I 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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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