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Wikipedia defines the protagonist of a story as follows:

A protagonist (from Ancient Greek πρωταγωνιστής, prōtagōnistḗs 'one who plays the first part, chief actor') is the main character of a story.

The protagonist is at the center of the story, makes the key decisions, and experiences the consequences of those decisions. The protagonist is the primary agent propelling the story forward, and is often the character who faces the most significant obstacles. If a story contains a subplot, or is a narrative made up of several stories, then each subplot may have its own protagonist.

The protagonist is the character whose fate is most closely followed by the reader or audience, and who is opposed by the antagonist. The antagonist will provide obstacles and complications and create conflicts that test the protagonist, and revealing the strengths and weaknesses of the protagonist's character.

To me, the last section of the description reads to me as if a protagonist "needs" an antagonist, but my gut feeling tells me that that's not always the case. In "slice-of-life" stories, there are clearly protagonists and side characters, but no clear antagonists.

As such, I would like to know if a story necessitates the existence of an antagonist for a protagonist to exist.

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There does not need to be antagonist as a character, but there should be some sort of conflict. It could be the case that the role of antagonist is played by another character, but it could also be played by nature, luck/fate/God, society or even the protagonist herself.

The Wikipedia article on conflict gets into more detail on this, including this summary:

The basic types of conflict in fiction have been commonly codified as "man against man", "man against nature", and "man against self." Although frequently cited, these three types of conflict are not universally accepted. Ayn Rand, for instance, argued that "man against nature" is not a conflict because nature has no free will and thus can make no choices. Sometimes a fourth basic conflict is described, "man against society". Some of the other types of conflict referenced include "man against machine" (The Terminator, Brave New World), "man against fate" (Slaughterhouse Five), "man against the supernatural" (The Shining) and "man against God" (A Canticle for Leibowitz).

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  • Thank you for your detailled answer. I have marked it as accepted, but the system says I cannot upvote it yet. Consider this comment a token of my gratitude. Dec 14 '20 at 3:23
  • Conversly, you can have a villain, but the villain need not be an antagonist. I often point to Disney's Mulan (1998) as an example of this, where the villain Shan Yu is not Mulan's antagonist as their goals do not clash with each other. Shan Yu wants the emperor to send the best armies in China to stop him, while Mulan wants to stop Shan Yu. Mulan's antagonist is rather Chinese society which says Women cannot be Soldiers... which means she has to overcome societal expectations to achieve her goal.
    – hszmv
    Dec 14 '20 at 12:35

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