how to plot your book start with the antagonist

How to Plot a Book: Start With the Antagonist

why plotting always starts with the antagonist pinterestI hate antagonists. Not so much because they’re, you know, the bad guys. No, I hate them because 90% of the time, they bore me into catatonia. Evil plan to take over the world? Yawn. Just please do whatever you gotta do to make the hero look good.

That’s how many authors approach their antagonists–as an external force who is present in the book solely for the purpose of giving the hero a reason to do all his cool hero-y stuff.

You may have planned almost all of your story–in your head, in an outline, or in a first draft–before giving even an afterthought to the antagonistic force. This is a mistake. Why? Because the antagonist is the catalyst for everything your hero does in his story.

TL;DR: Your antagonist is the catalyst for the entire plot.

In short, if you’re struggling with how to plot a book, the answer is easy: start with your antagonist.

The Plotting Mistake Almost All Authors Make

I’ll admit it if you will: my creative inspiration for my stories is always the protagonist. I can see him so clearly in my mind. There he is: going all Jason Bourne on some faceless thug, maybe weeping touchingly over a fallen comrade, then striking a melancholy heroic pose against the sunset. Let’s start writing!

But the plot? Hrm. You mean the reason why nameless thugs are coming after him, felling his comrades, and leaving him in such a melancholic mood? You mean the antagonistic force that’s opposing him for presumably watertight reasons?

Um, yeah, that’s a little blurry.

It’s no crime to start your creative process with the protagonist. He is, after all, the hero of the story–the whole reason for the story. He’s presumably the most interesting and likable person in the entire book.

But the protagonist doesn’t drive the plot.

If you sit down to plot your story and you start with your protagonist‘s desires, goals, and plans–then you’re coming at the whole thing backwards. Seems counter-intuitive, right? After all, that’s how almost all authors start their stories. If you look at the vast majority of the outlines I’ve written, that’s certainly how I have started.

That’s why I can tell you from experience that if you approach your plot this way, you will struggle throughout the entire process to maintain a linear line of cause-and-effect scenes, to create authentic antagonist motivations, and, frankly, to keep your entire conflict from feeling extraneous.

There Is No Plot Without the Antagonist

We think of the protagonist as being the point of the story. But he’s actually not. The antagonist is the point.

Think about it. Without the antagonist, there is no story. The antagonistic force is the obstacle between your character and his goal. Without that obstacle, the protagonist gets what he wants, no problem–and remains stagnated personally because he didn’t have to struggle to get it.

Almost all authors understand this. We understand that without conflict, we have no story. However, by the time we remember it, we’re already so deep into the protagonist’s adventures, we have to start manufacturing conflict by coming up with reasons for the antagonist to want to block the protagonist’s plan.

What results is not an organic plot.

But what happens when you flip this process on its head? What happens when you start figuring out how to plot your book by first examining what the antagonist wants and why his desires are inevitably going to interfere with the protagonist’s desires?

Now we’re talking about rock-solid cause and effect! We’re talking about the organic evolution of two people pitted against each other. We’re talking about a very realistic approach to conflict.

In real life, this is exactly how conflict works. The person who is in control of a conflict (which, in a story, is always your antagonist) does not plan his actions around the other person. Rather, the reactive person (which, in the beginning of your story, is always your protagonist) is bombarded by events outside of his control.

If you’re planning your conflict by deciding what you want your protagonist to do and then deciding what your antagonist should do–you’re plotting your cause and effect in entirely the wrong order. Not only is this likely to create a less-than-solid plot, it’s also going to make your job in plotting your novel about a dozen times harder.

How to Plot a Book Using Your Antagonist

I know, I know–when you start plotting your book, you’re undoubtedly chomping at the bit to start exploring your hero’s awesomeness.

Kung Fu Panda: There is no charge for awesomeness... or attractiveness.

But hang with me for a sec and exert a little patience. Before the hero can be awesome, you must first lay the foundation for your entire story by figuring out everything there is to figure out about your antagonist.

Sit down with your brainstorming tools of choice (mine are notebook and pen) and devote as much time as you need to answering the following questions:

1. Who Is Your Antagonist?

When I start plotting my stories, I usually have a foggy notion at best of who my antagonistic force will be. But before you can create a solid conflict for your story, you must first know who will be creating that conflict.

Remember: the antagonist doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad guy. He is merely an opponent to your protagonist. He is someone whose own personal desires and goals are going to create an obstacle between your protagonist and his goals. Moral relativity has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not a person is an antagonist. (In fact, the antagonist need not even be a person.)

Alien

2. What Does Your Antagonist Want?

Here’s the kicker. Your antagonist–just like your protagonist–will be defined by what he wants. If he doesn’t want anything, then he has no reason to get in your protag’s way.

And please note, it is not sufficient for the antagonist to simply want to get in the protag’s way. It’s not enough for him to want to obstruct the protag’s goals just because. He should start the story totally unconcerned by your protag’s goals. It’s his goals that are driving the story in the beginning. If he’s only in the story to splash mud on your protagonist, kill his puppy, or ruin his chances for promotion–just because he doesn’t like the protag–then you can be pretty sure you’ve created a stagnant, one-dimensional antagonist.

The antagonist comes alive only when he is dynamic in his own personal desires and drive. He will not directly care about destroying the protagonist until that moment with the protagonist gets in his way.

alan-rickman-Die Hard

3. Why Does Your Antagonist Want What He Wants?

This is arguably the single most important factor in creating a dynamic and realistic antagonist. As stated above, it’s not enough for the antagonist to be mean to the protag simply because he’s, you know, the bad guy.

The antagonist must have a compelling and watertight motivation for his story goal. This is where you look your antagonist in the eye and pretend, for the moment, he’s the hero of his own story.

Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story.

What Ghost is motivating him? Why does he believe his actions are right? How does he justify his beliefs?

The more convincing his motivation, the more compelling your conflict (and your theme) will be. The best antagonists are those that make both the protagonist and the reader sit back and think, even if only for just a second, What if he’s right?

4. What Is the Antagonist’s Plan for Getting What He Wants?

Here’s where the plotting starts in earnest. Your antagonist’s plan for getting what he wants–and, eventually, for directly opposing the protagonist when he starts getting in his way–is the foundation for your entire plot.

What’s his plan for achieving his goal and gaining his desire? And how does the protag’s goal get in his way? How do the goals interfere with each other?

Daniel Bruhl Baron Zemo Captain American Civil War

Boom. Just like that, you have an organic conflict between two people who are deeply invested, for solid and personal reasons, in making sure the other person never gets what he wants.

5. What Is the Thematic Significance of Your Antagonist’s Goal?

The other advantage to plotting your antagonist’s motives, goals, and plans first is that it gives you a clearer picture of the thematic questions your conflict will be raising. The heart of your theme will always be nestled within the comparisons and contrasts of your protagonist and antagonist. The ways in which their values are both similar and opposite will present and prove your story’s moral premise.

Venn Diagram Protagonist Antagonist Theme

If you start plotting by basing your theme solely on your protagonist and his inner arc, then it’s all too possible that your outer conflict will be only indirectly related (if at all). The result is a story with a scattered, or even perhaps even divided, focus.

If, however, you begin with an understanding of what your antagonist is after and why your protagonist must stop him–you can then use this outer conflict to create organic catalyst after organic catalyst within your protagonist’s inner evolution.

The 5 Types of Antagonist-Driven Stakes

Depending on the nature of your story, you will probably need to answer the above questions in regard to as many as five different antagonistic forces. I’ve just started outlining Dreambreaker, the sequel to my portal fantasy Dreamlander (yay!). This is epic fantasy, so it incorporates all five levels of conflict. To fully understand the conflicts my heroes will be facing, I have to make sure I’ve laid the foundation for all five levels of antagonism before I can fully decide what my heroes will be doing and the choices they will be making within the plot.

5 LEVELS OF ANTAGONIST-DRIVEN STORY STAKES

Ask yourself, what antagonist is driving the following:

1. Global Stakes

These are massive, world-ending stakes, driven by an antagonist who wants to take over or destroy the world. A non-human antagonistic force–such as the asteroid in Armageddon–also qualifies. In fact, often (but certainly not always), global antagonists will end up being impersonal threats.

2. International Stakes

These are stakes between countries. Think World War II, the Hundred Years War, Game of Thrones. When you’re dealing with stakes on such a massive level, you will still want to narrow down the overall threat to a single, personified antagonist driving his country’s choices (e.g., in World War II, the antagonist isn’t “Germany,” but rather “Hitler”).

3. National Stakes

Let’s say your hero is King Arthur. He’s out there taking on the international stakes and whupping all neighboring kings and kingdoms. But he’s also dealing with national stakes within his own country: some of his Knights of the Round Table are plotting regicide.

4. Public Stakes

Now, we’re narrowing our focus into the protagonist’s private circle. We’re looking for conflict amongst the people with whom he interacts every day: co-workers, family, even friends. Remember, antagonists don’t have to be “bad.” They don’t even have to dislike the protagonist. They just have to oppose his goals–and they can be doing that with the best of intentions.

5. Personal Stakes

And, finally, we have what is, for my money, the most interesting type of conflict: relational conflict. This is conflict between the protagonist and the most important supporting characters: the relationship characters. In a romance, this is the kind of the conflict that arises between the leads and keeps them apart for the entire story.

But What About My Protagonist?

At this point, you might be thinking: This all makes sense, but… what about my protagonist? Likely, you’re coming to your story with at least a good handful of awesome scenes that all revolve around your protagonist. Your antagonist might not even be present in them. You also probably have a good sense of who your protagonist is, what he wants, and how his character arc is going to evolve.

Do you now have to scrap all that in pursuit of your antagonist?

Not at all. Use what you already know about your protagonist and your story to craft an antagonistic force that takes perfect advantage of these elements. For example, if you know your hero is going to be forcefully conscripted into an enemy army, while his wife and family are torn away from him and sent to a concentration camp, then you also probably know his goal is going to be to escape and rescue his family.

No problem. All you have to do is fill in the blanks by asking yourself what kind of antagonist would create this situation. Before you go any further with your protagonist’s journey, start working on that antagonist. Answer all the above questions about him. Lay the foundation for the horrible world in which your hero lives. Create a formidable opponent for him.

Then turn your hero loose within this conflict, force him figure out how to react to your antagonist–and watch as your story develops a rock-solid, cohesive plot built around the epic struggle between two equally dynamic characters.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Who is your antagonist, what does he want, and how is the protagonist going to interfere with his desires? 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. Now I really have to do a rethink of my antagonist but I reckon it will be worth it

  2. An interesting premise, KM… but only for simple ‘good guy’ against ‘bad guy’ plots.

    Your premise is all very well if you have a simple antagonist vs protagonist story. But for mystery and crime writers, there’s no mystery, and no solving, if the game’s given away at the start by revealing the antagonist… especially if there are more than one, and an important part of the story is revealing which one is the REAL bad guy… it isn’t always the murderer. (not in my books, anyway).

    Real people have both good and bad in them, and in a typical ‘two crime’ (or more) crime story, the story often revolves around what connects two very different crimes that evidence seems to connect, but logic doesn’t.

    It might turn out to be something as simple as a rental car being used by two different criminals. It might be the motive of just one of the crimes that happens to be the REAL antagonist… the reason why the crime is committed. In my current WIP it’s a belief that’s to blame for the major crime. The highly organised crime that the police are baffled by just happens to introduce a few red herrings. It’s when a gun used in it is linked to another completely unrelated crime, that the confusion occurs.

    Rather than have an antagonist, the story is about revenge. About the victim… but not the rape and murder victim, or the victim of fraud and theft, or the man burned to death in a car, or the dead teenaged brothers… The ultimate victim is the person left to rebuild his shattered world.… The ‘good guy’ with ‘blood’ on his hands. Is he the antagonist?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Not at all. Remember, the antagonist is nothing more than an *obstacle* between the protagonist and his goal. It has nothing to do with the good vs. bad. This approach also has nothing to do with what is revealed about the antagonist *on the page”–e.g., in a mystery where the antagonist is unknown. What’s important is that the *author* understand the antagonist’s goals and how they’re operating behind the scenes to create the events the protagonist is reacting to.

      • I’ll say amen to that!

      • Ginny Q says:

        This is what I needed to hear. It’s difficult to grasp this type of plot as a protagonist vs. antagonist in the sense we often think. I like what you said somewhere below, about using the term “antagonistic force,” which is oftentimes more applicable and easier to grasp. There are many classic stories where the antagonist isn’t a person, and it reminds me of when I learned in school about the types of conflict: man vs. man, man vs. nature, and man vs. himself. (Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” comes to mind; the antagonist in that story is Nature, and it provides an obstacle to the protagonist’s goal of staying alive.)

        In my story (at its very simplest), I have the MC reluctantly working together with another detective to solve a murder. So one antagonistic force is the murderer, who is unknown for most of the story. But the two characters are also antagonistic forces for each other; though they share the base goal of finding the murderer, their reasons are very different and cause them to be at odds with each other. This comment has helped me to realize the second one: even though they will eventually become willing partners (maybe friends?), the other detective *is* one of the MC’s antagonists for a large part of the book, and looking at things from his POV can only make the story stronger.

  3. Mirkwood says:

    “There is no plot without the antagonist.”
    I believe most of my plotting problems have just been solved. I focus on my protagonists and how they can do things, but I always struggle with what they can do. And that’s because I’m not developing the antagonist to give the protagonists something to react to.

    Now in one story idea of mine, the protagonist falls in love with a married man. Who or what would the antagonist be in that situation? The marriage, or more specifically the wife? Or would both be the antagonist? I don’t want the protagonist to actually overcome either—she’s going to move on with herself because she can’t be with a married man. Would that change who the antagonist is?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The antagonistic force could be the protagonist herself, if she is conflicted about the situation. Remember: the antagonistic force is nothing more or less than the obstacle between the protagonist and her desire.

      • Mirkwood says:

        Yes, now that I think of it, she is probably the antagonist herself, which I think will add its own layer of more interesting conflict. I do need to keep in mind that while villains are antagonists, antagonists are not necessarily villains. Thanks for the help!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Honestly, that’s why I often use the term “antagonistic force”–since the obstacle creating the conflict doesn’t even necessarily have to be human.

  4. This post has me wondering in one of my stories if I got the protagonist and antagonist the wrong way around. I started it with my believed antagonist being released from prison after serving two years for rape and allowed to resume his professional soccer career, amid a lot of controversy. The protagonist is the player who plays on another team and fouls the antagonist so bad that he has to be stretchered off the field. Love and hatred for the protagonist following this act is divided down the middle. It is the protagonist whose playing career is in jeopardy.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Who is your main character? What’s his goal? The antagonist is whatever is getting in between him and that goal. It’s also possible that *both* of your characters are main characters in their own right, in which case they’re creating the obstacles for one another. This is also how it works in a romance, where both leads want romantic happiness, but their various conflicts with each other are standing in their way.

    • Jeffrey Barlow says:

      He would have to be a pretty endearing character to overcome a ghost like that in the eyes of the audience. I guess it depends on the type of rape and stuff like that.

      I feel like I’ve read this description before, come to think of it. You must have posted it somewhere on this site before. Starting to recognize people around these parts!

      • I did post the entire story on my profile on the Authors Den site, you might have seen it there. Now that I think about it, I don’t think my original antagonist was that endearing.

  5. Jeffrey Barlow says:

    Excellent post! A colossal oversight on the part of any given writer.

  6. This is one of the best pieces you’ve ever done – no small thing!

    I agree, it’s too easy to let our sense of what “a story should be” and how the hero needs to be relatable distract us from the conflict that makes it interesting. The hero represents the normal, and the villain the threat to it– but that can make it easy to create the hero once that vital conflict is worked out, and too easy to get too attached to the hero’s view before you work out who would really get in his way. Villain as afterthought; oops.

    It isn’t always strictly true, though. Chris, it sounds like you’ve got an insightful look at a story where the protagonist “is his own worst enemy” because you’ve defined his reaction as the conflict that matters much more than the anything else. It’s true of some other mysteries too; “cozies” are all about inventing a person with an amusing life one minute and an urge to stick her nose in the next. Literary stories are usually about the protagonist (unless they’re him evolving in an antagonist’s shadow). Or my own favorite, The Name of the Wind, is this way too: Kvothe is the greatest wizard of the age, but he’s also a troubled fourteen-year-old struggling to keep his mouth shut long enough to earn pennies. Again, he’s his own worst enemy. (So far…)

    –But in all those cases, the outside antagonists have to make sense in their own right, and the story still falls apart if there’s anything false about them. “Hero of their own story” is NEVER a rule we can ignore.

    And it’s just so *easy* to get hooked on a good hero, that “start with the antagonist” is just the shock therapy most of us need. The hero might be most important, but it may well be that he shouldn’t come first…

    Especially since a believable villain is the perfect preparation for finding what *kind* of hero would have the most interesting struggle against him!

    • I guess what the protagonist is his own worst enemy the antagonist is some internal quality of the protagonist. Even when there is an external antagonist, I like it when the hero’s internal struggle (internal antagonist) echoes the external struggle.

      Anyway, to me a villain is most believable when their motivations are not fundamentally bad, but become bad because their aims are so out of proportion to other concerns. For example, the villain who starts by trying to correct a certain injustice, or the villain who is sincerely trying to preserve peace and stability… Anything that doesn’t resort to the antagonist actually being insane, having no moral compass at all, and/or loving chaos/suffering/torture for its own sake. Unless you’re writing a really entertaining villain who actually is a psychopath, like Moriarty, and it happens to work… But I suspect it’s harder than it looks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Kvothe’s is a good example of a story, in which the plot is really just background for the most part. Still, he faces a series of smaller antagonists–all of whom have their own agendas and plans for keeping Kvothe from getting in their way.

    • This post is going into the Post Hall of Fame.

  7. This is an area I’ve certainly neglected, and an important one, too. The insight that stands out to me is that the protagonist begins the story by reacting and not being in control precisely BECAUSE the antagonist is in control at that point of the story.

    I think this idea is applicable regardless of whether the antagonist is a person, force, idea, or just an overall situation that is keeping the protagonist from attaining something. Even in the vaguest of these scenarios–the situation blocking the protagonist–it’s important to analyze why that situation exists and what exactly is going on. It needs to make logical sense and not be an implausible scenario or obstacle concocted just to give the protagonist something to do. But, if there isn’t something blocking the protagonist, there just isn’t a story–as you explain!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, even when the antagonistic force is non-sentient (that asteroid in Armageddon), it’s still, in the basic sense, “in control” of the conflict. It’s an outside event that happens *to* the protagonist.

  8. I recently had to set aside my main WIP and part of the problem was a lack of a strong antagonist! When I started up a new story to work on in the interim, I was delighted to discover that the plot fell into place fairly easily…partly because the antagonist was strong, powerful, and PRESENT.

    His goal is to master all the psionic powers he has the potential to master. My protagonist has only one measly power – but it’s the one he can’t master, and it’s the one he most wants to understand. He wants her as his apprentice…and wholeheartedly wants to help her develop all the the other powers while he gains this one he lacks by studying her…but his morals are antithetical with her values, and she wants NOTHING to do with him. Cue her running far, far away. But eventually she’s going to have to face him when he starts attacking her friends in his pursuit of her. 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The most interesting conflicts, I find, are almost always those between people who are standing in the same room. In many stories, this just isn’t possible for the protagonist and the main antagonist. But there are always opportunities for lesser antagonists/sources of conflict, which can remain near the protagonist throughout the story–and to whom all these same antagonistic principles still apply.

    • Wendybee says:

      @ Bethany A. Jennings – That is a creepy antagonist. Congrats.

  9. Meg Brummer says:

    This “5 Levels” thing just may be worth its weight in gold! My current WIP is also epic fanstasy, fueled by an ancient dragon who has a bone to pick with the guardian of a world my protag finds herself in. Global – check. Personal – check. The three middle levels, though, would add a LOT of dimension and texture to the story, so now I’m really excited to rework my plot a bit and up the stakes!! Thanks!

  10. Nice. This is one of your best posts of the year. It’s clearly one of my favorites of 2016.

    When you mentioned the clichéd bad dude and world domination/destruction, I also yawned. It’s been done too many times, UNLESS the writer can craft a great antagonist. If we craft an antag like you’ve demonstrated here it could work. If we see his motivation and reasoning behind it, that’s makes all the difference.

    I’ve always enjoyed the antagonists more than the protagonist for some reason. Darth Vader, Megatron, Skeletor, Cobra Commander, Destro. The heroes are cool but seeing what it who they go up against is MY FAVORITE. It’s the odds that make the hero shine. I watched the greatest NBA Finals ever. Where LeBron James and co. goes up against improbable odds to win a championship for a city starved for 50 years! No team in history has ever come back after being down 3-1 in the Finals and win, until today. The other team had their own goals, and even the same goals but only one champion can exist. So LeBron James and co. are the heroes shining that much brighter because they overcame such improbable odds.

    Thanks Kate!

    (There’s two small typos. One reads “efore” instead of before. The other is a missed preposition in the final paragraph.) Sorry. I’m sure you’ve seen all my typos and wanted to smack me silly.

    Benjamin

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, this year’s NBA Finals are a great example! Can’t wait until somebody makes that into a movie.

      • I know right? LeBron James is from my hometown. Whoop whoop!

      • Just read my own post and it’s horrible! Argh! I’m not sure how my brain missed those. 🙁

        I repent in sackcloth and ashes….

      • This is such a great post! Thank you. I bought (and read) “Structuring Your Novel” and loved it. I agree that the NBA finals are a great example of two equally-matched forces batting for the same goal. Believe it or not, while watching the game I couldn’t help but think how my WIP needs a strong antagonistic force * I’m a NE Ohio native, and I live in the suburbs of LeBron’s hometown.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Hah! That’s awesome. 😀 Also great to hear you enjoyed Structuring Your Novel.

  11. Steve Mathisen says:

    Brilliant …

  12. Kate Flournoy says:

    There are no words for the excellence of this post. I agree one hundred percent. And it’s so helpful to have it all laid out so very clearly. Thank you so much, Katie!
    Writing antagonists just got a whole entire level more enjoyable. 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Honestly, antagonists have always been an aspect of writing I’ve struggled to enjoy. This approach has made a huge difference to me. Glad to share it with all of you! 🙂

      • Kate Flournoy says:

        WHAT!!! You can’t be serious… one of the absolute best things for me about writing is getting to work with so many complicated bad guys.
        Um… I’m gonna assume that’s a good thing.

        …Right? 😛

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Definitely a good thing. I’m jealous. :p

        • Hiya Kate! Totally love working with all my bad guys. Hah, it’s so much fun. But KM has a great point about not making them one-dimensional duds.

          • Kate Flournoy says:

            Nothing having to do with story at all ever should be one dimensional. It’s that simple.
            But it can be more easily said than done with many story elements. 😉 Bad guys being one of them, I will acknowledge. I didn’t always love writing them as I do now— because I wasn’t always as interested in them as I am now.
            Guess why.
            That’s right.
            They were one dimensional. 😛 😀

  13. Katerina says:

    Awesome article, Katie!

    I was wondering if maybe I should make that cute cat you have as the article’s thumbnail the new antagonist in my story! 😀

    But seriously, I’ll keep this article in mind once I start writing about my antagonist!

  14. The main character is the player who commits the foul so in that respect, he is the protagonist. However, he’s seen as both hero and villain for his foul on the antagonist.

  15. Samantha is like a mirror of my character StarGirl since StarGirl’s not goth and often tries to avoid killing or torturing someone that’s a criminal whereas Samantha does those things and enjoys it, and Victor is the head scientist that wants to turn StarGirl into a super-soldier against her own will and clone her.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ask yourself what the antagonist’s goals are–and how they’re interfering with the protagonist’s desires.

  16. This has been super helpful to understand the 5 levels of antagonist-level story stakes. Super helpful, as I’ve been running up against a few obstacles as I’ve been writing my WIP.

    Thanks for sharing a great post!

  17. Such a good post! This is really helpful. I’m having plotting issues with my main WIP and also a side project I’m thinking about, and I know this is going to help so much. Especially the “five levels of conflict” thing. The main antagonist in my WIP is more or less an impersonal force, so I’ve been struggling with how to make the conflict more present and personal (although there will probably be at least a little bit of national conflict). Introducing some of the other levels (specifically relational conflict) would probably fix a lot of that. Thanks so much!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In most of the fiction I write (and indeed most “epic” stories), the main antagonist is so big and fearsome that he simply can’t exist in the same space as the protagonist for most of the story. The result is that lots of “little” antagonist have to swarm in to fill in the blanks in the conflict. I almost always find them more fun to write anyway.

      • Yes, I’ve been thinking about how I can add some of those. And by the way, I forgot to mention, I’m so excited you’re doing a sequel to Dreamtreader!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Thank you! 😀 I can’t believe how much fun I’m having with just the outline right now.

  18. TJ Miller says:

    Thank you so much for taking the time to explain and share this idea. I think your suggestion just might help breathe life into an old story I was stuck on.

  19. Joe Long says:

    It seems so obvious. The entire first act is the protagonist responding – but to what? If what he is supposed to be responding to, supposed to be overcoming is not defined first, how is the plot clear?

    Last year I was critiquing a story idea from one of my betas. The premise was a young rich guy happens upon a girl in distress who can’t remember who she is or what happened (later I read “Storming” which had similarities!).

    I thought the girl was crafted well enough. Unravel the mystery of the people who will go to great lengths to get her back. I worked more with modifying the antagonist, conceiving his attributes to make a good story out of it. His having skills (wealth, intelligence) were fine, but I suggested scaling him back so that the readers could believe he might lose, and give him treasures that could be lost (life, wealth, status, family)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Indeed, the entire first half of the story is about the character reacting! It’s not until the Moment of Truth at the Midpoint that he truly gets a handle on what the conflict is really about–and can then use that knowledge to start taking control away from the antagonist.

  20. O Katie! Your posts come so timely! It’s like you are reading my mind and answering my dilemmas. Actually? I know it is not you reading my mind & answering or resolving my situations. Father is leading me all the way.

    Anyhow? I am working on Overcoming Dysfunctional Mother. Reading the first draft? I realized that I was making this Dysfunctional Mother look like a super woman. So? I been including now that Antagonistic force ejected by the same super woman–the heroin of my story.

    My Dysfunctional mother is both–the Antagonist and the protagonist and? The same goes for the rest of characters in the story.

    Your article so confirms the importance of the Antagonist. Without the Antagonist? The Protagonist would be a phony!

    That’s my thoughts on this so very enlightening article of yours. Thanks so much. Because of you and Alinka and a couple of other kind ones in the world of successful writers? Father’s message shall go forth to its final destination–the heart of all of His beloved children.
    Much love. thiaBasilia

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This approach definitely gets interesting in Man vs. Self stories, since the protagonist obviously won’t realize for much of the story that she’s acting against her own best interests. But the inner conflict between Truth and Lie is usually very deep and interesting in these types of stories.

  21. Really, Katie, this piece is extraordinarily helpful. I’m particularly thrilled to read it because my WIP just happens to begin with the “antagonistic force” totally controlling the moment. Your views on conflict levels will only help me ratchet the pain. Thanks again, Katie. Best!

  22. Cool! For some reason this is exactly how I´m facing my WIP, lol, atm I just have a more clearer sense of my antagonist and his goals, my protagonist will be a rather reluctant hero.

  23. Now what if the Antagonist’s goal is revenge against the protagonist??

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Personal stakes between characters always up the ante. Stuff like this usually starts in the backstory. What was the cause in the beginning? The antagonist then has a plan to achieve a goal (hurt the protag for personal reasons), to which the protagonist must then react.

  24. Andrewiswriting says:

    I echo the others who’ve commented that this was a brilliant post, thanks for posting!

    In my case I’ve been extremely fortunate (dumb luck trumping any wisdom) in that I imagined both the protagonist and antagonist together – and the antagonist is the one who wants to do stuff, the protagonist just wants to stop him.

    I’ve seen all those ‘what does your protagonist want’ posts here and elsewhere, and I’ve been somewhat at a loss, because the answer is, ‘to stop the bad guy doing his thing’ – and that remains in place over the course of eight books (although of course, there are/will be minor goals all the way through).

    My obvious and immediate antagonist is a son whose father is imprisoned, and whose mother is institutionalised. He has been fed tales of his father’s greatness by the true antagonist, who masquerades as one of his companions.

    The backstory involves the protagonist’s father and father’s companions doing something many years ago that averted the natural order of things. This made everything better for everyone in the short term (four or five generations), on the other hand it upset the natural cycle, and things may end up worse in the long term.

    The true antagonist, who will be revealed around the middle of the series as an obvious and well-known ‘bad guy’ really only wants to set the natural cycle back on course. So there we have some moral ambiguity – the ‘good guys’ want things to remain better for the short-term, although potentially worse in the long term, while the ‘bad guys’ want the natural cycle of things restored.

    It’s aimed at 12-year-olds, who will mature with the series, so by the time I reveal what’s really going on, target readers should be ready to understand that the good guys may in fact not be the good guys, despite being nice and selfless and good and decent. And that the bad guys, despite being horrible and selfish and mean and nasty, might in the end not actually be the bad guys.

    I suppose, back on-topic, I always envisioned the story as something the protagonist involved himself in, rather than being ‘his story’. He’s more of an active vehicle for the reader to view the story through, rather than the guy who makes everything happen (although he *will* be making plenty happen, and deciding the ultimate resolution) So I knew the protagonist, immediate antagonist, overall antagonist, and the mid-series antagonist right from the start.

    Dumb luck, really!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good for you! 😀 I will stick in here the reiteration that the protagonist *should* have his own goals, apart from the antagonist’s, both for the sake of his character arc, and because the intersection of the antagonist’s and protagonist’s respective goals is where the conflict begins.

      • Andrewiswriting says:

        Well, he does, but he’s 12 at the beginning of the series, so it evolves from ‘get through school so I can go home and Playstation’ to:
        – Stay alive
        – Learn what my abilities are and how to use them
        – Keep the wondrous McGuffin safe from the bad guys
        – Pick up my father’s quest/mantle/responsibilities
        – Step in and save the world
        – Get that girl

  25. I noticed a typo as well. You said “efore” instead of “before.” And a possible antagonist for StarGirl could be Samantha since she outright opposes her and wants to kill and torture bad guys, and enjoys it, whereas StarGirl doesn’t.

  26. I might be an outlier here, my story began with a facination with my antagonist. She’s complex, she may be awful, she might just be damaged. She’s certain she’s doing the right thing for the right reasons. But the mess she makes of other people’s lives because she can’t (or won’t) see beyond her own ambition compelled me to explore what might happen. A strong protagonist must challenge her, but in the end, does a person like this ever REALLY go away? I wanted to find out.
    I think you make excellent points in your article about conflict and pondering what every character really wants. Isn’t that what most of us should be doing in real life?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I love stories that with interesting and complex questions like this. Never know where they’re going to lead! And they’re very instructive for us as individuals, beyond the story experience.

  27. J. S. Hargreaves says:

    Katie,

    Thanks so much for this post! Perfect timing in my outlining process as I was just getting into character development and realized I needed more Antagonists!

    In my WIP, where a classroom of middle school kids have to survive on another planet, my original antagonist, the bully in the classroom, wasn’t holding as much pressure on the Protagonist after act 1 since they get separated (the protagonist and a small group of students get captured by a local civilization while out foraging and spend the entire second act trying to escape and get back to the classroom.)
    The bully has his own story happening in the classroom while they are gone (including trying to go back to earth without them), so he is still an antagonist, just separated from the Protagonist with no communication between them.

    I had always had a nugget of an idea for there to be some mysterious force (another civilization from space) that was hellbent on destroying all life on the planet (so they could mine for resources), and while this added conflict for our students and forced them in a way to try to help the locals that had captured them (while simultaneously increasing the stakes in the story), it was not personal enough to our heroes.

    You have inspired me to push deeper into the backstory of this outside antagonistic force and give them a more solid foundation.

    As a result, I think you have helped me expand this universe I am creating from one book to a trilogy or more!

    Instead of one young adult sci-fi adventure novel trying to claw its way out of my head, now I might have a whole epic series on my hands!

    Thanks! . . . I think . . . 😋

    – James

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Cool beans! And good instincts on pressing into the backstory. There is inevitably a *wealth* of subtext and even plot twists to be found back there, no matter what kind of story you’re writing.

  28. Caroline says:

    Thank you for this post. It has given me and my WIP just the boost and direction it needed. I’ll be printing this to keep before me while I write.

  29. Felicity S. says:

    Thank you so much for these posts! This series on plotting your novel is just what I need right now. You’re awesome!

    My antagonist is a woman named Cecilia. She was banished from her wizarding world by her own teacher, Master Paris, because of treason against the Crown. Just as the spell was set, she stole the remains of Master Paris’s magic, probably killing him in the process.

    When she landed in our world, the magic, horrified by her treachery, abandoned her. She tries to manipulate her son and grandson (the protagonist Jake), who have aptitude for magic as well, into recapturing the magic and enslaving it to do her bidding. Her final goal: to use any means necessary to take the magic back with her to the wizarding world. There she will revenge herself on the king who ordered her banishment and establish herself and her stolen magic as the power in the country.

    Jake, although he doesn’t understand her goals for most of the book, instinctively feels it’s not the right way to do things. His experience with magic leads him to treat it more like a wonderful, powerful, free-spirited animal, and the thought of enslaving it the way Cecilia demands is repulsive. She has to work a lot of deceit to get him to do anything she wants.

    I am having a little trouble figuring out how to keep Cecilia’s intentions clear throughout the story. She has a pawn, Reardon, whom she manipulates more successfully. Jake’s friends all think Reardon is the main antagonist, but from the moment Jake lays eyes on him (a little before the 1st plot point), he can’t quite believe it. He thinks there’s got to be more behind it. But even when he meets Cecilia (midpoint), he thinks of her as his grandmother (estranged because of divorce) who has let grief over her many trials cloud her judgement. It’s not until the 3rd plot point that he realizes she’s been behind the conflict the entire time.

    Is that acceptably keeping the antagonist’s cards in play? I do mention Cecilia throughout the first half of the second act, foreshadowing that she’s important, but I don’t think readers will get a real sense of whether she’ll be a force for good or evil until they meet her and Jake rejects her offer to work with him. Even then, her role as main antagonist will be shadowy until the 3rd plot point.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Keeping the antagonist’s motivations clear in stories in which you’re not using an antagonistic POV can be tricky (but, for all that, I’m not a fan of antagonist POVs in the vast majority of instances). The trick is to allow the protagonist to figure things out and/or have things revealed to him at the same rate at which the readers need to understand what’s going on. This can get awkward and definitely needs to be handled with finesse (more showing than telling), but it can also make for some really great “reveal” moments when handled right.

  30. Eliana Izzo says:

    What a great post! I am doing exactly this for my story and it is amazing how new episodes, conflicts and characters pop up in the plot. My story is now richer and, obviously, more exciting.
    Thank you for having confirm this!

  31. Wonderful tips here and I will definitely be taking them into the writing of my first novel.

  32. Super post. Makes me realizes most of my antagonists need a lot of work, but that’s what editing’s for, right?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Eh, you’re not alone. 😉 I’ve always struggled with antagonists. Figuring out this approach was a light-bulb moment for me in outlining my latest story.

  33. You are truly a gifted teacher when it comes to teaching how to write a story!

    My antagonist has been gnawing at me in the background, just as I want them to do in my story, but that wasn’t helping me write the story I need to write.

    I see now that I must bring that nasty person to the center of my attention!

    So I went to work on the questions “write away” and I see that question #2 is missing. Are there only 4 questions that I need to answer or is one missing?

    Thanks so much Kate, for your generosity and guidance!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Whoops. Looks like I had two “#1s.” Sometimes I can’t count. 😉 Thanks for bringing that to my attention!

  34. Jonathan says:

    Loved this post. Got me thinking. I’m guessing all 5 types of antagonistic stakes aren’t all used in any given story. But, it does make me wonder how many different levels of stakes a story will typically have. And also whether those levels of stakes each correlate with an individual character. There’s probably some overlap in most stories.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      All five levels definitely *can* be used. For example, I’m using them all in the epic fantasy I’m currently outlining. However, you don’t *have* to use them all. Smaller, more intimate stories may only need one or two of the lower-level antagonistic stakes.

  35. I came to this post and your website having just finished listening to your most excellent discussion with Joanna Penn. I really enjoyed it Katie and I’m enjoying browsing your articles here. There is some brilliant pieces.

    For my latest WIP, I actually started by drawing my characters, based on a very rough outline and as thet became clearer to me, elements of their persona fed back into my outline to beef it up. I actually put a lot energy into fleshing out my antagonists first and foremost because there is a lot of complexity in them and I came at it from the angle that they don’t see themselves as inherently bad or evil. They believe that what they are doing is absolutely justified.

    This strategy became apparent to me towards the end of writing my most recent novel where a lot of that complexity came to me late in the piece and I had to do a fair bit of re-writing in order to ret-conn what I had already established with the antagonist in that novel. I made a mental point not to repeat that this time around.

    Again, I’m so pleased I got to listen to you and I look forward to reading more from you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Dean! Glad you enjoyed the interview with Joanna Penn. I totally love (and agree with) your approach to “gray” characters. No human is all bad or all good. As authors, it’s important for us to remember that, not only for achieving realism, but also because it opens the door to so many interesting thematic explorations.

  36. This works awesomely to hammer out series arcs, too. I had a kind of nebulous “society is antagonist” thing going on, with one person as the focus, and lots of conspiracy and secrets, but no plot. I finally sat down and hammered out what she wanted, what she was doing and when, and when it escalates (due to the interference from the protags).

    That gave me the ability to actually figure out three books worth of escalating stakes for the series. And since the antagonist is off plotting most of the time, I knew where I had to have other conflict while the protags work on that. It literally saved my series.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s exactly where I was in outlining my WIP. Nebulous bad guys = boring. Once I started digging down and discovering individuals with individual goals, everything became so much more interesting.

  37. -Brain explodes!- This is so great, and perfect timing. I came up with a fun twist for my books ending that has to do with changing how my antagonist is. (but have to go though every chapter and change and twerk quite a few things.) So having you post this right now is just plain gold. =D The main antagonist that I had was all around evil, out to destroy … snore. I’m making him way more interactive and in the gray area. He still is a little nuts but you be to if you were locked up for 500 years. xD He also needs more chapters. Ya I’m going to read this a few times and absorb, thank you so much for sharing this. ;-;

  38. Is their a donation area to help pay for your hosting, so we can continue to get these articles?

  39. I’m working on my old fantasy story right now, and I realized that my true antagonist is the protagonist himself. Other obvious antagonists such as a demon lord, aggressive nomads and hostile neighbor kings are mere catalysts for the darkness that resides right within the protagonist. Since I know the ending for his story (tragic), I find it fascinating to see what brought him to his own demise. And it’s mainly himself. With the help of others, yes, but he didn’t manage to conquer his dark side.

    Ultimately, I think that’s what’s the most interesting in books, regardless their genre – inner struggle. We’re all forced to fight evil inside us every day, even lesser evils like jealousy, envy, anger, etc. Fiction just takes this battle to the next level.

    • Joe Long says:

      My WIP also has a lot of internal struggle and I don’t have one centralized antagonist.

      There was a recent post where Katie presented different type of antagonistic forces. My story is a forbidden teen romance (“You can’t help who you fall in love with”) They can be considered too far apart in age and too close in relation. If some people find out they will put a stop to the relationship. For those who do know, there are a variety of reactions, from supportive to ambivalent to opposed.

      The inner struggle comes in dealing with “The Lie”, and we’ve discussed here how that Lie can change over time. In my first act, it’s “I’ll never find a girl” while later it’s “She’s the only girl for me.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree. The outer conflict is really just a visual metaphor for the real story: the inner conflict.

  40. Hannah O. says:

    My antagonist is, in one sense, the system, and in another sense, the leader of the government. The leader of the government wants this one group of people controlled, subjugated. My protagonist is one of that group of people. When another in that group of people rebels and kills the leader of the government, his wife becomes the leader of the government, and you find out she’s worse than her husband. She declares war on an unarmed people. My main character’s goal is to stop her from committing genocide. My main character isn’t even anything special, but she is determined. Now I realize Athaliah Demont (the new Leader of the government) needs some work.
    By the way, the system is an antagonist in that it keeps the particular group of people doing all the menial work, and selling them into slavery when they don’t get a good enough harvest. Any ideas on how to make it better?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good for you for personifying your general antagonist. That makes a huge difference both in creating a realistic world and in plotting. As for refining it, my top suggestion would be to dig into the society’s backstory. When did this government start? Why did it start? Why do the people who run it believe in it?

  41. Redd Becker says:

    This is great. At the end of my first novel I began to really dive into the antagonist to find he was more complex and had helpers that were equally interesting. I look forward to using your approach in the future.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, once those antagonists start coming to life in their own right–watch out! Good things happen!

  42. Shauday Smith says:

    This is the wrong post to ask this question, but how much time do you spend on secondary/tertiary characters? Those that serve to interact with your small core cast of characters but aren’t really essential? Like henchmen or work friends get left behind when the quest begins…
    I have a full cast of one main antagonist, two smaller antagonists, A main character, a separate protagonist, and about 2-3 supporting characters that would play larger supporting roles. The story takes place in a near-future/alternate reality and I’m having trouble drawing the line when writing tertiary characters. Like the seasoned waitress that shows the young hostess the ropes but her purposes don’t go much farther. . . When do you add people to a scene and when do you cut back, letting the faceless crowd remain faceless?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ultimately, it depends on how involved the characters are in the plot. I’ve actually got a post scheduled for next Monday about how to develop minor characters with just a few strokes. But the bottom line is that I keep developing them until I run out of pertinent questions (e.g., “Why would she do this?”). If I don’t *have* many questions, then I know it’s not a character I need to spend much, if any time, fleshing out.

  43. I might have to explore Victor a little more. I know he wants to create armies to do his bidding of super-soldiers and clones, but I don’t know why. I might also explore Samanta a little more.

  44. I meant Samantha and I might learn about her and Victor as I continue to write more about them.

  45. Joe Hayden says:

    I wish to thank you for this post. Three days ago, I typed the last words of “book one” of a story that has bounced around in my head for forty-five years. What you said here demands that I go back and flesh out the antagonist. He seemed too bland to me and I couldn’t see why until I read this. The book most likely won’t go anywhere besides family reading it but I do want to make it right.

    Time for re-write

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Congrats on finishing the first draft! That’s always a huge accomplishment. And happy editing!

  46. I can’t say I’ve ever started with the villain, but I do know the antagonist is important. In one of my books, that I’ve put away due to other problems that I can’t work out at the moment, the antagonist was definitely a force to be reckoned with. But he wasn’t always that way. I realized that I had to figure out a lot of the reasons why he was the way he was, which ended up in me delving deeply into his history to find out what made him tick. I honestly think he’s the best villain I’ve ever made up; he’s not … sympathetic exactly, but he’s understandable and complex, as well as being extremely clever (he knows how to psychologically manipulate people into doing and thinking what he wants).
    Basically, he *is* the driving force of the story. The main character could really have been anyone; she came into the antagonist’s story almost by chance and got caught up in all the stuff he was already planning.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Seems like backstory is always where all the good stuff is. I’m always (very pleasantly) shocked when I start digging around in my characters’ backstories. All of this juicy subtext comes pouring forth–and usually I didn’t even have a hint it was there before I started looking.

  47. Today I watched The Dark Knight Rises- for the first time- and I thought of that movie as I read this. In this movie the protagonist is, of course, Batman. However, he is different from the previous movies. A recluse, and a cripple, it seems that Bruce Wayne will not be Batman again.
    Meanwhile, the Antagonist is the Bane. He doesn’t care about Batman. Not in the way that I think the Joker does. His reasons for destroying the city would have come about without Batman ever existing. (This I think is an excellent use of the ghost, as you don’t find out until the end why Batman was roped in at all.)
    The Bane wanted to destroy the city, and it was Batman’s job to get in his way. Not because he hated the man, but because he didn’t want people to die. In a way, Bane could have peen the true protagonist and Batman the Antagonist, as Batman was the one who got in his way and kept doing all he could to stop him. (All the Bane did was throw Bruce in a pit and leave him to die after taking all his money.)

    This also makes me think of my WIP and the antagonist there. The issue I’ve had from the start is the fact that there are multiple villainous characters, and they each want to use the protagonist for their own gain. (Though their reasons and gains are different) It is hard at times to balance this out. Yet, seeing the list you made- for lists are wonderful and lovely things- I can see that both my ‘villains’ serve different purposes, and that I can easily see which roles they fulfill. They also fulfill more than one thing each, which I think is a good thing as it means that I have created characters that have more than one goal/desire/role and thus gives them more depth. 🙂
    Next time I start a story, I’ll try to come at it this way and see what happens.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I love my lists, and lists love me. 😉 You raise a really good point in that each antagonistic force needs to want something different and be in the story to advance the plot in different ways–otherwise, they’re probably repetitious of each other.

  48. Hi Katie — I have to point out that not all stories have the antagonist as the plot driving character. Look at Mad Max: Fury Road (yep, I’m the one who submitted that to your database). Furiosa is the protagonist and drove the story the whole way through, because she knew the most of what was going on and set off the story. Max was the main character reacting to everything, with Furiosa as his Impact character, and then Max influencing her after her moment of truth.

    I agree with typical genre and typical Hollywood stories, the antagonist is usually driving the story. But I think this might be a recent development. Genres only developed in the last few hundred years so perhaps that’s why, but I think there are probably a lot of older stories, particularly amongst ancient Greek theatre like Oedipus Rex, where the protagonist drives the plot. I don’t really read “literary” novels but in them (and in Oscar-bait films) I suspect protagonist-as-plot-driver might be typical there too, even today, because of that focus on a protagonist with a tragic flaw — harmartia — who struggles with it the whole way through more than with any external antagonistic force. (Maybe that’s why literary snobs sneer at genre writers — “Antagonist driving the plot? Gasp! You’re doing it wrong!!”)

    But yes, whoever the Plot Driving character is should be focused on first!
    Thanks for another great article.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good point! However, think of it this way. Who was driving Furiosa? The overarching antagonist, right? (And Furiosa was clearly the protagonist, while Max was the main character–I think you pointed that out in your Database analysis). Also, don’t forget that Furiosa and Max start out as opponents: they’re in the way of each other’s goals. So Furiosa *is* Max’s antagonist in the first half of the story and thus is controlling his conflict.

      • Well, the antagonist, Immortan Joe, is always reacting to Furiosa. He doesn’t have any new plan, new goal, etc except what already existed in the backstory. So while driving Furiosa’s desire to run away (until she decides to fight) all the events are initiated by Furiosa. For Max, Furiosa is only an obstacle until he decides to work with her.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          True. But I’d argue that Furiosa’s entire plan, from the very beginning, is in reaction to Immortan Joe. He’s the one in the control; her whole plan is based on trying to break away from that control.

          Granted, Fury Road is a very unusual story, not least because it starts so deep in medias res and also because the entire plot a relatively small and contained event. Still, if we trace back the cause and effect, Immortan Joe is definitely the cause. Furiosa would have no reason for her plan without him.

  49. Shannon says:

    I am both elated and horrified by this advice. On one hand it excites me to think that my entire plot problem is all related to my lacking antagonist. I’ve been working with this draft for over a year now and could not figure out how to fix it, or even where to start. On the other hand, that means a complete rewrite is in my future, and that’s a daunting task. 🙁 But if it gets my story moving in the right direction, it will be worth it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Complete rewrites are *always* daunting. But having a plan of action–however formidable–is always preferable to just plain being lost about what to do. So I congratulate you on your first step forward! 😉

  50. Joe Long says:

    I’ve been working on my WIP for two years now (maybe I’m half done) so I wasn’t looking forward to any new projects – but I was pondering what Katie said here and in other posts and tried to see if I could come up with a fresh story premise.

    Keeping “develop the antagonist first” in mind, I typed this down in the last fifteen minutes or so, a stream-of-consciousness account of how the ideas were forming in my head.

    Please, let’s keep this to ourselves, no one steal my story idea!

    “Think of a premise, something antagonistic. I’ve said, “The government isn’t capable of protecting us, and they won’t let us protect ourselves.” That means there’s something the people need protection from. Street crime, terrorism, or even the government itself. I’ve asked my wife, “What would it be like if there was an attack almost every week?” Extrapolate into a dystopian future where fears have come true. Attacks on the population are common, while the government seeks even more power to create security, while increasingly taking away freedoms.

    How does this intersect the protagonist’s life and goals? Have him lose something – a child, a daughter, in a manner that’s happened to others before and now to his family, but the government is unable or even unwilling to confront and punish the perpetrators. He wants revenge, but also he just wants a safer and freer life for everyone, to have life back the way it used to be – but the government won’t let him. He goes underground and does it anyway, organizing like minded folk.

    Personalize the government – the police chief, mayor, governor, congressman, attorney general – the president. The stakes are personal, but also in the neighborhood, the country, maybe even the world.

    Now construct the protagonist who is up to the task. How would an ordinary family man react?”

  51. What if the antagonist changes throughout the story? In mine, the antagonist had revelation about his evil–he was simply trying to do the right thing in the wrong way–and tried to reverse it, but his followers are set on the path he made and a new antagonist rises up. Is that too much for a story and just needs to keep with the same antagonist the whole way through, or would it provide good story elements? I’m having trouble laying this part of my plot out. It feels wrong to do it for me because I spent so much time developing my villain’s backstory and goals that I’ve grown more attached to him than the protagonist, but I still don’t know. To me, every evil needs a good, solid story behind it and I feel cheated when I see the “take over the world” antagonists.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The most important thing to remember about characters who experience notable change arcs (which it sounds like your original antagonist definitely does) is that a change that great must be properly set up throughout the book. Almost always, a change like that will need the entirety of the book to properly play out. So I wouldn’t be so much concerned about switching antags as I would about allowing the antagonist’s change of heart to happen too soon and without enough setup.

  52. K.M. this article is a huge help!

    I’ve been in the outline phase for far too long and struggling! Frustration has peaked several times because, though I can see my opening scene clearly… I couldn’t get beyond it because I couldn’t see beyond it.

    Say, for instance, the character wanted to repair his roof, yet gets a bad shake from the contractor, why? By expanding well beyond the contractor himself, to see the environment which enables one to rip off and be ripped off, those answers become clear!

    Not only that but in seeing the antagonistic forces on the largest scales on down, suddenly helped me to see how character arcs make sense because of the forces acting on them.

    I think I’d add two levels to the antagonist driven stakes. 1, Galactic (Star Wars/Trek; Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer) And 4, Regional… using your example of King Arthur, what’s going on back home in the rebellious knights’ territory/fiefs/provinces/dukedoms that embolden them to regicide; or conversely fierce loyalty. How do they deal with lost crops, poaching, tenant farmer relations, etc?

    Thank you again, huge help!

  53. Ingrid B. says:

    With my main WIP, I found myself developing my antagonist first, far more than any of my other characters. I seemed to be able to envision him in the storyline better at the time, and with the most clarity regarding goals, motivation, etc.

    This whole time though, I’d been thinking that I should’ve been focusing on the protagonist and others first BUT the ‘force was strong with this one’ so I went with the flow.

    I’m so glad I read this post of yours, it’s encouraged me to believe that I must have some viable writing instinct in there somewhere if I concentrated on my WIPs bad guy primarily, and at the beginning. I’ve had such a great time developing him and half the reason is because it seems like the rest of the storyline just falls into place as I go with this one character. It all makes sense. I’m loving developing all my characters, but it just felt like the antagonist had to be the driving force behind all the other’s goals.

    I get quite a lot out of your posts, K.M. They always seem to show up at the perfect time, thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Your instincts sounds spot on to me! Sometimes we let our “heads” talk us out of stuff like this, but good for you for following your gut.

  54. Thank you so much Katie for all your excellent writing advice. This post has to be my favorite yet. I’ve been contemplating a new story for weeks now, and was wondering why the antagonist kept sticking out in my imagination more than the protagonist. It makes more sense, and I feel more excited about plotting the book now.

  55. Just registered to be a wordplayer. I hope it happens since you seem to be a good writing mentor as well as my writing friend Rebecca. She has a book called Captured Minds. You should check it out. It’s really good.

  56. I have a cousin that doesn’t agree that the antagonist is the point of the story. She does think that they are important, but not the actual point.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      They’re the point in the sense that there is no conflict without them. No conflict=no story.

  57. If you don’t know, my scientist Victor’s goal is first to turn people into super-soldiers against their own will, but by the time you see Vance’s clone, that’s also what Victor wants to do, and he (most likely) tried to do those things to StarGirl, but Vance prevented it from happening, and managed to get rid of his clone, though it was StarGirl that defeated Victor, but she didn’t do it alone, and he does come back, but she also deals with her struggles since in the first book, she has to overcome her lack of self-confidence and by the second book, has to trust her instincts, and has dealt with an arsonist, robbers, aliens Victor and is now dealing with Samantha. Victor comes back TWICE, and is introduced in the first, whereas Samantha is introduced in the second. Her goal is to protect her city and loved ones, but enjoys killing and torturing bad guys.

  58. Janey Egerton says:

    Thank you, Katie! This post makes me very happy because I discovered this principle by myself only a couple of weeks ago. I was watching a highly enjoyable Colombian comedic telenovela — 100 hours packed with conflict and farce-like misunderstandings and complications. I was satisfied by how naturally the plot flowed and that the conflict felt convincing and believable, no matter how unlikely, crazy or ridiculously funny the individual conflict situations were. And then I realised that ALL of the (more or less) 20 main characters had their own genuine goals and motivations. With all of them simultaneously trying to reach their own individual goals with total disregard for everyone else’s well-being, the conflict gushed up like water from a geyser.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Boosh! 😀 That really is the key, isn’t it? When the characters come to life with vivid and personal goals, the conflict just follows. Yet another way plot and character are inextricable.

  59. I’m about to start writing a book and this article really helped encourage me in nailing down my antagonist’s motives. I didn’t even realize the character was the antagonist specifically, because he was obscured by more menacing forces in the background, but there he was, all along, the one character who will consistently oppose my protagonist. Timely article!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There are so many connotations surrounding the idea of the “antagonist” as the bad guy. Sometimes it can be hard to step back from that definition. But once we realize that, from the perspective of plot, the antagonist is nothing more or less than an obstacle, a whole host of new possibilities opens up for us.

  60. Hey K.M.,

    Have to agree with everyone else here–great post. And thanks for the link. As far as motivations go, I always equate the Protagonist with our capacity for Initiation and the Antagonist with our capacity for Reticence, so good and bad, hero/villain don’t have to figure into it. Protagonists pursue, Antagonists avoid or prevent. Protagonists consider, Antagonists reconsider.

    Again, great post. Thanks!

  61. Excellent post. A valuable perspective/tool for developing a story. But you’re living on chocolate, truffles and expresso? No! (-:

  62. Always great tips! Thank you.

  63. Hannah Killian says:

    Ooh ooh ooh! In my fantasy story that is slightly Romeo and Juliet-ish, the antagonist is a woman who wants to take the throne of the kingdom ‘Juliet’ lives in. Backstory time: The antagonist was an orphan living on the streets when she met the King and Queen. Now the Queen is unable to have kiddos of her own, so she and her husband decide to adopt the antagonist, which makes her the heir to the throne. Then the Queen gets sick and dies a few years later. The King remarries, and the second Queen can have kiddos. She has a boy, and since the King now has a biological kid, the antagonist is no longer the heir. She’s thirteen when this happens. About five years later, she comes up with a plan to take ‘her’ throne ‘back’. She tries getting her best friend to help, but he refuses. (This character will show up later as a supporting character to the Romeo and Juliet characters) Anyways, things happen, the border between Romeo and Juliet’s countries is closed, and-oh, hello plot hole, what are you doing here?

  64. Ok Kim, another great blog! I’ve been hammering out the plot to my latest WIP and started seeing such gaping holes that I almost parked my car in one. Seriously. So then I started writing out index cards with the main characters inner/outer goals so I could bring the core of each to the scenes they were in. And yet still saw some p(l)ot holes that needed tending to on the road to The End.

    So then I find this post and like a V-8 slap to the forehead I start thinking deeper into what the antagonist wants and how it’s going to screw up my hero’s day. THANK YOU!! Time to dive back in and get the rest of the plot in order.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      At least your car’s in out of the rain. 😉 Seriously, though, this is *exactly* the right way to work through plot holes. You just keep asking questions and finding the answers until suddenly there are no more questions remaining.

  65. Would love for you to address- in another post- how to use this approach when the antagonist is an outside force (not a person) or even the protagonist himself.

  66. A. Newbom says:

    I have a question that is not related specifically to this article, which by the way, I think is excellent. My question is this: Will you ever make your articles printable so that people can refer to them repeatedly if they want to, when they are not able or do not want to be online? Personally speaking, I would also like to be able to scribble notes in the margins comparing my story’s elements, to what I am learning in various articles.

    As far as this article goes, I feel affirmed that I have been moving in the right direction with my antagonists and excited to apply what I just learned. I can’t wait to finish cleaning up my cooking mess in the kitchen so I can jump back into my story and work on the development of my antagonists. The nature of my story is such that I do have 5 antagonistic forces, descending from the highest to lowest level, very similarly to your diagram. I was relieved to see that it is okay to do that, because my antagonists are very key parts of the story and strongly influence the protagonist throughout. Thank you so much for your excellent instruction and guidance.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      So glad you’re enjoying the article! Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to get a print button to work on the site. I even called in the tech guys, but there was some reason or other it wasn’t feasible. Very sorry about that!

      • Hannah Killian says:

        K.M, when doing conflict , should you just stick to one type or is it possible to use all three types?

        Also, I think Frozen may have been set up to be Man vs. himself. (Cough cough Elsa and her fear cough cough)

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Totally–as long as you recognize that each type of conflict needs to be “stacked” at different levels of the stakes. You don’t want all types of conflict to be equally “big.” One in particular still needs to be the “main” conflict, with the other backing it up.

    • If you use Safari, just click on the four little lines to the left of the URL in the menu bar. This puts the web page into “reader view” which is a nice, clean, easy-to-read printable view void of headers, backgrounds, ads, and comments. Just pure post bliss! I print your posts all the time in reader view. Love it!

  67. Wow. Thanks K.M. Welland. My antagonist was okay before, but you really helped me get into his head and I know now that my trilogy is going to be great. Still not that good with titles though…😩

  68. Caroline says:

    I’ve just read this post and realise I’ve got to the party late but I just wanted to say Oh my God ! Your post has just given me the biggest lightbulb moment I’ve had for a while. I’ve been trying to plot my next book and I’ve been struggling badly and I now realise where I’ve been going wrong. I’ve been concentrating on my protagonist’s awesomeness and my setting and thinking of clever clues and tricks (it’s a murder mystery with action) with only a vague (very vague in fact) idea of what the antagonistic force is and his motives, so of course I’m struggling – as you say, the antagonistic force drives the whole story! I’m now chomping at the bit to get back to my plotting! I’m going to nail down the antagonistic force and let everything go from there.

    • Caroline says:

      Sorry, should add you’ve also given another lightbulb moment with the idea of multiple antagonistic forces. I never thought it in that way before but of course a character’s inner demons or the tensions/disagreements within the group of good guys for example are just as much an antagonistic force as a big powerful bad guy.

  69. Kate Ashley says:

    What a brilliant, helpful post! Love it. What if your MC is going to turn out to be the bad guy? I can’t work out if that makes her the antagonist, or whether she is still the protagonist and the antagonists are all the good people trying to get on with their good lives whilst she moves amongst them like a snake in the grass, looking for her moment to disrupt everything. Suggestions welcome.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      What’s important to understand about the antagonist is that this role in the story has nothing to do with the character’s moral alignment. Conceivably, your antagonist could be the most moral person in the story, while your protagonist could be the most immoral.

      What qualifies a character as the antagonist is simply his alignment to the protagonist’s goals: the antagonist is the character who is an obstacle to the protagonist’s goal (whether that goal is worthy or not).

  70. Huh.
    I’ve never had a problem with ‘starting with the antagonist’, as you say. Half the time, they’re the character who inspires the story in the first place.

    This is a great post on how the antag and protag are interrelated, and can help with reverse engineering too. (To figure out your protagonist)

    😉

  71. TYPO – or rather a punctuation mistake.
    YOU WROTE: This is arguably the single most important factor in creating a dynamic and realistic antagonist. As stated above, it’s not enough for the antagonist to be mean to the protag simply because he’s, you know, the bad guy,

    sentence ended with a comma.

  72. Woah! That was weird, I opened the link in the email you sent about this and all of this blogs layout format was gone, it was just a bunch of links on the left side. You might want to look into this.

    Didn’t you just send this posting not that long ago? I sear you did … If course with me a year can feel like a day as my sense of time is erratic.

    This is still a great article. I too started with the protog, then, I think somewhere in the second year of struggling with the book the antagonists voice got stronger and now has equal time with the protagonist. This works as they are “sharing” the same body. It makes for some interesting conversions they have with each other (in her mind.)

    I love my antagonists without them it would be a heck of boring story!

  73. I have two questions.

    How would you write the goals and motivation for an antagonistic force such as man vs. society? Would it be better if I used a human antagonist to represent the bigger societal antagonist’s goals and motivations?

    For man vs. self conflict, how would you write goals and motivations for the antagonist if he is the protagonist himself?

    • I have a couple of comments:

      1) An example of Man vs Nature is “The Perfect Storm.” The protagonist has a goal which involves a job or a mission, but this time nature isn’t cooperating and presents a risk, even to his life. He has a choice to make, with consequences either way.

      2) Man vs Society – My WIP is a romance between a guy in college and a girl in high school who is also his cousin. Too far apart in age, too close in relation. He’s had to wait for love and found it in the wrong place. They have to worry about the extent that each person they encounter, if they find out, wants to impose those societal norms on them. Will it break them apart? Will he go to jail?

      3) Man vs Himself – Again in my WIP, the guy didn’t find a relationship until he was in college because of his deep seated anxieties. He’s always fighting his own fears and insecurities. The root of many may well be his relationship with his father, who’s shown as an antagonist who doesn’t openly try to oppose his son but who’s always reinforcing the reasons the son struggles.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In the first instance, it often is best to personify the general antagonist with a specific face. But even if you don’t, consider what the “founders” of this society wanted to accomplish. Those are usually the antagonistic goals the protagonist will be opposing throughout the story.

      In the second instance, you’re going to want to look at the heart of character arc–at the conflict between the character’s Need and Want, Truth and Lie. Lots more on that here.

  74. Just wanted to say thanks. In my few years of writing I hadn’t once considered this approach. And I’ve struggled with creating a proper antagonist. Thanks again!

  75. This is encouraging. When I was creating my story bible and back story I spent a lot of time and effort on understanding why in the world this person (who happens to be the primary antagonist-person) would ever kill someone. I felt like I was over-analyzing or procrastinating. But it has been really easy to go from scene to scene because I just have to ask myself what would happen next given the motivations of the murderer and my hero. The answer is almost always obvious. It’s nice to find I’ve done something right without knowing it! Stumbled on this article on Pinterest; will follow from now on. Thanks.

  76. I am “catching up” on many of your wonderful posts! Once again, I love this. I’ve always been a fan of the antagonist myself. In fact, some of my favorite characters are the opposition XD. I love the 5 levels! That is very helpful. I do have a question for clarification (I tend to overthink things a lot, sadly) and I am wondering if, can you have an antagonist or an antagonistic force that encompasses more than one of those?

    My current WIP is going to be a trilogy, epic fantasy. The first book deals with a pretty personal antagonist, though there are some public ramifications as well. The second book will lead them to a different antagonist with national and international ramifications. The third book will deal with the global issues, deity level in fact. My thought was using the- shadows (?) of the next two books in the first book, but without really getting into that too much in the first book. The first book is more about the protagonist gaining what she needs to tackle the bigger threats later on, though there will be more personal, public, and national opposition as the books progress and she finds herself with more responsibility, etc.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Oh, definitely. You could theoretically have a single antagonist who fulfills all five categories.

      • Oh good! I’ve always been a pretty instinctual writer, but I’ve been seriously delving into as much about the craft of writing as I can lately and I think I’m getting too caught up in the mechanics of it, spending too much time with my left-brain so my right-brain is kinda left in the dark XD

  77. I’ve always had problems plotting – and as hard as I slogged at filling in what other people said should be the protagonist-centered detail, the place where I always fell down was when I had to figure out the challenges befalling them. I’ve always felt there was a hole at the heart of my plotting but could never figure out where I was going wrong. And reading this post, it just sort of clicked into place that it’s not working because I’m approaching it backwards. Thank you so much! I think that gives me a real place to start from.

    The story I’m trying to work on at the moment is a regency story, and my protagonist has chronic ill-health (probably in modern terms, post-polio syndrome or something similar – but I’m trying to balance modern medical knowledge with period understanding). She’s at least partly based on Anne DeBourgh, from Pride and Prejudice, as I’ve often wondered what happened to her after Darcy married Elizabeth – and I like the idea of giving her a chance to shine in her own right!

    What I can’t quite figure out, is who or what the antagonist is. Her control-freak of a mother’s not exactly helping matters – running roughshod over every choice the protag might choose to make for her own self – but I feel like the real primary antagonist has to be either society’s expectations (as in the “social model of disability”!) or her illness…or maybe even both, I guess! And I’m not quite sure how to transfer that onto your scale of story stakes, or how much I can really anthropomorphise an impersonal force to plot out what an illness’s goals are!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      When you’re having trouble finding your story’s main antagonistic force, look first at your protagonist’s main story goal. What does she want? And–then–what is getting in the way of what she wants? Whoever or whatever is placing the majority of the obstacles–either directly or indirectly–is your main antagonistic force.

  78. Samiul Lameem Akbor says:

    I have a question. In my story, the antagonistic force is an evil cult. My protagonist has shady magic powers. The cult, The Apostles of the White Flame, believe that magic should be exterminated. Magic poses a threat to the continent. What type of stakes are these?

    Secondly, I am wondering if it is okay to have minor antagonists? The cult would be a minor opponent. Whereas my protagonist is the key to his own downfall.

    Finally, can I have one antagonist through most of the series, but at the last moment another antagonist reveals himself as true enemy?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      1. Depends how much power the cult wields: local, national, or global.

      2. 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 her goals throughout the story. Whatever you find, that’s your primary antagonistic force.

      3. As long as you’ve foreshadowed the main antagonist’s role from the beginning, yes.

  79. A question. What is exactly the difference between an antagonist in the Public Stakes and Personal Stakes?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Personal Stakes are the foundational relationships of the story. Public stakes are people who are part of the protagonist’s world, but whose relationships aren’t as important. For example, the personal stakes might be with the protag’s girlfriend, while the public stakes might be with his boss.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Weiland has a fantastic post on How to Plot a Book: Start with the Antagonist. I urge you to read it. It will set off all sorts of light bulbs in your creative […]

  2. […] Super-helpful advice for plotting a book using your antagonist. […]

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