.

  It is for very navigational reasons that we bestow structure upon it. But how do we do it? LANGUAGE. I am the purveyor of the idea propagated by structuralist Ferdinand De Saussure. The rough outline here is that in learning a language, we learn concepts, and through these concepts, we then embark upon understanding the world.

Adding on to this, It is in the language that Storytelling or stories also reside, which helps us invigorate our own concepts. 

 A story then is a set of information with a specific structure carrying a particular theme that we deeply feel about, allowing for the projection of human values upon this material. 

What is Storytelling

 The world in its original state is simply devoid of any qualifications and comprises what Wittgenstein calls atomic facts, in other words, a mixed set of data. To perceive these facts or data in their entirety is close to an impossible task. 

Instead of giving us a mixed set of data that is hard to fathom, storytellers provide us a pace and structure to understand the set of information that they are telling us about a character (majorly protagonist and antagonist), an event, an issue, etc.

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The protagonist and antagonist divide

In her article ‘ Storytelling and the moral agency’, Lynne Terell argues that story telling, by providing us with a sense of self, help us refine our moral agency. 

”Telling stories doesn’t necessarily help us gain the capacity to act according to our judgements, but it does develop a sense of self, a sense of sense in relation to others, and the capacity to justify one’s decisions. Being a moral agent, after all, involves understanding or atleast attempting to understand people.”

While it happens to be the case that a storyteller makes specific narrative arrangements that would create a juxtaposition between the protagonist that is hinged with the ‘good’ or the antagonist that is hinged with the ‘evil,’ emphasis needs to be laid on how we as subjects perceive this divide. 

So, while it remains true that Storytelling refines our moral agency, it is also true that in perceiving the dichotomy in a story, we tend to simplify the complexities of the real world. 

What makes a person antagonist in a story is how we perceive their acts or series of actions, the values they seek to jeopardize, and where we stand in relation to it.

Furthermore, A distinction needs to be made between temporal and permanent antagonism. The latter refers to a form of antagonism where antagonist traits exist from the moment the character is introduced to the moment of its cessation. 

It is wicked from the start till the end. The former case refers to the metamorphosis, as we saw in Nero’s case. 

Complex stories often find refuge in the second type of antagonism. 

Is an antagonist necessarily evil?

The concept of evil is a tricky one. In the article ‘Evil Characters, ’ Daniel Haybron asserts that an evil character is not just antisympathetic( feeling pleasure in the pain of others) but also has a deficiency of an active conscience. 

‘’The notion of an active conscience is somewhat obscure, but as I am using it has two components, it involves on the one hand, a serious commitment to goodness such that one is disposed both to recognize what is right and good and act on this recognition and the other being disposed to have the appropriate reactive attitudes”.

The disposition of the antagonist

Another important detail about antagonists fascinates me is their inability to recognize the particular. In the lack of recognition in particular, evil lurks, and every disservice to humanity is born. Evil is the embodiment of the irrational; or the uncritical in this corporeal world. It is not merely in the acts that evil is committed, but it is in the front of not putting the convictions to the service of reason.

 As Haybron writes,‘’ the extent to which one has an evil character is not simply a function of the degree to which one possesses the evil constitutive traits: how much one is responsible for having these traits matter as well”.

The problem of analyzing the evil or the antagonist in this way is an exercise of rationale. No morally gray antagonist can ever transcend the right. The degree of evil or depravity may differ, but the fact remains that they are still evil.

How Anime treats the problem of evil

At this point, it would be outlandish to introduce an etymological definition of Anime. I already assume that you already know about it. In Anime, I find the finest of narrative and world-building. But, it is not of the philosophically sound kind. 

Source: Pexel, Mali Maeder

 One of the grave disservice committed by storytellers lies in Anime is how the evil is uprooted. The protagonist owing to their life circumstances, will have something running opposite to the antagonist’s story. This protagonist-antagonist tussle is tussle between different sets of reasoning. 

This provides the storyteller with the opportunity to provide no credence or justification to the philosophical baggage he or she has been carrying around. Even if their intent is malicious and ending them would be an act of service for the world of the story, it doesn’t necessarily evade the philosophical context that is all-encompassing. 

It is not ‘sound reason’ that the protagonist indulges in but rather their circumstances in the background of experiences. 

To end the legitimacy of the argument, no superpower then works in favor of the protagonist other than the mere fact of how good of a bond the protagonist shares with other characters or how madly they love someone. 

This exposition of mine wouldn’t even exist if you just watch an anime for therapeutic or merely aesthetic purposes because then it would become a running behind the unicorn problem. 

Overall, the problem of protagonist and antagonist in any kind of story is the imposition of certain ideas from the storyteller’s part. How they are being presented and in what capacity one is to take them remains an individual’s task. 

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