The Fine Line Between Protagonists and Antagonists

The Fine Line Between Protagonists and Antagonists

Hannah Barham

There are two contradicting viewpoints on a certain character. You can either love a character, or you can absolutely hate them. That leads to the discussion of whether a main character is a protagonist or an antagonist. For example, a character that is considered a protagonist is someone that kills and carries out activities of an antagonist, while an antagonist can be someone who has kindness and love in their heart. That brings up the topic of the actual concepts of protagonist and antagonist. 

An example is Joe Goldberg. Under television circumstances, he is considered a protagonist. Now, “protagonist” has the connotation of being a good person, having good morals. However, in Joe Goldberg’s world, he is in between. On one hand, he can be a good human being, but on the other hand he can be a psychopathic, cold hearted murderer. Joe wants one thing and one thing only: the woman he loves. In fact, Joe’s definition of “love” is very controversial. Joe observes his obsession walking in, analyzes every detail about them, and approaches them based on what he has observed. Joe then uses the internet and stalking to fully learn their routine, and make the odds work in his favor. Joe’s thought process is his way of talking to the audience, and that’s how he captivates him. We can consider that Joe is actually manipulating the audience to root for him, when judging by his character, we aren’t supposed to. Joe kidnaps, stalks, manipulates, gaslights, all of it, just to get to the one person he wants most. (which, honestly, there are too many to count.) So why do we like Joe? Why do we want to see him succeed in his ventures? It’s because of how real he can be in his narrations. Joe is extremely charismatic and knows his social cues. He can always think of something clever or humorous to keep up his “good guy” persona. Every time he has a conversation, he can always leave the other person thinking to themself, “Hey, Joe Goldberg is a nice guy”, when they don’t know that he secretly has a man in his basement in a glass box. At the end of season two, we presume that Joe has finally reached his happy ending. He marries Love Quinn, moves into a nice home in Madre Linda, and he vows to protect his unborn daughter with everything. We assume that this is the end of Joe’s story, that after everything he can be happy. Joe then explains that he has one habit he cannot shake, and we see him look through a hole in his fence to his neighbor: a woman named Natalie Engler. Thus the cycle begins again. What do we assume about Joe from this? He just can’t shake that rush and thrill of obsessing over someone and fantasizing everything about them. Now that he has Love Quinn, he isn’t able to do what he did before. He can’t feel that strong urge to protect whoever he loves. That’s why Joe’s character is so complex. We want to hate him, but we can’t. We want him to win.

The same can be said for characters in books as well. Books are easier to interpret than movies are. Books provide every detail, every thought, everything. In a book, we know what the character is thinking and what their motive is. In television or film, we have to read between the lines and come up with predictions. In H.G. Wells’s novel, The Invisible Man, we hear everyone’s thoughts and opinions on Jack Griffin. This is all thanks to point of view. We have first person, third person, and third person omniscient. Joe Goldberg is an example of first person, where we only know his thoughts and feelings, and no one else’s unless directly spoken. Third person is where the narrator is telling us about the main character. Third person omniscient describes all characters involved in the story. That’s where The Invisible Man ties in. We see the different characters interact and how they present themselves to the audience through the narrator. Through third person omniscient, we can perceive what is known as dramatic irony, which is the case in which the audience knows something the character does not. For example, Jack Griffin is briefly unknowing of the sheer effect he has caused on the town. He has no idea how much fear and paranoia he has inflicted upon the citizens. Does he care how anyone feels? Absolutely not. Jack Griffin is a man who only cares about himself and his well being. That’s why he doesn’t bother to find out the actual terror he has brought on. The only thing that is on his mind is finding a cure for invisibility and bringing himself back to normal. Going off of that, do we want to blame Jack Griffin? He was a man who was stripped of his humanity and went insane after not being able to properly see himself. Did this lead him to his chaos? Probably. 

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. We all know the tale. A brilliant scientist ingests a toxic chemical and slowly develops a split personality of sorts. Mr. Hyde is a killer who walks around at night and murders the citizens of London. Mr. Hyde only comes out at night, and turns back into Dr. Jekyll during the day. Is it possible that one character can be both the protagonist and antagonist at the same time? Well, in this case yes. Only the protagonist and antagonist are living in the same body. The whole plot point of the story is that Dr. Jekyll wants to rid himself of Mr. Hyde, because Mr. Hyde is controlling his life and he hurt too many people. The protagonist and antagonist of the story is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, only they share the same body. The entire inner conflict is fighting himself, and how he is struggling to contain his crippling sanity.

Why is there even protagonist and antagonist if there’s going to be constant debate over what the character actually is? In my opinion, there shouldn’t be the terms protagonist and antagonist. It just provides more confusion and doesn’t primarily focus on the characters goal, whether good or bad.