How the Antagonist Affects Character Arc

How the Antagonist Affects Character Arc

We often think of the antagonist as an external obstacle to our protagonist’s forward motion. The antagonist is usually a physical entity, something standing in the way of our protagonists’ ability to achieve their physical goals and perhaps even threatening our protagonists’ lives or their physical well-being.

Creating Character Arcs

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Consequently, it can be easy to forget that antagonists are just as important in driving your character’s personal arc as they are the plot’s conflict.

The Two Halves of Story: Outer and Inner

Every story is made up of two integral halves:

  1. The protagonist’s pursuit of his outer goal, which is the physical aspect of the story (i.e., the stuff we see happening).
  2. The protagonist’s pursuit (willing or not) of his inner goal, which is the emotional and spiritual aspect of the story (i.e., the stuff happening on an intangible plane).

Some stories will emphasize one of these halves over the other, but the best stories balance them.

How the Antagonist Drives the Plot

On the external or physical plane, your antagonist is an obviously essential player. He’s the obstacle that creates conflict. Your character makes a move; your antagonist makes a countermove. Bing bang boom.

That one’s a no-brainer. Even if your antagonist is non-human, it will be a force opposing your protagonist and forcing him to keep coming up with new ways to overcome the problems that lie between him and the ultimate conquest of his story goal.

How the Antagonist Drives the Character Arc

Equally important is the antagonist’s affect on your protagonist’s inner journey. This, however, is often something we overlook. When we construct our character’s arcs (if we consciously construct them), we’re too often inclined to create traumas and troubles that have no direct connection to the antagonist.

Maybe George is trying to get a job in the circus and is opposed by the circus owner’s son, who happens to be courting the girl George is in love with. Sounds like a decent plot with a plausibly motivated antagonist. But if we’ve decided that George’s character arc is about proving his worth to his apathetic father (and thereby to himself), then we’ve created a character arc that has no direct relationship to the antagonist. Sure, the circus owner’s son will probably prod George along in his discovery of his self-worth, but that’s only tangentially affecting the character arc.

Two Ways the Antagonist Ties Together Plot and Character Arc

The best way to create an antagonist who is just as organic to the character’s inner arc as he is to the outer conflict is to do it on purpose, right from the start. Before you ever begin writing, take a moment to consider your story’s outer conflict and your character’s inner conflict. Does one grow from the other? If not, how can you craft the one to better reflect the other?

In George’s case, we might want to consider either switching out the antagonist to better inform his character arc, or changing the character arc to better reflect the antagonist’s mode of attack.

Choosing an Antagonist Integral to the Character Arc

If we’re sold on keeping the character arc as is, we might find a better catalyst for inspiring George to find his own self-worth by forcing him to do direct battle with the father he’s trying to impress. Maybe his father is the owner of the circus and is the one bent on keeping George out of the family business, because he doesn’t believe good ol’ George is up to the challenge.

Choosing a Character Arc Born of the Antagonist’s Attack

If, however, we decide we like the outer conflict with the circus-owner’s-son-slash-rival-lover better than we do George’s current character arc, we might get rid of the judgmental father altogether and focus instead on a weakness that is directly challenged by the circus owner’s son. Perhaps George’s new arc is still about self-worth, but now that self-worth centers on his belief that he’s not worthy of the girl he loves.

Sometimes we can employ more than one antagonist to create different forces of opposition (e.g., the dad drives the inner arc, while the circus owner’s son drives the outer conflict). But consolidating the power of your main antagonist into a catalyst for both halves of your story is a powerful way to bring cohesion to both plot and theme.

Tell me your opinion: How is your antagonist influencing your protagonist’s inner conflict?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. You had “affect” for effect.

    Maybe examine works where this “consolidating” occurs and where it doesn’t? Compare and contrast?

  2. K.M. Weiland says

    Are you seeing the “affect” somewhere other than the title? When used as a verb, “affect” is correct. 🙂 I’ll actually be doing a whole series on character arc soon. We’ll talk, point by point, about combining the inner and outer conflicts.

  3. I’ve read too many stories where the “villain” has no impact on the internal arc of the hero whatsoever, existing purely as a physical obstacle that is easily kicked away once the internal conflict (probably the true villain) is resolved. Many times it works, but you make a good point–often it would strengthen the story if both the internal and external arc were driven by the same source of conflict.
    I hate to admit it, but the entire concept of “character arc” didn’t click in my brain until relatively recently. As soon as I started paying attention to both the internal and external arc of my characters (not just the protagonist!) my stories got a lot better.

    I’m looking forward to seeing more on this subject!

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Character arc is one of my favorite subjects because, really, it *is* story. Deconstructing Jane Eyre for the Annotated Jane Eyre was hugely eye-opening for me in understanding the minute workings of the character arc.

  4. Especially appreciate the tip on consolidating competing antagonist arcs. Current project is trending this way – will put a stop to it ASAP!!

  5. K.M.–
    Regarding character arcs, I admire anyone who can keep so much in his/her head as he writes. For me, it’s all I can manage to remember two or three requirements. First and foremost is conflict, which of course is what you are talking about here–the ways to generate the most effective conflict. If I think my day’s work has advanced the cause of conflict in my story, I reward myself with a pre-dinner cocktail. But to be honest, if I’m not convinced I’ve succeeded, I….

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Good fiction is made up of so many disparate parts. I’ll venture it’s impossible for any of us to keep them all in brains at any given time. Luckily, we don’t have to! That’s what editing (and outlining) is for.

      • I have a master’s degree in public administration but have written books since the age of 18. I think my current book Dark nights of Obsession will be my Ph.D.!!! I have highlighted many of your books which r excellent. I also keep a binder w all my characters back stories and am using Scribner but it had a few glitches. So I print all scenes. I didn’t t think I could write an entire book in 4 months but it looks like I’ll make it and be on kindle by fall!!!
        You’ve been a great help. I hope I have something more than the accomplishment to celebrate.

  6. Read this post before, but decided to come back to it as I’m having trouble with character arc and the antagonist. In my novel, the outer conflict is with a dragon-shifter and finding objects of power (it’s a fantasy novel), whereas the inner conflict focuses on the heroine trying to stay away from her father and her painful past (abandonment)

    Yet the antagonist dragon isn’t her father or connected with him in any way. I’d like for the antagonist to drive both conflicts but when they’re not connected it’s tricky.

    Is there a way to keep the conflicts but connect them in some manner or do I have to start over completely? How can you tell if one conflict is driving the other or if it’s only partially connected (Like in the hero trying to impress father but vs circus owners son example above)?

    Is there a formula to use in order to see the connection or lack of one?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s possible to knit two conflict lines together by having one symbolically represent the other. Could the dragon plot line in some way reflect upon her abandonment issues and help her grow past them, so that she can return to the father plot line better equipped to deal with it?


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