Are you the protagonist or antagonist?

As I develop characters and decide on who is the protagonist and antagonist in my story, I realize real life is not nearly that simple. Sure in my life story I’m the protagonist. But in someone else’s story, I may be the antagonist.

Many times, I’ve been the sidekick. Even, an ancillary character that fills in the background. And the character I portray in other people’s lives is very different from the character I am in my own story.

Which randomly brings to mind this Klimt painting. Each character is drawn relative to the other. If you remove one, the others lose their positions. And I think that is what makes storytelling so interesting. Everyone’s role is defined by the others. Remove one person from the picture and everything shifts.

What got me thinking so deeply about this? My online Writer’s Digest class. We had to describe our protagonist and antagonist and what motivates them. To me as the unbiased third-party story-teller, I am privy to all the facts and circumstances of their lives (or at least  I like to think I am). It allows me to determine what role they play in the novel I am writing.

But then I have to delve into what roles they play among the other characters. And that is where things get convoluted. I have a heroine, who some view as a spoiled manipulative man-eater, while others see her as someone who put her friends first and suffers mightily for it. Same character, different perspectives. She is all these things. And that’s why I love writing her.

And I started wondering…hmmm in my own life…I’m sure I’ve been the antagonist in several people’s stories. I’m sure I’ve been good and bad and everything in between. And I started to wonder how I play out in other people’s stories. Which got me wondering, does anyone see themselves as the antagonist? Or do we all cast ourselves as protagonists in our own minds? Even when we may very well be the antagonist in many situations?

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19 Responses to Are you the protagonist or antagonist?

  1. Gerard says:

    Really interesting perspective. It’s hard to view oneself as the antagonist, but you are correct, we certainly inhabit that space in the eyes of others, no matter how good we might think we are. I think, for the sake of sanity, that we all (or at least nearly all) see ourselves as the protagonist..we all try to keep that positive view of ourselves because if we don’t, who will? Life is hard enough and we don’t need to compound the day to day difficulties by viewing ourselves as Snidley Whiplash. Let someone else do that. 🙂 There always will be enough people willing to do it.

    • LOL. Well said Gerard. It’s just funny because when you step outside the lens of your own camera, you start to wonder hmmm was I the bad guy there? Uh-oh. Especially when you look back on things in life. The details blur and you tend to fall back on the fact that you are the protagonist and so you can’t be the bad guy. Or maybe that’s just me? I know there are times i was certain someone was the antagonist and they were just as certain that I was. Those things usually never resolved well.

  2. Emma says:

    A very philosophical post; I like those 🙂 Well, thinking about myself I’d say (or I’d like to think?) that I’m clearly a protagonist. My husband always tells me that I was “too good for this world” and “a bit naive” because I only want to see the good in people and always act on it–well, he always adds something like “and that’s why I love you so much” to soften it up a bit which is why I can’t be mad at him. But there are things which I regret, times when I was wrong and did the wrong thing, but like you said, there’s always a good AND a bad side of ourselves and life hardly ever is black or white, most of the time it’s simply gray–in every possible shade.

    • Yeah, I kinda think we have to see ourself as the protagonist in our own story. But being the protagonist doesn’t mean you can’t make mistakes. 🙂 I think it’s more how you view your mistakes and what you take to heart.

  3. Carrie Rubin says:

    That’s a great point–even the bad guys think their motivations are sound, making them a hero (to themselves) for pursuing them. I think when an author uses that knowledge to craft their antagonist, the character becomes more real and three-dimensional.

    • Thanks. I always try to keep that in mind. I really don’t like when the villain doesn’t seem to have any motivation except for the fact that he’s insane. It’s fine if that’s a part of the motivation, but it can’t be all there is to it. 🙂

  4. Maxine Kilger says:

    Positive change is often the creation of the antagonist.

  5. Mayumi-H says:

    I’m glad you reblogged this one, Kourtney, because it’s always a good thing to remember about our characters (and ourselves, really). I was recently struck by a desire to write a character description of one of my minor antagonists, and I found that there was a lot more to him than I’d originally thought, because I decided to step outside the boundaries of his limited appearance and think about the person he really is. People don’t seem to do that enough in fiction, let alone real life.

    • It was an oldie but a goodie. 🙂 It’s funny how digging deeper helps us find a mine of valuable information about our antagonists. It’s hard to step outside a situation in real life and remember that there is another side that might be as right as ours–at least to that person. I really hate when the book ends with, so the villain was just crazy. It kind of dilutes the story for me. He can be crazy, but it helps if he has real motives and beliefs that drive his actions.

  6. Ally Bean says:

    I’m the protagonist in my own story most of the time. However, in certain situations where kindness and positivity have failed me, I have become the antagonist because some people will not cooperate no matter what you do. And in fact, in my experience some people only respect you when you are antagonistic. Which I dislike being unless I have to be to get things done. [Not sure if this is a lucid comment, but that’s what I’m thinking right now.]

    • There are times we can’t always be the “hero” in a story. Sometimes we have to play the other role. I have found kindness works a good amount of the time, but sometimes you have to be difficult and push back in order to be respected. I also have had moments where I’ve done things that were incredibly antagonistic to the other person and in their story I was definitely the villain. 😉

  7. Lori says:

    These are great thoughts, Kourtney. In my finished novel, Ava is the protagonist, but the antagonist sees her as the antagonist, because she feels threatened by her. As a result, the antagonist acts in antagonistic ways toward Ava. Wait, what? Don’t know if that makes any sense. But, it goes to your point about life, we each see ourselves as the protagonist when others might see us as their antagonist.

    • It makes sense to me. Perspective is dicey like that. I have my own moral code that I live by and when people violate it, it makes me think who could ever do that? But others have their own moral codes that I’ve probably violated and set off the same response in them.

  8. I do think everyone sees themselves as the protagonist in their own life story – unless they’re unbalanced in some fashion. Someone who sees themselves as an antagonist is not dealing with a full deck. But by asking the question, you brought out an aspect of life that informs writing in a way that can provide depth – to characters, to plots, and to theme. Great insight. I’ll definitely try to use it. Thank you.

    • I think most people do, but I think some of them are lying to themselves. Sometimes someone is driven by darker motives and does things that manipulate other people. Sometimes someone actively tries to hurt other people whether it be with passive aggressive behavior or actual sabotage. I think we all like to think we are the protagonist, but sometimes we aren’t. Glad you enjoyed the post.

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