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Good Protagonists, Bad Antagonists? A Case Study

By Martha Sigargök-Martin | Features & Reviews

Mar 18

Before We Get Started

Before we dive into that seemingly simple topic, let's define what is meant behind the terms of "protagonist" and "antagonist".

If you're interested in storytelling, you'll probably know already a lot about protagonists and antagonists, but a common mistake that everybody makes is to confuse the importance of a role played by a protagonist with his intentions.

Likewise, lots of people confuse an antagonist with a bad guy. And it's more complicated than that.

Sometimes an antagonist isn't even a living being.

So what are protagonists and antagonists?

First...

What Is A Protagonist?

A protagonist is the leading character of a story. He leads the decisions that bring the story forward.

For the worst or the better.

A protagonist has a goal she/he wants to reach.

While trying so, she/he meets a counterpart: the antagonist(s).

Therefore, the role of a protagonist has nothing to do with his morality or his intentions.

There are many examples in films and series where the protagonist is A or THE bad guy.

House of Cards, Dexter, Breaking Bad, Hannibal, just to name a few, are examples for series where the protagonists are bad guys, even though they show subtle distinctions through their intentions and morality.

What Is An Antagonist?

The antagonist is, therefore, the counterpart of the protagonist.

Whether her/his interests are at the opposite of the protagonist or she/he plays a moral instance or represents a test for the protagonist.

As I said, the antagonist doesn't have to be a person. It can be a group of people, a political situation, nature, an abstract concept.

The Case Of The Series "The Last Kingdom"

(SPOILERS)

The popular Netflix series - originally BBC America -, The Last Kingdom, describes the early stages of the forging of England in the late 9th century in the middle of the Viking Age (793-1066).

The title refers to the Kingdom of Wessex, ruled by Alfred The Great, and last Anglo-Saxon kingdom that hasn't been conquered by Danes.

The series is based on The Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell and revolves around the protagonist Uhtred of Bebbanburg, Saxon-born, taken by Danes as a child.

That's already a premise for a great character, as Uhtred of Bebbanburg will encounter a conflict of interests.

Uhtred of Bebbanburg

Uhtred of Bebbanburg is a complex character.

His father, Earldorman Uhtred, is killed by Danes at a battle at York (Eoferwic). when he's nine years old.

Uhtred is abducted and enslaved by Danes. Although they've killed his father, Uhtred seems to enjoy the freer Danish's more than the restrictive Christians' lifestyle.

He develops a solid affection for his Danish father, Ragnar The Eldest, and becomes a Dane at heart.

Ragnar's children, Ragnar the Youngest, Rorik, and Thyra, are like brothers and sisters to him.

But the story doesn't stop here.

A Torned "Hero"

Except for the death of Rorik, life is good among Danes.

Until Uthred becomes an enemy of Kjartan, due to an incident between Thyra and Kjartan's son, Sven, as they are teenagers.

As a result of Sven assaulting Thyra, Sven is blinded by Ragnar in one eye and Kjartan's family banned.

Years later, Kjartan takes his revenge and burn Ragnar and his family alive while they're sleeping, except for Thyra who's been abducted, Ragnar the Youngest, who was away, and Brida and Uhtred, who were guarding the blacksmith's fire during the attack.

A false rumor spread that Uhtred killed his adoptive father because of his Saxon heritage. As Uhtred can't convince the Danish Lords of his innocence, he's forced to flee to Wessex and hope to reclaim Bebbanburg from his uncle.

Uhtred accepts to serve Alfred The Great, King of Wessex, to have a chance to regain Bebbanburg, but still is a Dane at heart.

The half-Dane develops several friendships among the Saxons which makes his loyalties more an more complex.

Uhtred is torn between being a Danes and serving the interests of the Saxons.

Sometimes he only serves his own interests to regain Bebbanburg.

At the same time, Uhtred is depicted as a character who doesn't like breaking oaths. No matter to whom.

The Complexity of Antagonists

Alfred The Great

King Alfred is, at times, Uhtred's antagonist, because both men have different goals and values. Even if they aren't real enemies.

Despite their mutual respect - Uhtred for Alfred's intelligence and Alfred for Uhtred's great faculties as a warrior and tactician - they don't really like each other.

Uhtred despises Alfred's piety and his "weak" way of resolving conflicts. Alfred despises Uhtred's paganism and impetuousness.

But is Alfred a "bad guy"?

Not really.

Although he's serving the interest of the crone and of Christians, and in this matter, quite rigid towards Uhtred, Alfred can't be described as a bad antagonist.

His punishments towards Uhtred are more than unfair, but completely in accordance with his values.

From Alfred's point of view, punishing Uhtred is the right thing to do.

Aethelwold

But Alfred isn't the only character that has opposite interests to Uhtred.

Aethelwold, Alfred's nephew, who sees himself as the legitimate King of Saxons, also have opposite motivations.

And more than that: He wants to get rid of him because Uhtred is mostly on Alfred's side and as a great warrior, a direct threat to his plan of reclaiming the crone.

Aethelwold is more easy to define as a "bad" antagonist because he wether follows any rules, code of honor nor have real friends he would fight for:

Aethelwold only serves his own interest and is ready to deceive and manipulate anyone to get what he wants.

He's also a coward, which stays in contrast to Uhtred's bravery.

Ubba and other Danes

Since most Danes think Uhtred has killed Ragnar the Eldest, they are his enemies. Except for his brother Ragnar The Youngest and the adopted Brida. At least for a while.

Ubba is a powerful Danish warlord and automatically an enemy of Uthred.

Ubba and other Danish lords are more easy to antagonists to define:

They want to conquer Wessex and steal all the Silver they can get on their way to grow an even bigger army.

Therefore, they only serve their own interest a well, but they do have a sense of loyalty between them, in contrast to Aethelwold.

From their point of view, Uhtred has betrayed Ragnar, despite the fact that the latter has prevented the young Saxon from being killed by his own uncle and has loved him like his own son.

So, despite his bloodthirstiness and greed, Ubba is just serving the cause he thinks to be right as well as his people.

The Most Interesting Aspect of The Last Kingdom

As you can see, this isn't that simple.

The Last Kingdom is a perfect example of showing the complexity of a protagonist.

Uhtred isn't a bad guy but he isn't an angel as well.

So are some of his antagonists.

But the most captivating thing about Uhtred isn't his physical antagonists but is his inner demons.

His indecisions and inner tournaments are his most challenging antagonists.

Not knowing how Uhtred of Bebbanburg is going to react is one of the most interesting aspects in The Last Kingdom series.

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About the Author

Hello there! I'm Martha, a tenacious optimist, professional mistake maker and a pain in the ass for those who love status quo. I love inspiring films and series not only because they're pretty but also because they have the power to change perspective and sometimes to heal.

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