An antagonist is the person working against the protagonist, or main character. The origin of the word "antagonist" is the Greek antagonistes meaning opponent, competitor, or rival. While the antagonist is not necessarily a villain, a character pitted against the main character is typically depicted in a negative way. Many forms of entertainment utilize the battle between a protagonist and his or her antagonist, including movies and literature.
Many antagonists are villainous and block the main character’s progress through evil plots and actions. King Creon, in Sophocles’ play Antigone, is a classic example of an evil antagonist. The main character, Antigone, must struggle against him in an attempt to give her brother a decent burial. Creon hinders her success in this endeavor by declaring her brother a traitor and decreeing that he must be left to the elements.
Another example of a villainous antagonist would be Iago in Shakespeare’s play Othello. Jealous Iago plots ways to bring the downfall of Othello, eventually succeeding in convincing Othello to kill his own wife.
This battle between “good guys” and “bad guys” can also be seen in movies. Cowboy Westerns, for example, typically revolve around a storyline in which a law-abiding, decent, courageous man is fighting against a ruthless, cruel villain or gang of villains. In this type of movie, the protagonist, often wearing light-colored clothing or the uniform of a law man, fights against obstacles put in place by the antagonist, who usually wears black clothing and is shown often in dark shadows to enhance his menacing actions.
However, a virtuous character can be considered an antagonist if he or she blocks the protagonist’s progress in other ways. An example of this would be the mother-daughter relationships found in Amy Tan’s works about Chinese-Americans, such as The Joy Luck Club. The mothers in these novels and short stories often block their daughters’ progression through the stories, not in evil or maniacal ways, but in an attempt to continually draw them back into Chinese tradition and culture.
Another example of an antagonist who lacks evil intentions would be Joanna Kramer in the movie Kramer vs. Kramer. After leaving her family, Joanna, played by Meryl Streep, reappears in her son’s life, threatening the relationship his father, Ted Kramer -- played by Dustin Hoffman -- has established with him. Her intentions are to re-connect with her son, but she hinders the progress Ted, the protagonist, has made throughout the movie.