Helping Writers Become Authors

7 Ways to Write Thematically-Pertinent Antagonists

thematically pertinent antagonist

Thematically-pertinent antagonists are the lynchpin that holds together any successful story. You can write delicious protagonists, snappy dialogue, riveting conflict, and deep themes—and still, your story can fail simply because the antagonist was taken for granted as a leering, two-dimensional bad guy.

We’ve talked before about how (somewhat non-intuitively) the character who provides the entire foundation for a successful story is not the protagonist, but rather the antagonist. Why is that? Because the antagonist is the only one capable of connecting the conflict to the theme

Stories rise and fall on the cohesion of their thematic premises. If the theme doesn’t arc properly over the course of the story, if it doesn’t resonate deeply within the final confrontation in the Climax, if it doesn’t tie together the protagonist’s inner and outer journeys—then the story will, at best, be better as a sum of parts rather than a whole.

If you’re uncertain whether your theme and your plot are proper partners for each other—dancing in symmetry through every important structural moment, all the way to the grand burst of fireworks in the finale—then the first question to ask yourself is: What is the relationship between my protagonist and my antagonist?

Why Your Antagonist Must Be Connected to Your Protagonist

What happens in a story is always personal. Because the exterior conflict exists to help dramatize what the story is really about (aka, the protagonist’s personal character arc), it’s never random. (Indeed, even when the point of the story is that bad things sometimes happen randomly, for no obvious reason, that’s how the story begins, not how it ends—which means the antagonist’s intrusion into the protagonist’s life is very personal for the subsequent duration of the story’s conflict.)

Whether your antagonistic force is a faceless corporation, a serial killer, a bully, a family member, or just a nice little old lady who can’t remember to chain up her destructive dog—there must be a reason this force is throwing negative obstacles into the protagonist’s life.

If there is no reason—no obvious connection—then the story’s realism fades. Worst case scenario: the antagonistic force’s lack of connection (and thus the main conflict’s lack of connection) to the theme creates an utterly fragmented and emotionally-unconvincing final confrontation in the Climax.

I see this quite a bit in romances. The main part of the story is solid: it’s about a relationship, which means the two figures in the relationship are, in fact, one another’s antagonists—creating and resolving each other’s obstacles within the mutual goal of a successful relationship. So far, so good. In fact, this fundamental aspect of romances is an excellent example of how to inextricably unite the antagonist, the conflict, and the theme.

But, often, the author will feel the need to up the ante by throwing in a suspenseful subplot, in which a minor antagonist threatens one of the main characters. This antagonist is usually off-screen for 90% of the book, rarely if ever interacts with the protagonists, and has little to no connection to the thematic premise. Rather, he exists solely to provide an exciting final obstacle for the characters to overcome. No problem there, either, except this final obstacle—which should be the most pertinent and personal of the entire story—ends up being the most distanced from the underlying thematic story.

7 Categories of Thematically-Pertinent Antagonists

Today, we’re going to explore seven possible ways you can connect your antagonist to your protagonist—and thus, your main conflict—in a thematically-pertinent way. This list probably isn’t exhaustive: I collected it after researching some of my favorite stories and studying what made the antagonist-protagonist relationship so compelling.

After reading through the list, think about some of your favorite stories. Do the antagonists fit into the following categories? If not, drill down deeper to figure out what connects protagonist/antagonist/theme in a watertight triangle of emotionally-compelling logic.

1. Protagonist and Antagonist “Positively” Connected

When you think of a “meaningful connection” between protagonist and antagonist, the first thing to come to mind might well be the heartrending premise of friend vs. friend. This is one of my favorite types of antagonist-driven themes, thanks to its inherent emotional quality.

Great conflicts are based around hard choices—preferably leading to obvious lose-lose situations. These are rife in stories in which both the protagonist and the antagonist are forced to choose between someone they love and their own goals and/or principles. These stories prompt excellent moral questions, along the lines of: What makes it okay to betray a friend?

This category can also include relationships that aren’t necessarily “positive” on a personal level, but which still bind the protagonist and antagonist in a way generally looked upon as a positive alliance. This applies particularly to family members, even when they dislike each other. Cinderella and her stepmother are a good example. They never like each other, but because of their forced familial bond, Cinderella, at least, feels bound to respect the traditional nature of their relationship—which neatly complicates the thematic argument.

Ever After (1998), 20th Century Fox.

Examples (Click on the Links for Structural Breakdowns):

Friends Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), friends Steve Rogers and Tony Stark (Captain America: Civil War), adopted son/father Matthew Garth and Tom Dunson (Red River), brothers Brendan Conlon and Tommy Conlon (Warrior).

Warrior (2011), Lionsgate.

2. Protagonist Negatively Connected to Antagonist

Many stories open with the protagonist and antagonist oblivious to each other until the moment their goals bring them into conflict. In these moments (either the Inciting Event or the First Plot Point), something will happen that will be so dramatic and life-changing (even if on a comparatively small level in some stories) that these characters cannot walk away from each other after this.

Because the antagonist is traditionally the “bad” guy, it’s common for him to be responsible for negatively impacting the protagonist in a way that binds the protagonist to him. In short, the antagonist does the protagonist wrong.

This action can span the gamut from the antagonist’s lying about the protagonist, winning a job away from him, betraying him on a personal level (as in Warrior, in which younger brother Tommy feels his older brother chose their alcoholic father over him and their mother), all the way to something truly tragic, such as an assault upon the protagonist (as when psychotic bandit Liberty Valance robs, beats, and leaves for dead Jimmy Stewart’s idealistic lawyer) or an assault upon a loved one (hello, Death Wish and every revenge story ever after).

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Paramount Pictures.

The point is that the protagonist cannot walk away. The antagonist has changed his life in a negative way. The protagonist may start out the Second Act just wanting to try to put things back to rights, but eventually the story will force him to face down the antagonist in what has now become a very personal fight—even if it’s actually about something bigger. The awesome thing about this approach is that it forces the interior goal to extrovert into an exterior goal—neatly tying everything together.

Examples (Click on the Links for Structural Breakdowns):

William Tavington murders Benjamin Martin’s son in the midst of the greater conflict of the American Revolution (The Patriot), Liberty Valance leaves Rafe Stoddard for dead in the midst of the greater conflict for western statehood (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), wrongful King Vortigen kills off rightful King Arthur’s parents and friends in the midst of the greater conflict for peace in Camelot (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword).

The Patriot (2000), by Columbia Pictures.

3. Antagonist Negatively Connected to the Protagonist

This can also work the other way around: instead of the protagonist being wounded and furious with the antagonist, it’s the antagonist who sees himself as the damaged party and pursues the protagonist singlemindedly.

The key difference is that the protagonist is often (although not always) oblivious to the antagonist’s obsession with him. He is either unaware of what he did to upset the antagonist, or he views it as a positive thing, or he is unwittingly the key player in a larger conflict of which he is as yet unaware (as is often the case when the conflict is generational, as in King Arthur).

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017), Warner Bros.

This can also work both ways, since any and all of the categories listed here can overlap. Almost always, there will be a chain of cause and effect. Maybe the antagonist gets hurt first, but he will quickly lash out and make it personal for the protagonist as well.

This antagonistic category lends itself well to mystery and suspense, since the protagonist will sometimes have to discover whatever it is he did to upset the antagonist and make himself central to this particular conflict. “Chosen ones” often qualify.

The Matrix (1999), Warner Bros.

Examples (Click on the Links for Structural Breakdowns):

Tony Stark vs. [pretty much all of his opponents], as a result of his general oblivion about the damage he leaves in his wake; Rafe Stoddard vs. Liberty Valance, as a result of Rafe’s trying to lawfully oppose Liberty’s reign of terror in the territory; Arthur vs. Vortigen, as a result of Arthur’s bloodline as “born king” threatening Vortigen’s reign; Po vs. Tai-Lung, as the result of Tai-Lung’s envy of Po’s status as Dragon Warrior (Kung-Fu Panda).

Kung-Fu Panda (2008), DreamWorks Animation.

4. Antagonist Is a Mirror for the Protagonist

Not all stories will feature protagonist-antagonist relationships in which the characters actually know each other. This obviously creates a huge emotional vacuum within the story. How can the conflict be personal when the relationship isn’t? How can the Climax still have deep thematic meaning?

In many stories with “Big Bads,” it is logistically impossible to even put the protagonist and the antagonist in the same room with other for most of the story. But you can still keep their relationship front and center by allowing the antagonist to be a “mirror” for the protagonist. When the protagonist is able to see herself even in this faraway bad guy, it prompts the opportunity for the deep thematic grist of existential questions.

The protagonist gets to ask herself: Why am I fighting this person? How am I any different or any better? If this person is so much like me, then mightn’t we even be friends instead of enemies?

The more similarities you can draw between protagonist and antagonist—personality, methods, goals, backstory, interests, etc.—the more opportunities you will create to explore the exterior conflict from within the subtext of the protagonist’s own interior journey.

Examples (Click on the Links for Structural Breakdowns):

Tony Stark and Ivan Vanko share similar backstories regarding their inventor fathers and similar abilities, among other things (Iron Man 2); Steve Rogers and Johann Schmidt share similar experiences with taking the Super-Soldier Serum (Captain America: The First Avenger); Jason Bourne shares an identical past with all the Treadstone agents sent after him (the Bourne trilogy); Captain Jack Aubrey duels it out with a French captain, who “fights like you, Jack” (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World); Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy share many personality traits (Pride & Prejudice); George Bailey and Old Man Potter share business savvy, ambition, and a disdain for Bedford Falls (It’s a Wonderful Life); Arthur and Vortigen share a bloodline and similarly ruthless ambition.

Pride & Prejudice (2005), Focus Features.

5. Protagonist and Antagonist Oppose Each Other Ideologically

The protagonist and the antagonist won’t always be opposing each other due to personal goals or injuries. Sometimes, the battle will be about something greater: ideological ideas. The good guy believes in what’s “right,” and the bad guy believes in what’s “wrong”—and never the twain shall meet.

Most stories come down to this at one point or another in the conflict, even if the theme is just about school kids standing up for themselves against bullies. Stories about even larger issues, such as war and social injustice, are often based entirely around this.

It’s important to note, however, that ideological opposition isn’t enough to float a conflict. As you may have noted, ideological opposition implies no sort of connection between characters whatsoever. For the final conflict between these ideologies to carry emotional weight in the finale, the antagonistic force needs to be bound to the protagonist in an additional way, via one of the previous categories.

This is where Wonder Woman faltered: Diana’s final confrontation with arch-enemy Ares is the weakest section of the story, due primarily to the fact that it is entirely ideological. Diana has no personal connection to Ares. Were it not for her commitment to her beliefs, she would be able to simply walk away from him and the war, with no personal consequences. At best, this contributes to simplistic plots and themes.

Wonder Woman (2017), Warner Bros.

Examples (Click on the Links for Structural Breakdowns):

Chris Adams’s “That’s just the kind of promise you’ve got to keep” vs. Calvera’s “Why did you come back? A man like you, a place like this” (The Magnificent Seven); Rafe Stoddard’s law and order vs. Liberty Valance’s rule by violence; Lady Eboshi’s disregard for the balance of nature vs. Ashitaki’s respect for it (Princess Mononoke).

Princess Mononoke (1997), Studio Ghibli.

6. Antagonist Is Non-Human Obstacle to Protagonist’s Goal

Most stories will be better off putting a human face to even a larger impersonal antagonist—which is why most war movies present a specific soldier as the “enemy” rather than just the entire opposing army. However, it’s true not all stories will offer a human antagonist.

In these instances, how can you “connect” the protagonist to the antagonistic force in a meaningful way?

By nature, these stories simply are more emotionally distant. However, remember the antagonistic force is, ultimately, nothing more or less than an obstacle between the protagonist and his goal. As such, anything standing in the way of the protagonist’s goal becomes, by its very nature, personal. Bottom line: the only conflict that matters is that which directly impacts the character’s main throughline in pursuing that personal goal.

Examples (Click on the Links for Structural Breakdowns):

The British and American POWs vs. the multitude of obstacles between them and their goal of escaping Germany and returning home (The Great Escape), the Jaeger pilots vs. the animalistic alien kaiju monsters intent on destroying humanity (Pacific Rim), Captain Jack Aubrey vs. any number of French (et al.) naval and army officers opposing England in the Napoleonic wars (Aubrey/Maturin series), the snow-less winter keeping skiers away from the failing Vermont lodge owned by the protagonists’ beloved former commanding officer (White Christmas), the dinosaurs out to eat everyone (Jurassic Park).

The Great Escape (1963), The Mirisch Company.

7. Protagonist As Own Antagonist

Even in stories that feature all six of the above types of thematically-pertinent antagonists, there is no antagonist more personal than oneself. Every thematically-deep story is a story of the protagonist’s inner conflict: who is he? what does he believe? how will he survive? what will he do?

By all means, start plotting your story with the antagonist—but start with that inner antagonist first. Once you know what inner demons your protagonist is battling, you can look for the right exterior antagonist to symbolize, dramatize, and catalyze that all-important interior battle.

This is the heart of great climactic encounters—when the protagonist’s conflict against himself aligns with his conflict against an exterior opponent. One way or another, he will come to the realization that defeating the exterior antagonist is easy in comparison to the inner foe he’s been battling. In realizing that, he harmonizes the two conflicts, and in ending one is essentially ending both. And just like that: powerful thematic resonance within the conflict.

Examples (Click on the Links for Structural Breakdowns):

George Bailey (It’s a Wonderful Life), Russ Duritz in (The Kid), Walter in (Secondhand Lions), Roger Maris in 61.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1947), Liberty Films.


Don’t create a story about a protagonist. Instead, create a story about a protagonist and an antagonist—and the connection between them. The result will be a realistic conflict that flows, and a plot and theme that are bound integrally and powerfully at every important point in your story.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How have you created thematically-pertinent antagonists in your story? Tell me in the comments!

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