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The Truth About Antagonism

Updated: Feb 23

A speeding bolt

What is an antagonist? You may be surprised to know that a person does not have to be evil, manipulative, or malicious in order to be a "villain" or an antagonist, and that applies to both fiction and real life. The only essential requirement to be an antagonist is to serve as any kind of opponent or conflict-maker to someone else, regardless of their behavior, goals, or motives. Technically, even friendly competition can be regarded as a "battle" or "conflict" between a protagonist and antagonist.

It's not about being evil or good, even though in countless works of fiction, that is the case. It's the case because it's the easiest way to portray conflict between two sides—by using a stereotypical, simplistic form of a clash between basic, opposing terms that even little children can understand. Now, I'm not saying that fictional works about good and evil are overrated, but it's extremely easy to portray the hero as the good guy and the antagonist as the bad guy, even though in reality, it's most of the time not the case, as reality, for the most part, isn't about "black" and "white".

With that out of the way, we have to be honest: we can all be, to some extent, an antagonist to someone or some people, at least during a certain period of time—as much as we can be the opposite. We humans, after all, have conflicting desires, and as long as we live and interact with each other, there will always be a potential for some conflict.

The conflict itself doesn't have to be a war, or an attempt to stop the "bad guy" from taking over the world. The antagonist can be your parents, your child, your partner, and even your friend. That's how basic the concept of antagonism is in our existence.

The antagonist doesn't even have to be a person or even an animal such as a predator; it can be an abstract concept or an unanimated object, such as finances, if you're struggling with money, or a computer that doesn't work when you need to use it. Anything and anyone that stands in your way, regardless of the grand importance of such standing, is technically an antagonist for that period of time.

With that being said, the antagonist doesn't have to be necessarily evil, anti-social, or even hostile. Sport games such as football and basketball are basically a "civilized" conflict between two teams; you can therefore call it a "legitimate conflict", or that which is approved by society. In any sport match, there is a struggle for victory, and that struggle is against the opposite team, making them the antagonist as much as you are their antagonist.

The greater the "threat" a player of the opposite team is in your struggle for victory, the more likely they can be considered as the main antagonist of the match, while the rest of the players are still antagonists, but of lesser importance, even if they serve an active role. Compare this to a supervillain and his henchmen/minions.

The antagonist, in addition, doesn't have to be always present in your life in order to have their influence on you. Some people have an indirect effect on your life, even if you don't communicate with them regularly, if at all. In Shrek, for example, the main antagonist of the whole movie series isn't any of the main antagonist in any of the movies. -- it's actually an unnamed, unseen witch was responsible for Fiona, Shrek's love interest, to be cursed.

Your antagonist, regardless of the situation, does not have to be dominant in your life to serve as an obstacle in your path, or make you have one or more conflicts in various periods of your life, if not your entire life. After all, that mysterious witch is responsible for Shrek's struggle in all of the movies—to leave his solitary and xenophobic life in order to be a part of civilization that doesn't always accept creatures of his kind. If that sorceress had avoided cursing Fiona, there would not be a motive for Shrek to rescue her, and thus the whole Shrek cinematic universe would not move forward, as there would be no conflict.

Likewise, not every antagonist has to be a villain; they can be a hero, depending on the perspective and/or on the morality between the two sides. Technically, even a noisy neighbor can be an antagonist, even if they didn't break any actual law. I know I might offend some people, and I apologize for doing so, but even a reluctant baby can be an antagonist. Thus, you don't even have to loathe them, let alone want to cause them misfortune, in order for them to be your antagonist.

In real life, there aren't necessarily any evil masterminds that plan your demise, but it doesn't mean that there aren't any antagonists or potential ones. As long as you have an opponent, no matter how big or small, you have an antagonist. More on antagonism can be found here.

If you are interested to know, I too have an antagonist... a certain woman that I used to love. She's no longer a part of my life, nor I communicate with her in any way. But, she is, ultimately, the trigger for me becoming a semi-hermit and to partially avoid this world. The conflict here is not direct with her, but is instead represented in the following question: "Why desire a society that rejects you for expressing your eccentric existence?"

(2023 edit: Perhaps I generalized. It does not matter, however, as there are people like her. People who would treat you like dirt for being eccentric).

It's a question, you see, that I have yet to find an answer for. Even though I mostly live in solitude, I still have this site that is viewed by people on a daily basis, and I indirectly communicate with them through my articles. I could have stopped completely, due to its theoretically-permanent influence on my life; but for some reason, I refuse. The fear of seeing myself as a leech, and not a productive member of society, is at times too strong a drive to keep myself voluntarily disconnected from this world.

I don't know if I am an antagonist in someone's life, but I won't be surprised to know that I am, even if my role isn't too big. Throughout life, I realized that no matter how good you strive to be, you can still become some sort of a conflict-trigger to someone, even if you don't do so on purpose.

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Tomasio A. Rubinshtein, Philosocom's Founder & Writer

I am a philosopher from Israel, author of several books in 2 languages, and Quora's Top Writer of the year 2018. I'm also a semi-hermit who has decided to dedicate his life to writing and sharing my articles across the globe. Several podcasts on me, as well as a radio interview, have been made since my career as a writer. More information about me can be found here.

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