3 Things to Do if Your Antagonist Is Taking Over Your Story

How To Tell If Your Story Is Being Taken Over By Your AntagonistNext to your protagonist, your antagonist is the single most important character in your story. But beware, lest you discover your antagonist is taking over your story. What does this look like? Why might it happen? And how can you guard against it?

Glad you asked.

Antagonists are fascinating people. The reasons why people choose to do “bad” things, the tortured backstories that lead them to their current state of ruthlessness, their ability to get away with anything they want to on the page—it’s all too delicious for an author not to enjoy. There will always be a part of the author in the antagonist, usually the dark, unexplored parts of ourselves that fascinate us despite our fears.

In short, writing antagonists can be very cathartic. Unfortunately, however, this enjoyable catharsis can occasionally run the risk of upending your entire story. Your antagonist turns out to be a more interesting person than your protagonist, and you start spending more and more time on the dark side.

And… your story will suffer.

Your Antagonist Is Taking Over Your Story—Is That Always Bad?

When I say your antagonist is taking over your story, I’m specifically talking about screentime. If you’re spending more time in your antagonist’s POV than your protagonist’s, or if your antagonist’s charisma dominates the scenes he shares with your protagonist, you’ve got a problem.

Consider Rupert Sanders’s pretty but exceedingly flat fairy-tale retelling Snow White and the Huntsman—which should rightly have been called Ravenna the Evil Queen. Sanders, a first-time movie director who was hired largely thanks to his visual ingenuity in advertising campaigns, was obviously entranced by the visual possibilities for his antagonist. Played by a scenery-chomping Charlize Theron, she gets the best costumes, the best settings, and all the most visually arresting scenes.

Snow White and the Huntsman Charlize Theron Evil Queen Ravenna

Signs your antagonist is taking over: she gets all the best lines, best costumes, best settings, and best backstory.

Poor Snow and her gamely Scottish protector get left in the dust (and we can’t totally blame Kristen Stewart’s lackluster performance, because exactly the same thing happens to Chris Hemsworth and Jessica Chastain in the equally antag-centric sequel).

Snow White and the Huntsman Kristen Stewart

It could also be your antagonist is taking over simply because your protagonist isn’t charismatic enough in her own right to hold her own within the narrative.

The reason Ravenna’s presence overwhelms the protagonist in this story is because she is the better and more interesting character. She has a comparatively deeper backstory, more complex motivations, and more interesting relationships.

Snow White and the Huntsman Evil Queen Ravenna Charlize Theron

Now matter how scintillating your antagonist, if she’s taking over the bulk or best parts of your narrative, your story will almost certainly suffer.

So what should have been done with this story? Should the best character in the film have been thrown under the bus to give its lackluster protagonist most screentime? Yes and no.

3 Ways to Write a Great Antagonist Who Strengthens Your Protagonist

If you find yourself in a situation like this, with a strong and fascinating antagonist who keeps wanting to take over your story, you have three options.

1. Make Your Antagonist Your Protagonist

Creating Character ArcsIf your antagonist is taking over your story, that may be a sign your original interpretation of the story was incorrect. Perhaps it’s the antagonist who would be better suited to leading your story on her way to a tragic character arc or perhaps even as a redeemable antihero.

The major consideration here is that if you switch your story around to allow your antagonist the lead, then the entire plot must be crafted to support this choice. The structure and character arc decisions must now revolve around your erstwhile antagonist, not your former protagonist. Your new lead must now be the one powering the plot with a strong goal. She must be introduced in a Normal World in the First Act, which is knocked off kilter at the First Plot Point, forcing her into a reactive period up to the Midpoint, and so on.

This, of course, means your original protagonist must now function as the antagonist by presenting opposing goals and obstacles between your new protagonist and her story goals.

Switching up the protag and antag roles can be tricky, since it will change the story. But if the antagonist is already taking over, chances are many of these pieces will be in place.

2. Beef Up Your Protagonist

If, however, you like your bad guy being bad, you’re going to need to do some surgery. You’re going to push Mr. Born to Be Bad back into his place, while beefing up your protagonist.

My personal preference as both reader and writer is to eliminate antagonist POVs. This can and will complicate your ability to represent the evil machinations going on behind the scenes. But the payoff is that it allows you to focus all the story’s emotional momentum on your most important character: your protagonist.

This focus is exactly what you need if you’re to discover the spark that makes this particular character worthy of being your protagonist. If your antagonist is taking over your story, it’s going to be due as much to the protagonist’s lack of luster as the antag’s own personal charisma. Take a new look at your protag and evaluate why you originally made him your story’s lead. How can you mine that to make him the most fascinating protagonist possible—so the antagonist doesn’t even have a proper chance to steal his limelight?

3. Create a Storyform That Allows for Co-Leads

Finally, if you just can’t get past how fabulous your antagonist is, you may want to stop thinking of him strictly as “the antagonist,” and instead give him a co-lead role. In this type of narrative, both opposing characters will be given POVs with equal screentime. They will not fulfill strict good guy/bad guy roles, but rather will each act as the antagonist to the other’s protagonist, raising obstacles to each other’s goals on their way to a final confrontation.

This option presents rich possibilities for exploring nuanced moral themes (who is the bad guy here? is there really a bad guy?), as well as a complex weave of plot events. In some ways, it’s easier than the previous options, since it allows you to play out the conflict, step by step, back and forth between each character’s mindset. In other ways, it’s more complicated, since the story must be present for every step of the character interplay.

This approach is only recommended if both characters are equally interesting and complex, with a strong presence at all of the major structural moments, and full-fledged character arcs that play off one another.

The balance of the relationship between your protagonist and your antagonist will affect every choice in your story. If you’ve been lucky enough to discover a fascinating antagonist, don’t sell her short. But also be wary of allowing her to upend your entire story by stepping on the toes of your equally important protagonist. Get the balance right, and readers will be deeply engaged by the complexities of your conflict.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you ever realized your antagonist is taking over your story? What did you do? Tell me in the comments!

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Bear with me, I hope I can describe these thoughts well enough –

    In my first draft the antagonist was virtually missing. He was mentioned but rarely seen as the story progressed towards the end of the second act. That’s when I realized my error and started over rewriting from the beginning.

    I visualize a network connecting different nodes. The main character, the protagonist, my first person narrator is the largest node. Then there’s his girlfriend. Connect them with a thick line. Most of the interaction and communication is between them. Then there’s her family and his friends and family, particularly Dad, the antagonist. Much of the interaction will be between the main character and everyone else, but the other characters will interact amongst themselves.

    I didn’t the lines of interaction from the other nodes only connecting back to the center, making it a star. I needed to have a network.

    In my most recently completed set of chapters, I decided to shift the point of view to Dad, the antagonist, spending most of the time showing him interact with his family in a trip back home, with the main character along to observe and tell the tale, only occasionally interacting himself.

    I’m looking for that balance where not all the lines of action emanate from the antagonist, but not alternately have them focus too much on the protagonist.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      From what you’ve described of your story in this and past posts, I’d say bringing Dad to the fore was a huge triumph. I can sense how much deeper the story became thematically as a result. Indeed, in many ways, the antagonist is *the* thematic character. His relationship to the protagonist and the story’s central Truth is what gives the theme its form.

  2. My villainess didn’t take over the story, but I did deliberately show her POV because she is on an arc, from the Lie to the Truth. Getting her to complete that arc is necessary to complete the trilogy. Her onstage time is relatively small; she first appears in Act 2 of Book 2, though you see the effects of her actions long before then. TV tropes would call her “the dragon,” as in you have to defeat her if you want to defeat the true villain, who at that point in my story is still too mysterious and powerful to be seen.

    From the perspective of the villainess, I get to illuminate my heroines. Her efforts to fight them provide her clues that she’s deep in the grip of a Lie. More, years ago I’d read that one thing that made Darth Vader an interesting villain was that the good guys were reacting to him and planning around him. I decided to test that idea by showing my villain reacting to my heroines, and planning around them. From her POV they are seen as terrifyingly formidable opponents.

    And I get to use her to further the worldbuilding, deepen some of the mysteries and solve a few others. Her arc does play off the heroines’ arcs; when they capture her it’s a triumph for them and an all-is-lost moment for her. What they say to her in that moment is when the “lightbulb of Truth” comes blazing on for her.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I actually really like distant master antagonists, just because they facilitate the conflict while staying out of the way of the protagonist’s more personal dilemmas. :p It also allows the contagonist character to come to the fore for a while, which is always interesting. However, it does make the thematic premise a little trickier sometimes, since, as I noted in my comment to Joe, above, the antagonist is so crucial in influencing the thematic development.

  3. One other thing — I only saw part of this movie, but I agree the director was clearly over-invested in Ravenna. I think the other way to get into that trap is for the writer to think that “this is the heroine, so you’re supposed to like her anyway. No work needed there.”

    Big mistake. Always have the protagonist “apply for the hero job,” preferably before you start. If you imagined the plot first, consider what kind of character is up for the story’s challenges. Or, if you imagined the character first, consider what kind of challenge is worthy of his skill level / potential. Does Superman go after petty purse snatchers? Or does he go after villains capable of moving the moon out of orbit? Note, I have no idea either way 🙂 Flip side, if you have a villain whose first instinct is to lie and manipulate,

    The antagonist should be treated from the get-go in terms of a challenge for the protagonist; the protagonist should have equal and opposite traits to deal with the antagonist. It makes it less likely that the antagonist can take over the story.

    • I hit send too soon — the villain who lies and manipulates might be countered with a protagonist who moves heaven and earth to be honorable and straightforward.

    • I agree that the antagonist should be of roughly equal strength to make it a challenge for both, and I can see have complimentary skills – but don’t make them too much alike.

      In both the first Hulk and Ironman movies, they are pitted against villains who are basically carbon copies of the flawed protagonists. It was Hulk vs anti-Hulk (The Abomination.) That’s where I really lost interest.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think you raise a really good point here, which is that authors sometimes feel less confident about their antagonists and thus work much harder on them than their protagonists–and it shows. Well-developed antags are awesome, but never at the expense of the protag.

  4. Ms. Albina says:

    K.M,

    My antagonist, Ruben was a prince and became an immortal sea god who is evil and a shape shifter. He will fight Leilani at the end of book 3 also an immortal but his powers will be taken away and be banished somewhere else. On planet Avanria if anyone good destorys something then they become evil.

    Leilani uses her powers for good and Ruben uses his powers for evil.

    In the Thor movies-Loki comes to my mind who was evil.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Loki is a really good example of an antagonist taking over–again because he ended up being more compelling than the main character.

    • But I’d also point out that Loki wasn’t simply evil – he was selfish and envious. He felt disregarded as an adopted child and that that others then gained what he deserved.

      It’s that complexity of emotions that we can find in all of us that makes him compelling.

  5. One of the books in my series has the opposite problem. The antagonist barely exists. As of right now it’s my least favourite book in the series, and the one that will likely go through the most changes.

    There are some cases where an antagonist being more interesting than the protagonists can work. You could argue that Darth Vader is the most interesting character in the original Star Wars Trilogy, and in a sense it’s every bit his story as it is Luke’s once you get to Return of the Jedi. He doesn’t completely take over the story though – he just becomes an equally important part of it.

    I haven’t seen Snow White and the Huntsman, but everything I’ve heard about it matches what you say. The antagonists are far more interesting than the heroes. When that happens, you might as well make your story about the villains. I’m not a huge fan of villain stories, but they can still great if done right.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Vader is a great example. He utterly fulfills everything the original story needs of him without every stealing the limelight from Luke as the obvious protagonist (if anything, it’s Han who tries to steal the show!).

  6. When you mentioned the antagonist taking over the story, I immediately thought of Maleficent, Disney’s retelling of Sleeping Beauty. The problem can be that when you swutch roles, you may wind up softening the antagonist, so that they’re not as evil. That’s what happened in Maleficent. An example of transforming the antagonist is Frozen, based on the Snow Queen. In the original script, Elsa was supposed to be the villain. Afte the songwriters wrote Let It Go, the script changed. Now, Elsa was just thrown into the situation when her parents died.

  7. I’m childishly delighted by the timing of this post! Just yesterday I answered your WQotD and mentioned that I had “accidentally” discovered my antagonist’s Ghost while doing a prompt exercise. I realized that I could, if I chose, make the story all about her, demoting my nominal (but currently a bit dull) protagonist to the POV character who is watching her mentor/hero spiral down a negative Corruption arc, who will in the end be the one who must stop her. If I can’t find a way to make my POV character very much more engaging, this exact bit of table-turning will probably turn out to be my best solution.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Switching a story’s focus from original protag to antag can be tricky, but I say always go with the character you enjoy the most!

  8. Very interesting article.

    I was struggling a lot with my current novel about the concept you mentioned here about making the antagonist sorta like, “the side antagonist who is a co-lead to the protagonist.”

    My main antagonist isn’t present for a good chunk of the story but I decided to make the co-lead character an antagonist for my protagonist. Now I’ve struggled for so long on my antagonist issue and after reading this, I think I figured out what changes need to be made for my novel. I’m already up to outlining each individual scene of my novel, and so far, I’m having loads of fun doing it!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Another key to making the antag-as-co-lead work is to make sure he’s as compelling as the protag. Readers need to be able to invest in him just as much as they do the protagonist, even if it’s not in quite the same way, since they’ll be spending so much time with him.

      • Thank you for the wonderful tip, Katie. And of course, both the protagonist and the co-lead have full fledged character arcs, and once I looked over my outline, I saw that the two characters are present within all of the major structural points in my book.

        Honestly, your articles are always on time for me. They always come in the right time. Haha!

  9. Thanks for the great article. I’ve been pondering a prequel to my series for awhile but I’ve struggled with this problem. The villains are more developed at this stage so that the MCs have room for growth in the series, and they win, or at least draw, with the MCs at the end.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Will your MCs be facing the same antagonists in the prequel? Many prequel stories feature different antagonists, for this very reason.

  10. Good point. I’ll consider changing antagonists– or even protagonists.

  11. I share your thoughts on removing the Antag POV. It’s just an uphill battle for my stories, an inherent trait to the world I’ve created.

    Though I do have POV characters “keep their enemies close” in some circumstances, they may even come off as antagonistic forces at first, just so I can use them as Antagonist POV’s when I need them. When I don’t need them, they’re doing something else.

    A different issue came up when the plot ended up turning one of my protagonists into an apparent antagonist… with a twist that made him a negative arc tragic hero… anti-hero — it’s complicated.

    I have to do everything I can to keep him from stealing the limelight. …from the actual Antagonist!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I have a theory that the characters whom we start out thinking of as “just characters” (instead of “antagonists”) end up being the better antagonists in the end.

  12. Ms. Albina says:

    K.M.,

    Leilani can do gymnastic-like moves I mean running and back flips. Have you read books with this? She can also do defense moves also.

  13. A.P. Lambert says:

    I think my current work faces the opposite problem. Being mindful of the antag stealing the show, I kept him too much in the background, so that when he finally shows up the general response I got from readers is, “hey, where did this guy come from?”
    Part of this I’m ok with since, like one of your possible scenarios, he isn’t the true antagonist (the real antag is actually a galactic phenomenon). He shares some similar goals with the protag, but his methods are in direct conflict. He does have a few POV scenes as well, since I think it important to get in his head to understand his reasons, and readers generally enjoyed this.
    Now my solution is to work him into some earlier parts of the story so his arrival is, while unexpected, still reasonable and foreshadowed.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yep, just sticking in him the First Act in some measure will probably be enough to solve your problem. As long as readers have a *sense* that the antag is working behind the scenes, it lets you fill in the blanks as you go.

  14. I have a problem with liking my antagonists too much. I have written sequels to redeem them, but in my current WIP, I choose to create a new bad guy and make my initial bad guy a good guy, but one the reader fears might be the bad guy. The story has a strong element of mystery to it, so that works.

    Your posts and podcasts on antagonists have been very helpful. Thanks for doing them!

  15. Can there be two possible antagonists, where the protagonist doesn’t know which one is good and which is bad? It’s a love triangle. If the antagonist is obvious to readers right away, then it won’t be a surprise for them later on in the story. I need to mislead them until the dramatic switch.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Keep in mind that an “antagonist” is simply someone who presents obstacles between the character and her plot goal (which, in a romance, is often to “find personal completion or happiness”). Moral alignment has nothing to do with it, so it’s very possible that both love interests are antagonists in that sense.

  16. I’ve been reading your articles on antagonists today and realized a few really key things: That my antagonist hits his inciting event in the actual climactic confrontation–which is good, because his Character Arc continues over the next three books in the series. And that he had a motivation I had not looked at for betraying my protagonist beyond the “obvious” one … and that particular deep motivation offers all SORTS of exciting possibilities for adding depth and tension–and even a couple of much-needed plot twists–to the plot!

    I also realized that in many ways he is a mirror image to my protagonist. I’d been worrying about that, but I think in light of what I read in your articles, this will actually help. The two suffered the same sort of early Wound … but one goes in direction A and the other in the complete opposite. My protagonist has his “knife edge” moment, where he has to choose good over evil, off camera–before our story even begins, and the story isn’t about whether or not he’s a good person: My very damaged antagonist isn’t going to confront his “knife edge” moment until Book 3 of the trilogy.

    I’m also now sure he’s not going to take over the plot because we will only see the key things he does that affect my protagonist literally from afar. It’s only three or four things, but they have huge repercussions for the protagonist. He only has two scenes –the exposition where we meet him in Act one and the climax in Act three–where he interacts directly with the protagonist. So the balance is okay.

    This is all terribly exciting, because thee new insights open plot development doors all over the place and will help me keep the current book on target! 🙂 Thank you.

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