My protagonist is Eris and my antagonist is Ezrith.

In a post-apocalyptic world, my unreliable narrator Eris has the ability to control and manipulate life and subsequently kill any living thing at will. She denies her abilities because of an extremely traumatizing event in her childhood, where she murdered her aunt, father, and sister accidentally, and while trying to cover it up, killed more people who came to investigate. She has been found by a group of survivors and taken a liking to the adopted son, Caspian, of the group's matriarch, Ezrith.

Ezrith is the antagonist. Her dead wife Saskia, Caspian's biological mother, was killed while on a scouting mission (unbeknownst to Ezrith or anyone in the group) by Eris, who has blocked out the memory of the murder. Ezrith is extremely suspicious of Eris and constantly scrutinizes Eris' motivations and behavior.

The fact is, though, that Ezrith's motivations (despite being Eris' antagonist) are totally benevolent and her love for her son and the group she leads is pure. All she wants is to keep her loved ones safe. Eris, on the other hand, is selfish, secretive, and bottom-line morally compromised, killing out of fear and hatred and lying to herself and others.

Is this plot line even feasible? Can I have an effective portrayal of an "evil" protagonist and "good" antagonist without having my reader sympathize with the antagonist? And how can I keep my reader's sympathies aligned with my protagonist despite all of her somewhat unredeemable faults?

  • 3
    The plot is feasible and has been done. Crime and Punishment, Lolita, Frankenstein...
    – wetcircuit
    Dec 14, 2018 at 15:24
  • 6
    I think the problem is you're getting hung up on the labels protagonist and antagonist. Just write your story and don't worry about what someone doing literary analysis might call your characters.
    – Cyn
    Dec 14, 2018 at 15:30
  • I would actually recommend you read "The Prince in Waiting" trilogy, by John Christopher.
    – Jedediah
    Dec 14, 2018 at 16:04
  • 1
    Protagonist who is morally compromised and antagonist who is “good”? Nicholas Cage and Ethan Hawke in Lord of War.
    – RonJohn
    Mar 14, 2019 at 18:35

5 Answers 5


Just consider them characters. As has been mentioned, it has been done before and can be more interesting than a virtuous MC.

Paradise Lost has a power and fascination lacking in Paradise Regained. Paradise Regained was practically a flop in comparison. Lucifer is a compelling character.

Certain genres require a protagonist with moral latitude and play. Since you have an extremely dangerous MC, make her a character people are interested in.

Characters live in the world we create for them and yours has a checkered past - a bit like the kid in Looper. Just write them as you see them and let them do what they must.

No one is unrelentingly good, so your matriarch might have a skeleton or two in her closet.

Use shades of grey - some works live in the shade because that is where their characters are. What she did as a terrified child could even be understood if not forgiven by someone in universe - or did she kill everyone with knowledge?

  • To add some more recent examples to the list of popular morally grey (or outright black) protagonists: Walter White (from Breaking Bad), Thomas Covenant (from The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant), and pretty much any Game of Thrones character who isn't a Stark (and even a few who are) Dec 14, 2018 at 21:56
  • An additional answer could even be "Avengers: Infinity War" where Thanos is stated by production staff to be the film's true protaganist and the story climaxes with him killing half of all life in the entire universe, which is a successful goal as far as he knows.
    – hszmv
    Feb 11, 2021 at 20:08

While in fiction the protaganist and hero are typically the same character in a story, as are the antagonist and villain, "Protaganist" does not have the same meaning as "Hero" and "Antagonist" is not a synonym for "Villain." Protaganist denotes a character who the audience and story will follow as they respond to challenges to their goals. Any force, be it man, nature, animal, or societal, whos actions oppose the hero's ability to achieve the goal are Antagonistic forces.

Hero and Villains denote characters in a story that express a positive or negative moral standpoint from the storyteller's point of view and while a heroic protaganist need not have a villain antagonist, a villain antagonist will always need a heroic antagonist. To stress the point, in "Castaway" Tom Hanks is both the hero and the protaganist, while he has no villain to morally oppose him, he has an antagonistic force in nature and it's mere existence in the form of the Island's lack of any human infrasturcuter and his inability to leave it due to the nature of the sea. None of these antagonist forces are morally opposed to Hanks leaving the Island, nor are they in moral support of Hanks staying on the island. They simply do not care and cannot be persuaded to care. They will do as they have done from the dawn of their respective existences and will so whether or not Hanks die. They do not have a moral stake in the outcome of the story... they merely exist in it... and their mere existence opposes Hank's goal of leaving the Island.

Compare to Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, who are representatives of the forces of good and the forces of evil as explicitly stated in the dialog of their films. Luke is also the protaganist, which means that Villaious Vader's opposing morality makes him an antagonist.

Contrast with Breaking Bad where the protaganist Walt is selling drugs illicitly, something that is morally opposed by DEA agent Hank Schrader. However, since the story is from Walter's point of view and everything considered morally wrong that happens to everyone in the story ties to Walter's actions, not Hanks, Walter is both the Protaganist (he's the focalpoint of the story) and Villain (the show is quite clear that Walter's morallity is not something one should aspire to.) while Hank is both the antagonist (as he wants to stop Walter from achieving his goal) and the Hero (because despite all his human faults, he's still a decent person who is trying to do the right thing.).

  • Exactly my sentiment. Villain protagonists and hero antagonists are a thing. Feb 12, 2021 at 10:19

I know this question was asked 2 years ago but on the off chance anyone is reading this...

Have Eris feel immense guilt and sorrow and just general intense emotion with regards their killing. Have it haunt her, have her only kill out of blind panic and then feel instant remorse, or have her exhaust every other option before killing a person. And give her a positive goal. She only killed this person because she needs to do XYZ which will help ABC.

Then, have Ezrith get in the way of this goal. Have Ezrith's scrutiny jeopardise this goal, and have her seemingly not care about that consequence. Have Ezrith be a cold and stoic character, while Eris- despite her body count- is a warm and compassionate person. Have their nature contradict their actions to the point where Eris kills people, but is too nice to be considered evil, and Ezrith acts out of love, but is to callous to be sympathised with.


A protagonist isn't necessarily the "good guy." Instead, it simply means the person most focussed on; e.g. the main character. The antagonist isn't the "bad guy," it's the person who is providing the conflict with the protagonist.

By these definitions, it is perfectly legal to have a bad protagonist and a good antagonist. It's just a lot more traditional to have the protagonist as the "good guy" and the antagonist as the "bad guy."

Another WSE question that is easily related to this (and where I got a lot of this answer) is this one: Is a lawful good "antagonist" effective?

After looking a bit closer, you asked that question, and it might be about the same book...


None of that is any way unfeasible, nor anything like that.

Consider what difference yours being a post-apocalyptic world, or any of the other details, might make.

Eris’ unreliability as narrator, or ability to kill; her past or her finding by survivors or liking for Caspian; Saskia’s death; Ezrith’s suspicions or motivations; Eris’ nature or anything else there seem at most unlikely affect the plot line, let alone make it unfeasible.

Whether any writer can give an effective portrayal of anything is purely a question of the writer’s skill.

An "evil" pro- and "good" antagonist depend on the points of view portrayed and the skill thereof… The problem is with cardboard caricatures, not well-drawn characters.

Take for instance Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Flowers of Adonis, where the viewpoint changes almost per chapter; any of George McDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels which specifically describe their protagonist as a cheat, coward, liar, thief and much else you might not like; any of Sven Hassel’s novels, whose heroes are at best Wehrmacht soldiers, if not Nazis.

Readers sympathize with whomever the writer leads them to sympathize with.

A major part of any problem keeping reader's sympathies aligned with a protagonist will be your ability to explain the difference between truly and merely “somewhat” unredeemable faults. Can you?

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.