How to Choose the Right Antagonist for Your Story

How to Choose the Right Antagonist for Your StoryPart 12 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel

What’s the secret of how to choose the right antagonist for your story? If you’re thinking it’s probably a little more complicated than simply making him a “bad” guy who’s out to get your protagonist, you’re definitely on the right track.

In fact, how to choose the right antagonist will influence everything about your story—from the coherency of its plot to the quality of its conflict to the focus of its theme.

In short, who will fill the role of your story’s antagonist is never a decision to be taken likely. Make the wrong decision and it could derail your story. Make the right decision, and it could be the key to making your entire book just click.

Today, let’s examine the qualifications of how to choose the right antagonist for your story.

Ant-Man: The Little-Big Addition to the Marvel Universe

Welcome to the twelfth installment in our serial exploration of the good and the bad in the Marvel movies. In light of that exploration, I find Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man a singularly interesting addition to the Marvel movies. For me, it’s a middle-of-the-road movie within the series, not so much because it’s a mediocre film as because my every reaction to it has an equal and opposite reaction to balance it.

  • It’s a unique film within the comic book genre: more heist than superhero.

Michael Pena Undercover Ant-Man

  • And yet… it also packs very few surprises, hitting the beats of its various storylines (heist, redemption, protege vs. mentor, superhero origin) mechanically and without much irony or subtext.

Ant-Man Suit

  • It’s big, bold new addition to the series, bringing in the first of an entirely new set of heroes—charmingly funny and earnest antihero Scott Lang.

Ant-Man Kiss

  • And yet, it somehow feels small in comparison to the previous heroic entries of Tony Stark, Thor, and Steve Rogers. Scott’s an add-on to the team, not a founding member—and it feels that way.

Ant-Man and Falcon

  • It throws in the unique twist of sidelining original Ant-Man Hank Pym as the mentor character, which gives audiences, in essence, two Ant-Mans for the price of one.

Michael Douglas Ant-Man Hank Pym

  • And yet, in doing so, it misaligns the conflict with its main antagonist, Darren Cross—Hank’s one-time protege and the rogue leader of his company.

Darren Cross Ant-Man Yellowjacket

And this is why Ant-Man offers a unique opportunity to study how to choose the right antagonist for your story. Objectively, Cross is the wrong antagonist for this story—and yet the story still makes it work.

Let’s take a look.

The 4 Qualifications of How to Choose the Right Antagonist

Want an antagonist who will help you take advantage of every aspect of your story? All you have to do is double-check him against the following four-part checklist.

1. The Antagonist Directly Opposes the Protagonist in the Plot

Let’s do a quick refresher on what an antagonist actually is. Boiled down to the lowest common denominator, an antagonist is nothing more or less than the obstacle between your protagonist and his goal.

As such, the right antagonist will always be directly opposed to your protagonist. He won’t stand off to the side of the road, taunting the protagonist or throwing rocks at him. Nope, he’ll be the guy right smack in the middle of the road, pointing a gun straight at your protagonist’s head and telling him to stand down or it’s curtains.

If he’s not in the middle of the road, then he’s not the main antagonist (and/or whatever is at the end of that road is the wrong goal for your protagonist to be pursuing in the main conflict).

How to Choose the Right Antagonist to Oppose Your Protagonist

Ask yourself:

Does Ant-Man‘s Antagonist Oppose Its Protagonist?

Ultimately, Cross is the wrong antagonist for Ant-Man simply because Scott Lang is the wrong protagonist. Granted, it’s kind of a chicken-and-egg problem. But the bottom line is that if Scott Lang is your protagonist, you must choose an antagonist directly opposed to his goals—and not Hank Pym’s.

In short, the choice of Cross as the main antagonist tells us this is really Hank Pym’s story, even though Scott is clearly set up as the protagonist.

Assuming, we want Scott as protagonist (which we obviously do), then a more appropriate antagonistic choice for him would be one that directly opposes his goal of staying clean, earning money, and regaining visitation rights with his daughter. Cross ends up opposing these goals, but only incidentally through Scott’s relationship with Hank.

Darren Cross and Hank Pym Ant-Man

2. The Antagonist Directly Opposes the Protagonist Thematically

The antagonist is a central cog in the wheel of your theme. Because he drives the external conflict—which is a visual metaphor for the protagonist’s inner conflict—he and the conflict he creates must be directly pertinent to the theme.

Now, granted, every character within your story should reflect upon some aspect of your theme in one way or another. But the main antagonist must be a direct commentary on your thematic premise. If he’s off chasing some other Lie or Truth—or even just a thematic blank—a crucial part of the thematic equation will be missing from your protagonist’s arc.

Alternatively, if the antagonist is not directly opposed to your protagonist in the conflict, then it doesn’t matter how thematically pertinent he is. His impact on the story simply won’t be as vital, because the protagonist’s personal discoveries won’t be directly connected to overcoming this external antagonist.

How to Choose the Right Antagonist to Thematically Oppose Your Protagonist

Ask yourself:

  • Does this character start out either
    • believing basically the same Lie as the protagonist?
    • believing a Truth contrary to the protagonist’s Lie?
  • Is this character painfully similar to the protagonist in some ways?
  • Is this character an example of either
    • someone the protagonist would desperately like to be?
    • someone the protagonist desperately wants to avoid being (or perhaps already is)?
  • Will this character be able to offer convincing thematic arguments with the potential to seduce the protagonist away from the story’s Truth—and, as a result, away from his story goal?

Does Ant-Man‘s Antagonist Thematically Oppose Its Protagonist?

There isn’t a ton of thematic depth in this movie, but what there is all revolves around parent/child relationships. Scott’s relationship with his loving, trusting daughter is one example. In this, he is following a similar path to Hank’s: except Scott succeeds in fulfilling his daughter’s trust, whereas Hank failed long ago with Hope after his wife’s death.

So far so good. Except… the antagonist Cross isn’t in a parental role. He’s in the child role, as resentful toward his former mentor Hank as is Hank’s daughter Hope. Cross certainly contributes to the theme, but his contributions relate more directly to Hank’s journey than to Scott’s. If Scott gets anything at all out of Cross’s insistence that Hank was a lousy father figure, it affects his own evolution only incidentally and subtextually.

Hank and Hope Pym Ant-Man

3. The Antagonist Is a Mirror for the Protagonist

As part and parcel of the antagonist’s thematic role, he needs to offer a jarring funhouse reflection of the protagonist. He is a representation of the protagonist’s dark side—of his Lie. Perhaps he is an omen of the protagonist’s future fate, or a consequence of the protagonist’s past choices, or a revelation of who the protagonist might have been in a different life.

The antagonist is almost always a “negative impact character,” one who influences the protagonist’s journey toward the light by forcing him to face the power of the Lie’s darkness. The more striking the similarities between these vastly different characters, the more opportunities you’ll have to explore and develop your theme.

How to Choose the Right Antagonist to Mirror Your Protagonist

Ask yourself:

  • What character best represents where the protagonist will end up if he takes the wrong path?
  • What character best represents where the protagonist wants to end up externally?
  • What character shares a similar backstory journey with your protagonist?
  • What character represents or shares similarities with your protagonist’s greatest failures to date?

Note that it’s not vital for your antagonist to represent the answer to all of these questions, but he should ideally be able to fulfill at least one of them.

Is Ant-Man‘s Antagonist a Mirror for Its Protagonist?

This is probably the one qualification Cross best fulfills for Scott, in that both are proteges of Hank Pym. Cross represents the dark potential of Scott’s relationship with Hank (and, also, much less directly, of the dark potential within Scott’s own relationship with his daughter if he fails her).

However, Cross is, by far, a better reflection of Hank than he is of Scott. Both are brilliant scientists. Both are ambitious and consumed with their discoveries. Both have invented shrinking suits, designed for warfare. Cross, in short, is Hank’s darkest self realized—made all the more poignant for Hank by the fact that he essentially created Cross.

Ant-Man-Photo-Darren-Cross-Talks-Down-Hank-Pym

4. The Antagonist Creates Obstacles for the Protagonist From the Start

In order to create and maintain a cohesive overarching narrative within your story, you must first have a cohesive and overarching conflict. That only happens when you have a main antagonist who is in position to oppose your protagonist’s main goals from page one (even if he doesn’t immediately reveal himself).

Even if your protagonist maintains a consistent plot goal throughout, if he is opposed by first one antagonist and then another, the consistency of both conflict and theme will suffer from the jerkiness.

It’s very possible both your protagonist and your antagonist will begin your story knowing nothing about each other. But they will still be obstructing each other, from the very beginning, in ways they won’t understand until a little later in the story. When the characters (and the readers) look back on your story, they should be able to see the main antagonist was in play from the very beginning, in one way or another.

How to Choose the Right Antagonist From the Start

Ask yourself:

  • What antagonist will be present in the Climax’s final confrontation?
  • How can this antagonist be the major opposing force against the protagonist at all of the major structural beats?
  • How can this antagonist be set up as an obstacle (or the inevitable potential for an obstacle) from the very first scene?
  • How will the protagonist “brush” against this antagonist’s power in the Inciting Event?
  • How will this antagonist drag your character into the main conflict at the First Plot Point?

Does Ant-Man‘s Antagonist Oppose Its Protagonist From the Start?

The short answer is: no. Protagonist Scott gets out of prison with the big story goal of reuniting with his daughter, for which he must earn money and stay out of trouble. His obstacles have everything to do with his criminal past and nothing whatsoever to do with Cross’s determination to create a functional Yellowjacket suit.

Scott’s conflict finally touches Cross’s when Hank recruits Scott to help him steal the Yellowjacket suit. But even then, Cross remains only a vague obstacle to Scott’s personal goals. Scott has no personal investment in opposing Cross—which robs their final showdown in his daughter’s bedroom of much of the personal power it might otherwise have wielded.

Once again, it is Hank who is directly opposed by Cross—on every possible level: professional, personal, practical, and thematic.

Train Fight Ant-Man

Why We Like Ant-Man Anyway

Did Ant-Man choose the wrong antagonist and/or protagonist? Without question.

Would it have been a better movie had it chosen an antagonist more suited to directly oppose Scott Lang? Definitely.

But, happily for us, it’s also an example of how, even when a story bombs on such an important element, it can still salvage itself through overall charm. This may not be a super-strong movie, but it’s still an utterly likable movie, driven by an utterly likable hero with an utterly relatable motive.

Ant-Man's Daughter

At the end of the day, those things are almost always more important than the finer points of antagonism and conflict. But just think how much more awesome your story can be if it gets all of that right, including finding the perfect antagonist for its specific conflict!

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about why Captain America: Civil War‘s gutsiest move was portraying its characters with honesty.

Previous Posts in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How did you decide to choose the right antagonist to directly oppose your protagonist throughout your story? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

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. In my case the protagonist (Jane) has a clearly defined mission- keep the billions of people on five hundred colonised planet safe. That’s it.

    Doing this means keeping the technology for faster than light travel under strict control. If it got loose then anyone with a spaceship could start an interstellar war. There are plenty of people with reasons for doing just that.

    Arthur Kelso is an unscrupulous adventurer who believes that by stealing the technology he could become the richest criminal in the galaxy. He’s not concerned about the wars he may start, and he’s not going to back off from torturing Jane if it is to his advantage.

    There can only be one victor….

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is a very neat crossing of protagonist/antagonist goals. The antagonist matters to the protagonist because he’s a direct threat to what she wants to accomplish.

      • Thanks for that.

        I spent a lot of time trying to make Arthur a well-rounded character. Two things I think really make him work. Firstly there is a reason in his past for what he wants. He tried to escape from his abusive father, but it all went wrong. This is Moira, his estranged wife, speaking to another officer:

        ‘And you don’t know the worst of it. Bruce would come up beside the lad, hold his hand, and then turn on him. That was why Arthur could never stand my holding his hand, not if he wasn’t expecting it.’
        ‘Arthur—what did he do?’
        ‘He tried to run away, he scraped together enough for a ticket to Madoc—but your spaceline turned him back.’
        ‘That must have been dreadful for him.’
        ‘It was—but I can understand why. They saw a fourteen year old boy with a pile of creased stellar mark notes at a spaceport. Of course they looked for his parents—and found Bruce. They asked Arthur if everything was all right, but he was too frightened of Bruce to say it wasn’t. That hurt him. Late at night, if Arthur had been in drink, he’d say to me that one day he’d break the space line, and he’d decide where he went, not somebody in a uniform.’
        ‘That’s exactly what we go to a lot of trouble to prevent. But this time we were the cause. I’m really sorry.’
        ‘No, it’s not your fault, it was that wicked man Bruce, may the devil rot his soul. Blame must go where blame is due, and he was cut short.’

        This leaves him with a pre-programmed antipathy to a woman in uniform, which of course is exactly what Jane represents.

        Secondly he believes that he is right, he is the liberator, and the people who have been trying for centuries to stop the wars are wrong:

        Arthur moved back, but still the satanic glow burned on, illuminating his hand, seeming to dance in the semi-darkness. ‘You may think yourself superior…’
        ‘And with good reason.’
        ‘…but is what you’re doing any better?’
        Jane blinked. ‘What the hell are you talking about?’
        ‘Five hundred years your Confederation has had the drive, and what have you done with it? You’ve made the rest of humanity crawl about on the colonised planets, dancing to your tune, while you’ve lived in luxury at our expense. Now there’s going to be some justice, and it’s going to start with you.’
        ‘Arthur! For God’s sake, will you listen to yourself? Can’t you see what you’re doing? You want the drive, you’re prepared to do anything to me to get it—that’s fine, we know where we are. But what’s it doing to you? You stand there, with that horror in your hand, and you talk about justice, and fate—and it’s all nonsense. Don’t you understand that you’re lying to yourself, making up all this humbug so that you’ll feel better about hurting me? And in the end what happens? You’ll kill me, we both know that, and it’ll have been for nothing. But what about you? You burn me with that thing, and it’s your own humanity you’re burning away.’

        I hope that gets across the mess of conflicts that is Arthur Kelso, the way that his ghastly past has turned him into someone cruel, but who believes himself to be completely in the right.

  2. I had no intention of seeing this movie in a theater, but it was playing when I took a Disney cruise last October, so my sister and I caught a showing, and we fell in love with it. I’m totally behind you on all the points made here, and it shouldn’t have been as charming as it was, but it was really good. I’m looking forward to the next one.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think maybe part of the reason I was “meh” about it about was that I was still in a bit of a Marvel funk after Ultron earlier that year. But how can you not like Paul Rudd?

  3. For me, another contrast in antagonists is the first two Star Trek movies. In the first one, the antagonist is a 20th century space probe. In the second, the antagone is Khan, who was exiled by Kirk 15 years earlier, and now wants revenge.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Khan is a great antagonist for exactly this reason: his goals are utterly personal to Kirk. The whole conflict is centered around the consequences of Kirk’s own actions.

  4. In my book, Operation Mermaid: The Project Kraken Incident, I have my antagonist, but I try not to disclose too much about them right away. I want to build up suspense.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I actually really like books like that. Too many antagonists simply aren’t interesting enough to carry too much of the story too soon. I’d rather hang with the protag while the antagonist works behind the scenes.

  5. Be back to check this out. Antagonists are awesome and deserve due credit….I seriously need some coffee.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Antagonists have been a bit of a personal quest for me the last few years. I’ve felt it’s been a weakness for me, so I’ve made a study out of how to write compelling opponents.

  6. I look forward to your Marvel analyses every week, and this one might be my favorite.

    It’s so much fun to look at a misaligned story like this and muse how it could fit better. For instance:

    Scott’s real goal is to be with his daughter, not “pay the rent (for his daughter).” That difference gives the film most of its human appeal. So using Cross would simply mean he’d have to be involved in Scott’s and Cassie’s life before the story goes far; he and Scott could have been rival students of Hank’s (Scott was an engineer himself, after all), and Scott was double-Crossed (we all knew it was in there somewhere, right?) in some way that especially ruined Scott in Cassie’s eyes, or at least the custody judge’s.

    Or there’s Cassie’s stepfather. Cross could have taken up that role too, if he’d had an eye for Scott’s wife… or that man could have been a separate villain who turned out to be the more dangerous threat, first persecuting Scott’s recovery and then stumbling into a shrinking suit and taking the complete spotlight.

    (Or there’s Cassie’s own future in comics, where she’s exposed to Pym particles and gets half-controlled powers. Do that early, and everything Scott does would be to cure her and get past any antagonist who tries to block him or use her… but then the movie would have been more a medical thriller than the heist it wanted.)

    Or Hank himself. Cross’s place in Scott’s life is so indirect, but Hank gets in there sooner… and one truly dark move would have been to follow Hank slowly losing his mind (Pym particles do that too, over enough years of comics) and endangering Cassie while showing what Scott has to be afraid of becoming.

    So many possibilities. No question, this is a movie that didn’t care how disconnected its pieces were. But it does work anyway, and that’s no small thing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ooh, Cross as Cassie’s stepfather could have been wicked awesome (in just about every definition of the term).

  7. Once again, a very well thought out analysis.

    Personally, I LOVE Ant-Man, and put it towards the top of the Marvel movies. My long-standing man crush on Paul Rudd certainly helps in that respect, but the very feeling of smallness compared to the other Marvel movies that you mention is a big feather in its hat IMHO. The Marvel films had been running on earth or universe shattering stakes for quite a few movies at this point, so having something smaller and more personal was a welcome surprise for me.

    Thinking more on the antagonists, you’re right that Cross is better suited to Pym. But, given that he’s the original Ant-man, and also Scott’s mentor figure, he plays a very large role in the film. So I feel the fact that Cross is the dark mirror for ONE Ant-man helps Cross not feel completely out of place, and the fact he’s not the right antagonist for Scott is overcome by the fact that Scott has so many antagonists keeping him from following the straight and narrow and/or being with his daughter (himself, Hank, his crew, his ex, her new cop husband, his ex-con status).

    It’s definitely not a deep movie. But I agree. It’s lighter tone and sense of fun, coupled with a relatable theme of parents and children and the perfect lead actor, make this one a winner.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “I feel the fact that Cross is the dark mirror for ONE Ant-man helps Cross not feel completely out of place”–I agree. This is the big reason the conflict still works, even though Scott and Cross don’t care anything about each other until the Third Act.

      And, yeah, the other big reason this movie is still so delightful is Paul Rudd, Paul Rudd, and Paul Rudd. (With the supporting Oscar going to Michael Pena. :p)

  8. Great advice on perfecting your antagonist. One of my struggles with creating a good antagonist is when he ends up looking more like an 80s cartoon villain instead of a formidable opponent.

    I think going through this post and applying these four points to some of my current WIP antagonists would be a great weekend project!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The key to realistic, rounded antagonists is giving them believable motives. Why do they want what they want? What demons are driving them and/or why are they convinced this is the right thing to do? It’s always powerful when the antagonist can have a moral argument so strong and convincing it gives the protagonist (and the readers) pause for thought: What if he’s right?

  9. Good and helpful- this sparked some questions in my mind about the novel I’m planning. It has a villainous character who less-than-directly opposes the protagonist’s goal, and is mostly there to push a different character’s flat arc along its course- representing the lie as opposed to the truth the flat arc character represents. In some ways the villainous fellow *is* a reflection of the protagonist, since the flat arc character is the impact character and the lie and truth in his arc are the same as in the protagonist’s disillusionment arc. However, the protagonist is amnesiac, and the true antagonists in his story are the amnesia and himself. Somehow, person vs. self conflict tends to take center stage in most of my stories. 🙂 Reminds me of the scene in Lord of the Rings where Gollum is having an argument with Smeagol- although obviously I’ve never made the conflict that blatant.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ultimately, man vs. self conflicts should be at the heart of almost all stories. That transformation (or resistance against transformation) is what stories are really about, with the external conflict just providing a vehicle and a visual metaphor for the inner stuff.

  10. Ah, man, I love this series! 😀
    Ant-man was pretty entertaining, which rather surprised me, given it’s more cliche? points.

  11. great post as usual, but i was wondering what you thought about the marvel netflix shows (if you’ve seen em) cause i think they’re some of the best, if not the best, things in the MCU.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The only one I’ve seen so far is Agent Carter‘s first season, which I thought was corny as heck but a lot of fun. I really want to see the others but haven’t gotten around to them as yet.

      • Hah! That’s funny.

        I enjoyed it. They definitely should’ve put Cap in this one. It might have survived.

        • Daredevil has significant highs, especially in season 2, but ultimately struggles with consistency over the course of both seasons, IMHO.

          Jessica Jones, on the other hand, is as well written a show as I’ve ever come across. Both shows are very dark, and Jones probably more so. But it manages to be dark without the gratuitous violence of DD.

          Both shows are superbly acted and worth the time of any Marvel fan.

  12. Meg Brummer says:

    Ah! Reading this post was like finally being able to scratch an itch I couldn’t get to.

    I love Ant Man. It’s charming and funny…and of course, there’s Paul Rudd. But something about it always felt a little off-beat to me and I couldn’t figure out what it was!! You pointed it out so perfectly. *Whew*

    Do you think it’s ever a good idea to have more than one antagonist? My current story has a big, sinister, looming antagonist, that is diametrically opposed to my protag in every way, but in many ways also a mirror of her. BUT I also have a minor antag that is well-meaning and thinks he’s helping her, while unintentionally being in conflict with her goals. He’s kind of the driving force behind her running toward the greater antag. Or would he be more of a contagonist? I think I need to go re-read those posts now… hmmmm

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m a big fan of thematically layered conflict. As long as each of your antagonists is representing a different obstacle (and preferably a different Lie/Truth), then multiple antagonists can end up bringing quite a lot of complexity and depth to a story.

      • Wait, so you are saying that with multiple antagonists, they ought to each have their own Lie? I am writing a story where the protagonist is Flat Arc, and both antagonists embody the Lie. Is that a bad thing? Should I have a different Lie for one of them and thus a second Truth for my protag? Does that mean there would need to be two Climaxes?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          If both antagonists embody the same Lie, it’s possible one of them is extraneous. The only reason to have multiple characters in any role is if they’re complementing each other and introducing new angles. Consider how you can have each of your antagonists represent a different *facet* of the main Lie.

          • Okay, I see! Thank you! From the beginning my one Antagonist has been giving me trouble because I wasn’t fully sure about how he represented the Lie, but asking Why he thinks as he does and your answer here have finally solved it. He does represent a different facet of the Lie, and he might end up with a Change Arc, now that I actually know what it is he’s fighting. Thank you so much!

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            It’s always fun when you can incorporate different types of arcs!

  13. I’m a newbie here. Just wanted to say that I am so happy I found your website and your insightful, gifted and incredibly practical contributions to the “how to write” canon. I have purchased all your books and am working my way through with my (as yet very new and unformed) WIP open in Scrivener.

    This post has really resonated. All my thoughts in this early outlining stage have been for and about my protagonist. My antagonist was really just a skeleton of an idea. He needs flesh on his bones. He needs muscle and ligaments and organs. He needs neurones and and synapses and skin… I’m going to work on making him real. I’m going to make my protagonist look in a dark mirror and see her shadow self…
    Thanks K.M!!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Welcome to the site! 🙂 I’m so glad you’re finding it useful. And, yes, I totally hear what you’re saying about starting with the protag and having the antag be just a “skeleton.” That is how I’ve plotted for most of my life, and, in all honesty, it’s always ended up causing me problems similar to what we find in Ant-Man. I wrote another post on antagonists here recently, based on a light-bulb moment I experienced, which you might also find helpful: How to Plot a Book: Start With the Antagonist.

  14. With the article on starting with the antagonist, you blew the door wide open… and with this one, the resulting gust just made a mess of everything! ;-D

    I had the perfect intro scene for main antag and a very rough sketch of their motivations, etc. But, when you said that they needed to be ‘standing in the middle of the road pointing a gun at…‘ that pretty much changed everything. In my roster of characters I have a sketch of that one, but had them assigned in a minor capacity. So, now I’ll have to see how this new dynamic ripples through…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sorry for the mess. 😉 But it sounds like you’re on the right track!

      • 🙂 It was kind of surreal, a slow mo (think Inception) scene where the blast from a leaf blower tears away at a freshly raked pile filling the frame with hundreds of colorful autumn leaves… both beautiful and depressing at the same time. 😉

        But, yeah, disruption is good (well, occasionally)

  15. There is a lovely line in one of CS Lewis’s books. I think it’s “The Screwtape Letters”, but I may be wrong. He says something like, “It is not from fallen mice or fallen fleas that great demons are made, but from fallen angels.”

    To my mind this is part of the point. The great antagonist is someone who would have been a great force for good had they not taken one fatal wrong turning. My Arthur is a very good engineer, one who has saved the colonised planets a lot of their energy costs with his spectacularly efficient power plant designs. But it is his wretched, abused childhood that drives him to fight what he sees as injustice. Except that he is causing the injustice…

    I think it’s always important to remember that the antagonist thinks that he is the protagonist, and the protagonist is the one getting in the way.

    In another of Lewis’s books, “That Hideous Strength”, the “bad” side explain at length why they are in fact the ones acting in the interests of the human race.

    Also I tend to write in minor characters on both sides, whose agendas are at an angle to the main thrust of the story. Eva (my notes say “stupidity beyond the lot of mortals”) wants to find a way of arranging things so that she doesn’t have to work for a living, with disastrous results. Ian would like to get closer to Jane while remaining professional, but Lucy is trying to get closer to Ian very quickly. These help or hinder, often by accident, but are not exactly aligned with either of the main characters’ agendas. In fact their presence, getting in the way and doing their own thing when the shooting starts, can add up to a second antagonist.

  16. Although I haven’t thought about this movie anywhere near the depth that you have, I completely agree with your analysis. Daren Cross isn’t a bad villain by any means, but he’s kind of focused on the wrong protagonist. What makes this movie work so well anyway is that it’s a lot of fun, yet its themes of redemption and family give it a bit of substance. Cliche yes, but more than fun enough to make up for it.

    Another thing I liked about this movie is it’s sort-of the origin for two different superheroes, Wasp being the other even if we haven’t seen her in action yet. Even though she’s not the original Wasp (even in the movie), once she shows up, we’ll finally have all the original Avengers from the comics (the original 5 being Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Ant-Man and Wasp, Captain America is found in ice in issue 4 I think). Future Wasp is kind of awesome in Ant-Man.

    To echo the above commenter, definitely watch Jessica Jones. Also, Agent Carter season 2 isn’t as good as the first (very anti-climactic ending), but parts of it are still fun.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ant-Man does do a lot of different things (using an aging superhero as a mentor in the origins story for another, while, as you say, setting up the origins of yet another). I think all of that could have been pulled off in a way that made it *feel* more like we were actually seeing something more original. Maybe Edgar Wright’s lost version would have done that. Who knows?

      • I’d rather take a flawed yet mostly good movie over one that’s just mediocre and boring any day. At least this kind of movie is enjoyable and gives you something to talk about.

  17. Good analysis. The whole movie was somewhat lighthearted but I still enjoyed it.

    I’ve never figured out why I liked the antagonist more when I was a kid. Now I know. This post and another book I just finished speak about the importance of the antagonist as it relates to the heroes journey and the plot.

    What are the Jedi without the Darth Vader and the dark side? Utterly boring. What good is GI Joe without the Cobra Commander and Destro? Weak. The Autobots have the Decepticons with Megatron to deal with. Megatron was my favorite. Without the antagonist the heroes are really boring. And without a formidable antagonist they’re laughable.

    It seems like they’re the protag and antag are two sides of the same coin. Two ends of the rope. The mirror image of one another. When you have the correct antagonist who is their equal, or at least formidable, it makes the protagonist that much more heroic.

    Great checklist thanks! This helps a lot.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Honestly, Cobra Commander was always the most interesting part of the original G.I. Joe cartoons. :p

      • True. Besides the commander, Destro was one of my favs. My favorite GI Joes was snake eyes and roadblock.

        It would be cool to further explore the antagonists, antagonistic forces or antagonisms. But specifically the ANTAGONIST.

        I wonder who would be the top 10 antagonists of all time and how they affected the story.

        Cross was pretty cool in Ant-man but he could have been better IMO.
        Ultron was unimpressive but I couldn’t tell you why. Bane in Batman was a great antagonist. His backstory and overall presence was awesome.

        I hardly have seen any craft books that help us write a great antagonist. It’s always about the protagonist. But if he doesn’t have a worthy opponent, the story could be weakened. Stronger the opponent the better tbe conflict. I’ve only seen one book on how to create an antagonist. And I regularly hunt the Internet for writing and craft books.

        I definitely would like to hear more on this subject.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Once you’ve checked off plot and theme applicability in your antagonist checklist, the key is really just creating a three-dimensional, *real* human being with compelling and sensible motivations.

  18. I so needed this article! I’ve been hammering away on my latest WIP and watched the story sputter and stall numerous times. I had the late hour epiphany that something needed to be done with my protagonist but was still driving in circles, so to speak. After reading this article I saw that I had set up some important pieces to this puzzle but even more I had to ask myself many more questions to help the plot hustle and flow. I know we can’t make each and every protag mirrors of our hero but looking deeper into what drives the “bad guy” and how it can weave within the hero’s goal does make for a more satisfying read. Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Excellent! I love writing revelations that are immediately applicable to whatever I’m writing. Have fun!

  19. What we haven’t mentioned is the “antihero” or in my case “antiheroine”, the lead character who has gone to the dark side.

    I tried this just once in “The Thirteenth Commandment” where Jojo makes a very sharp decision to abandon morality in favour of her own comfort and safety:

    In that case, if there wasn’t any God, or any heaven, or any hell, nothing mattered. We live, we die, and the wind and rain erases all trace of our actions, good or bad. If there is no eternity, and it looks strongly as if religion doesn’t do what it claims, the only person that matters is me, and the only thing that matters is making me as safe and comfortable as possible.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      One thing that’s worth noting in this overall discussion is that the choice of antagonist within a story has nothing to do with his moral alignment. The antagonist can be completely right and the protagonist can be dead wrong, but they will still fulfill those respective roles. The antagonist is simply whoever opposes the protagonist’s goals within the story, without regard to their objective “rightness.”

  20. Thanks for this post! I’m sad that you’re about to run out of Marvel movies… Hopefully as they come out you can add to the series. 😉

    I’d love to see a little more about using an antagonistic force instead of a human (character) antagonist.

    In my WIP (a YA fantasy), all the plot points finally fell into place when I realized that the antagonist wasn’t the MC’s mother, but the magic itself. The MC accidentally wishes for more than she realizes when she takes a potion at the Inciting Event, which gives the magic a goal she didn’t consciously intend. All the structural points line up perfectly and the magic is the final antagonist she has to overcome at the climax, in order to have a future with the man she’s come to love (without killing him). In some ways, that means the external conflict is also man vs. self…

    But perhaps what I need to think about is how to give character elements to an impersonal force.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’ll see what I can do about a post on antagonistic forces. I use them so seldom in my own fiction that I really don’t think about them, but it’s definitely a valid question.

  21. Well, I can’t find a category for the antagonist in my story, a fantasy book. Reflecting on it, I think that the better definition for this case is that the protagonist is the antagonist of the antagonist. Let me explain this.

    My antagonist has a very precise mission and it takes three books to fail it, because the protagonist does whatever it takes to stop him. Of course, the mission is evil and cruel and the protagonist do not want that all the world she knows changes unavoidably.

    I don’t think the antagonist is simply a person who stands between the protagonist and his goal. This definition reminds me Jessie and James, Team Rocket, in Pokemon anime. They just stand between Ash and the goal of the episode, but they are flat characters. I don’t want flat characters, I want a supermega antagonist who is kin to fulfill his mission. Is the protagonist going to be a victim of his plan? Then she must do everything she can not to surrender, it is not a problem for him 😉
    I followed your advice and, before building the plot, I analized the antagonist’s background. It turns out this reflection 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      One thing I would like to point out is that *all* antagonists are obstacles for their protagonists. But this definitely doesn’t mean they must be static or flat characters. Sometimes the antagonist can undergo a change arc as profound as the protagonist’s over the course of the story.

  22. Max Woldhek says:

    1. Phew. I may have to change some things in the second book, but in my first book the antagonist is causing problems indirectly for the protagonist from the very start, even though they’re on opposite sides of the country.

    2. Couldn’t it be argued that this movie wasn’t a case of wrong antagonist, but rather wrong protagonist? I’ve read posts by people who though that Pym’s daughter as protagonist would have fit much better.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, whenever you argue “wrong antagonist,” you can just easily argue “wrong protagonist.” And actually Hope in the lead could have been really interesting in a lot of ways, not least in that she would have been a completely organic and obvious female superhero.

  23. Aha, this explains why the final battle wasn’t emotional for me! I thought maybe I had missed something, but I guess not. Had it been Hank battling Yellowjacket, it would have been very emotional indeed.

    I’m a huge Hank Pym fan (from the comics), so I was quite disappointed when I heard Scott Lang was going to be the main character. But, it turned out great, and I really like what they did with Hank and Jan. I can’t wait to see what they do with Wasp, both mother and daughter. She is another huge favorite of mine from the comics.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m really eager to see what they do with the sequel. It has the opportunity to go in several interesting directions.

  24. Great book and great review too
    Thanks

  25. Kate, I have a question I’d welcome your thoughts on if you’d be so kind.

    I’ve been plotting through a story with a flat-arc protagonist who serves as the positive impact character and a main character following a positive change arc. If a protag knows and represents the truth, does the antag then represent the dark path the main character can go down if he doesn’t change his ways? I’m curious if some of the guidelines you outlined in the post shift in such a scenario, as I’m not sure my brain is working through the connections correctly.

    Thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The antagonist can represent many possible facets within the Lie/Truth dynamic (he can even represent the Truth). But having him act as a “negative impact character,” who tries to lure the protag toward the Lie and eventually pushes the protag toward the Truth, via his bad example, is an extremely legitimate approach.

      • A follow up question if you don’t mind.

        I have plotted out a different antagonist for the Main Character (an ally-opponent), and he drives the key turning points in Act Two. However, this character manipulates events so that the Protag and Main Character are under the impression that it’s the Main Antag driving the events. His deception is revealed at the third plot point, after which the Main Antag comes back into the fray.

        However, considering your points about making sure you choose the right antagonist, I was wondering if you think this would rob the main antagonist of his “rightness”. My Main Antag defeats my Protag at the First Plot Point, forcing him out of his Normal World, but taking this approach means the Main Antag then doesn’t directly oppose my Protag for the middle of the story.

        But does the fact that the Main Antag appears to be driving the opposition at the major structural beats in the second act allow him to remain the “right” antagonist?

  26. I am a newbie to your blog, but I am already learning a lot. (So far I have devoured several of your posts on character arc – I have found your thoughts on the Lie, and what the MC wants vs. what they need to be very helpful.)

    So it may be that my question is ill-informed or covered in another post that I have not read yet, but: what about stories that don’t have a human antagonist? I am thinking especially about horror stories, ones that focus on a paranormal or supernatural threat. Does a good horror story need a human antagonist who is intentionally or unintentionally helping the forces of evil?

    • To give a more specific example – the novel I am working on right now is about two young women who find themselves endangered by an ancient creature, a proto-God whose intentions are to pit them against one another to earn powerful and terrifying supernatural abilities. (In actuality, they would be earning the right to allow the creature to consume their soul and use their body as a human puppet for another generation.) But this creature’s primary goals are all based on instinct – this is how it survives and grows; it doesn’t have the capacity to empathize with humans and doesn’t realize or understand the harm it’s doing.

      There is a third human ‘character’ present but so far I have just been conceiving of her as a puppet the creature is using until it finds a more suitable long-term host. I am wondering if I should develope her more into a fully-fledged human antagonist, with her own reasons for helping the creature.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good question, especially since I pulled a potentially misleading stunt in slanting this post toward human antagonists. Short answer: no, your antagonist does not have to be human. In fact, I generally prefer the term “antagonistic force,” since it allows for any type of obstacle to fill this role within the story.

      Although you often get more mileage out of personifying your antagonistic force, you don’t have to. The most important thing to remember about antagonistic forces is that they are nothing more or less than an obstacle between the protagonist and his goals. As long as that obstacle is thematically pertinent, that’s what’s most important.

      • I would also think that using a human antagonist (in this case, making the puppet a more active antagonist) might affect the theme of the story, so it depends on whether you like where that takes the story. 🙂

        I also had a question about inhuman antagonists, since the antagonistic force in my WIP is a magic spell that the MC accidentally imbued with undesirable side effects (so the story is her figuring that out and how to undo it).

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I agree. One of the chief considerations in choosing the right antagonist(ic force) is finding the right one for your theme.

      • Thank you so much for your response!

  27. Thank you for your post, it’s very interesting, as usual. I currently stuggle with finding proper antagonist for my spase opera. My protagonist is war veteran, who left the army after getting severe injuries and PTSD – only to get in a different fight. She also is guilt-rided because of some war-crimes she commited and because of the death of her whole squad she feels responsible of. The whole story is supposed to be kind of antimilitaristic, so I think the main antagonist should have something to do whith her days in army, but I’m still not sure how to tie it up with her main goal to get redemption and a new life.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Take a look at whoever or whatever is creating the main obstacle between the protagonist that goal. Whoever it is, that’s the main antagonist.

    • This mirrors what I did in one of mine. When Jane was working undercover she, as part of her camouflage, went out a few times with young engineer called Alan. The relationship never got past hand-holding and going to a dance. Then, when the assignment is over, Jane explains that she must move on.
      Alan tries to find her again, and turns up uninvited while she is in an anti-terrorist operation. She tries to turn him away gently, this develops into a full-on argument and he storms off into the darkness.
      But in the dark of the empty spaceport a sniper, waiting for Jane, kills Alan by mistake.
      This devastates Jane. As a Space Fleet officer she is sworn to protect, but she has become the cause of Alan’s death.
      Somehow she must adjust to this and go on.
      And it is that adjusting that enables her to find the inner strength to take on a much deadlier situation.
      In the end she discovers that the major antagonist is also the man who gave the sniper his orders. It is by putting her life on the line to defeat him that she finds closure.
      That’s how I did it. I hope that will give you some ideas.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Good example, R. Obstacles don’t have to be physical ones. Sometimes the most devastating are those that are spiritual and emotional.

  28. Hannah Killian says:

    I might have to watch Frozen again, but this article is just solidifying my opinion that the twist shouldn’t have happened. I think Wreck-It-Ralph’s twist was better, since King Candy is opposed to Vanellope from the moment we see them interact. I think Ralph too, but I can’t remember. I’ve only seen it all the way through once.

    I also have to figure out the whole antagonist thing in my story. Like, the rebels are definitely antagonists, but they don’t feature much. I’d say the hero’s dad and cousin are antagonists, but. . .sigh. It’s a mess, even though I know where I want to go. I just need a few extra supplies.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s a good point about Frozen. I always found that twist unsatisfying, but never really thought about why. Now I’ll have to go back and watch too!

  29. Nikolaus Dubinin says:

    What a wonderful article. I’m thankful for this information, and for this site. Now comes my woe. I’m having trouble with picking the right antagonist from a short list of several faces.

    Story in the briefest brief: age gape romance most unexpected.

    But writing in an antagonist is the hardest thing. In short, I have no idea what kind of antagonist would play the role of opposing the protagonist/s without overpowering and crumpling the whole plot….

    I’m having a lot of trouble finding the right kind of antag – he or she who is in balance with the story.

    These soft hands are open to the alms of advice….

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Man against Himself is, of course, a time-honored storyform, so there’s nothing wrong with writing a book that centers primarily around a character’s inner conflict.

      However, that conflict will almost always manifest in the outer world as well. The best way to think of conflict is as a series of related obstacles that prevent the character from reaching her overall goal until the end of the story. The best way to think of an antagonistic force is as whoever or whatever is presenting those obstacles. (The antagonistic force’s moral alignment within the the story is irrelevant as far as the foundational conflict goes.)

      Take a look at what is consistently standing between your character and his goals throughout the story. Whatever you find, that’s your primary antagonistic force.

      • Nikolaus Dubinin says:

        Thank you so much for taking the time to reply to my cry for help. Alms truly cherished, and they won’t be wasted.

        I do enjoy the inner battle of character against self. Of course, I must. (This exercise in which I’m trying to find an antag is an example of one). And a few good tales still stand strong in which the antagonist is the external representation of the darkest side of the protagonist – his unruly twin. (Lolita, or even the Temple of Doom come to mind). The dark doppelganger.

        I suppose it is a case of fearlessly knowing the characters and not being afraid to embrace the mortality of the protagonist… even daring to throw the felling stone at him, once he is secure in his tree, and when his back is turned. Humanizing elements give shape and texture to flat figure outlines. The vast majority of characters, among the likeable ones, live mortal lives, after all; and every super human has his or her kryptonite.

        Now, I simply follow the path to where the stones are waiting to be thrown; or to where kryptonite first got its name.

        Again, many and every thanks. 🙂

        ND

  30. Hello, Miss Weiland! My main antagonist actually showed himself to me… I didn’t find him. It’s not like I had a choice. I am writing a story about the dead and angels, so the antagonist is Lucifer, obviously. However, I am having quite the trouble to discover how the hell (pun intended) he relates to my main protagonist, Hope (a selfless teenage boy who has medium powers and who has a guardian angel). Their paths seem to cross only towards the end… which is not what I want! I need them to be intertwined throughout the series….

    Do you have any tips about that?

    P.S.: I really enjoyed this post! Thanks for writing it because it made me think a bit more about my antagonist.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The best way to intertwine your protagonist’s journey with the antagonist’s is to scale back to look at the big picture. Instead of figuring out your plot starting with the protagonist and his goals, start with the antagonist, and then figure out how the protagonist will bring himself to the antagonist’s attention by getting in the way of those goals. More in this post: How to Plot a Book: Start With the Antagonist.

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