Next to your protagonist, your antagonist is the single most important character in your story. But beware, lest you discover your antagonist is taking over your story. What does this look like? Why might it happen? And how can you guard against it?
Glad you asked.
Antagonists are fascinating people. The reasons why people choose to do “bad” things, the tortured backstories that lead them to their current state of ruthlessness, their ability to get away with anything they want to on the page—it’s all too delicious for an author not to enjoy. There will always be a part of the author in the antagonist, usually the dark, unexplored parts of ourselves that fascinate us despite our fears.
In short, writing antagonists can be very cathartic. Unfortunately, however, this enjoyable catharsis can occasionally run the risk of upending your entire story. Your antagonist turns out to be a more interesting person than your protagonist, and you start spending more and more time on the dark side.
And… your story will suffer.
Your Antagonist Is Taking Over Your Story—Is That Always Bad?
When I say your antagonist is taking over your story, I’m specifically talking about screentime. If you’re spending more time in your antagonist’s POV than your protagonist’s, or if your antagonist’s charisma dominates the scenes he shares with your protagonist, you’ve got a problem.
Consider Rupert Sanders’s pretty but exceedingly flat fairy-tale retelling Snow White and the Huntsman—which should rightly have been called Ravenna the Evil Queen. Sanders, a first-time movie director who was hired largely thanks to his visual ingenuity in advertising campaigns, was obviously entranced by the visual possibilities for his antagonist. Played by a scenery-chomping Charlize Theron, she gets the best costumes, the best settings, and all the most visually arresting scenes.
Poor Snow and her gamely Scottish protector get left in the dust (and we can’t totally blame Kristen Stewart’s lackluster performance, because exactly the same thing happens to Chris Hemsworth and Jessica Chastain in the equally antag-centric sequel).
The reason Ravenna’s presence overwhelms the protagonist in this story is because she is the better and more interesting character. She has a comparatively deeper backstory, more complex motivations, and more interesting relationships.
So what should have been done with this story? Should the best character in the film have been thrown under the bus to give its lackluster protagonist most screentime? Yes and no.
3 Ways to Write a Great Antagonist Who Strengthens Your Protagonist
If you find yourself in a situation like this, with a strong and fascinating antagonist who keeps wanting to take over your story, you have three options.
1. Make Your Antagonist Your Protagonist
If your antagonist is taking over your story, that may be a sign your original interpretation of the story was incorrect. Perhaps it’s the antagonist who would be better suited to leading your story on her way to a tragic character arc or perhaps even as a redeemable antihero.
The major consideration here is that if you switch your story around to allow your antagonist the lead, then the entire plot must be crafted to support this choice. The structure and character arc decisions must now revolve around your erstwhile antagonist, not your former protagonist. Your new lead must now be the one powering the plot with a strong goal. She must be introduced in a Normal World in the First Act, which is knocked off kilter at the First Plot Point, forcing her into a reactive period up to the Midpoint, and so on.
This, of course, means your original protagonist must now function as the antagonist by presenting opposing goals and obstacles between your new protagonist and her story goals.
Switching up the protag and antag roles can be tricky, since it will change the story. But if the antagonist is already taking over, chances are many of these pieces will be in place.
2. Beef Up Your Protagonist
If, however, you like your bad guy being bad, you’re going to need to do some surgery. You’re going to push Mr. Born to Be Bad back into his place, while beefing up your protagonist.
My personal preference as both reader and writer is to eliminate antagonist POVs. This can and will complicate your ability to represent the evil machinations going on behind the scenes. But the payoff is that it allows you to focus all the story’s emotional momentum on your most important character: your protagonist.
This focus is exactly what you need if you’re to discover the spark that makes this particular character worthy of being your protagonist. If your antagonist is taking over your story, it’s going to be due as much to the protagonist’s lack of luster as the antag’s own personal charisma. Take a new look at your protag and evaluate why you originally made him your story’s lead. How can you mine that to make him the most fascinating protagonist possible—so the antagonist doesn’t even have a proper chance to steal his limelight?
3. Create a Storyform That Allows for Co-Leads
Finally, if you just can’t get past how fabulous your antagonist is, you may want to stop thinking of him strictly as “the antagonist,” and instead give him a co-lead role. In this type of narrative, both opposing characters will be given POVs with equal screentime. They will not fulfill strict good guy/bad guy roles, but rather will each act as the antagonist to the other’s protagonist, raising obstacles to each other’s goals on their way to a final confrontation.
This option presents rich possibilities for exploring nuanced moral themes (who is the bad guy here? is there really a bad guy?), as well as a complex weave of plot events. In some ways, it’s easier than the previous options, since it allows you to play out the conflict, step by step, back and forth between each character’s mindset. In other ways, it’s more complicated, since the story must be present for every step of the character interplay.
This approach is only recommended if both characters are equally interesting and complex, with a strong presence at all of the major structural moments, and full-fledged character arcs that play off one another.
The balance of the relationship between your protagonist and your antagonist will affect every choice in your story. If you’ve been lucky enough to discover a fascinating antagonist, don’t sell her short. But also be wary of allowing her to upend your entire story by stepping on the toes of your equally important protagonist. Get the balance right, and readers will be deeply engaged by the complexities of your conflict.