The protagonists and antagonists of stories are commonly referred to as the good guys and bad guys.

Commonly known as the hero and the villain of a story, the protagonist and antagonist are main characters who draw themselves into conflict with one another, creating tension that drives the action forward. The protagonist is also called the main character, and while these characters are opposed to one another, they can sometimes be difficult to distinguish in terms of morality. Therefore, middle school students need to understand the characters' respective roles in a story.

How They Can Be Different

Heores and villains can be mortal enemies, friendly competitors, or anything in between.

Protagonists and antagonists can differ in a wide range of ways. Historically, this pair of characters has represented — to varying degrees — individual embodiments of good and evil. Other times they share a moral code, but find themselves in opposition for external reasons. Sometimes the antagonist is not an opponent as much as someone, or something, that provides the hero with the opportunity to grow and change. For this reason, the antagonist is sometimes called the pivotal character.

How They Can Be Similar

Some antagonists are so captivating that they become antiheroes.

Aside from the surface similarities that can exist between two characters, heroes and villains can share moral fabric, cultural values, codes of honor and even objectives, all of which can close the gap between the two in terms of with whom the audience sympathizes. What can further blur the distinction is when the antagonist possesses charming qualities that captivate the audience. Such antagonists are known as antiheroes.

How Dramatic Action Works

Dramatic action is the development of tension and conflict between two characters.

Regardless of genre — prose, theater, film — the main character in all stories wants something, and the antagonist appears to stand in the way. What's happening, however, is that while the hero wants something, so does the villain, and each character has his, or her or its own reasons for wanting what each wants. They each strategize and try to change something about the other, and by the end, either one, or both, succeeds.

How to Tell Them Apart

Telling the protagonist from the antagonist can sometimes be tricky.

Because stories with complex characters can be impossible to break down in terms of who is right and who is wrong, make the distinction between protagonist and antagonist by identifying which character has changed the most by the end of the story. The character who grows the most is the one whom the story is about, and — regardless of morals — is the main character.