An Etymological Rivalry: “Protagonist” and “Antagonist”—and Who Came First?

As most writers are well aware, your protagonist is the major player, hero(ine), or primary actor in your story—the one around whom the narrative revolves and whose journey readers are following.

Think of Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island, or Ralph Ellison’s unnamed narrator in Invisible Man.

The word “protagonist” was originally a theatrical term, from the Greek protagonistes, a word for the main actor in a play. It is made up of the words protos, meaning “first,” and agonistes, meaning “actor” or “competitor.”

The Other Competitor: Wherefore “Antagonist”?

Swap protos with the prefix ant-, meaning “against” or “opposed to,” and you get your antagonist, or villain—the character acting against your primary actor. (And, by the way, the etymology of “villain” is another interesting tale, for later this month.)  Ant- is a variation on anti-, which you find in words like antibiotic and anticlimactic

Famed antagonists from theater and literature include Shakespeare’s Iago and Lady Macbeth, Tolkien’s Sauron, and the White Witch of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.

In English, the Antagonist Prevails

Perhaps unexpectedly, “antagonist” is older than “protagonist,” at least in English.

While “antagonist” was adopted in the late 1500s as a word meaning “one who contends with another” in any sort of sport or contest—so potentially a real person—a “protagonist” was always a performer or a fictional player in a story.

Similarly, in Greek, antagonistes was a word for any sort of rival or competitor, while protagonistes was a word for a stage actor. The Greek base word of both, agon, meant “a struggle” or “a contest,” and also forms the base of the word “agony.”

Learn more in Once Upon a Word: An Etymology Dictionary for Kids (Rockridge Press 2020).

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