7 Considerations for Your Antagonist’s Motivations (Which Will Save You SOOO Much Trouble)

Your antagonist’s motivations can make or break your story. If your antagonist’s motivations are weak, unconvincing, or over-complicated (which is usually symptomatic of the first two problems), then you will severely undermine your story in several key areas. Not only will you end up with a weak character to oppose your protagonist, but you may also find that your entire plot fails to work.

When we view storyform from a zoomed-out, macro level, the antagonistic force is the plot. It is the major obstacle standing between your protagonist and the main story goal. The antagonistic force is what creates conflict on the plot level and the scene level. If we can say “no conflict, no story,” then we can just as accurately say “no antagonist, no conflict.”

In some stories, and for some authors, strong antagonists and their formation of the plot conflict comes obviously and naturally. But for many authors, the antagonist is an afterthought, neglected in the story’s back rooms while we play with “more interesting” characters and their interrelational dynamics. The antagonist-as-character may turn out to be a mere face on a plot device—an almost anthropomorphic interpretation of Evil and/or a sound-byte stereotype to oppose a much more interesting protagonist.

There are many reasons this tends to happen, not least that many authors fail to identify with their antagonists (or at the other extreme, over-identify with them) and so fail to humanize them to the same degree as the protagonists. Or it may be that the story is primarily focused on the interrelational dynamics of the protagonist and his allies, while the overarching antagonist is a Big Bad pulling strings from faraway and rarely in the same conversational space as the protagonist. Particularly if you’ve chosen not to give the antagonist a POV, this can make it difficult for the author to really get to know this character, much less craft dimension within a limited amount of screen time.

And yet these difficulties aside, the antagonist is still the lynchpin in your plot. If the antagonist doesn’t work—and particularly if the antagonist’s motivations do not work—then the entire structural plot, the thematic argument, and more will limp along.

7 Rules for Double-Checking Your Antagonist’s Motivations

Honestly, antagonists drive me nuts. They are, perhaps rather poetically, the great nemeses of my writing life. I still struggle with them, for all the reasons mentioned above, in every book I write. In fact, I’ve come to realize that much of the reason I’ve been blocked for years on my current book is because… I got the antagonist wrong.

No matter how I wrangled the plot, the theme, or the protagonists, it just didn’t work. Whenever I’d run through the calculations of a complete structure for the series, the climactic equations never rang true. Finally, I threw out the originally intended antagonist and started over—and everything began clicking back into place.

Here are seven things this process has taught me so far about crafting my antagonist’s motivations.

1. Watch Out for Master Plans

When an antagonist starts out as a plot device (which is not uncommon in the early conception stages of a story), it can be easy to arbitrarily decide that his motive is the standard evil desire for “world domination” or some such. From the hands of many a master plotter we have read and viewed delicious stories about genius antagonists who have wrought incredibly intricate plots—which the protagonists must uncover and then against all odds overcome.

Sometimes, with some characters, and in some stories, this is the right choice. But too often a “mysterious master plan” is just a filler phrase the author uses to cover up the fact that she really has no idea what the antagonist wants, why he wants it, or what his plan is for getting it. The author is just as clueless as the protagonist.

Too often, master plans created by mastermind antagonists just don’t make any sense. Or they’re way more complicated than is actually smart. Or they turn out to be anticlimactic when all the mysterious hype you’ve built up over the course of the story turns out to be unjustified.

It’s useful to remember that even so-called master plans are created by fallible humans, however powerful, and that fallibility is usually where the most interesting bits of characterization and plot will be found.

2. Be Careful About Copping to “He’s Just Plain Crazy!”

An antagonist won’t necessarily be a villain (in fact, the antagonist can be the most moral person in the story). But when your antagonist is a “bad guy,” it can sometimes be difficult for authors to truly understand why he would do such terrible things.

The easiest solution in these situations is to simply label the bad guy as “crazy.” Sociopaths and psychopaths are beyond explanation, so this approach would seem to save us a lot of trouble.

Or maybe you’ve raised the stakes so high that, like me, you’re facing world-ending consequences. If you’re personifying your antagonistic force, then you may struggle to come up with convincing reasons why someone who isn’t out of their mind would choose to obliterate existence itself.

“Crazy,” however, is not an easy cop-out. If it’s to be written with nuance and dimension, it requires just as much, if not more, understanding and identification from the author to pull off a realistic and humanized presentation. The trick, whatever your antagonist’s mental state, is to inhabit this character just as fully as you do the protagonist, to the point that you understand and empathize with his motivations. If you can’t do that at some level (and note, this does not mean condoning or promoting the antagonist’s actions), then you probably don’t know your antagonist well enough to craft a plot around his motivations.

3. Choose Carefully Between Archetypal Evil and Deep Humanizing

Deeply humanized antagonists can be stunningly compelling and shatteringly provocative. Indeed, exploring the shadow side of humanity is an important function of storytelling. However, this is not to say that straight-up archetypal Evil can’t also be an effective and powerful antagonist.

What’s important is understanding which is the right choice for certain types of stories. Obviously archetypal stories, such as Lord of the Rings, No Country for Old Men, or Moby Dick, can utilize a relatively simplistic antagonistic force to unforgettable effect. By contrast, the more hyper-realistic your story, the more nuanced and non-dualistic the antagonistic character should be.

An archetypally evil character or force requires little (if anything) in the way of causal motivation. It enacts evil because it is Evil. But human characters are the way they are and make the choices they do for a reason. There must be something catalytic in their personal history that prompts their current plot choices.

4. Keep the Antagonist’s Goals Sweet and Simple

Somewhat counter-intuitively when you’re hazy about your antagonist’s motivations, you may well end up over-complicating the character’s goals and motives. This is all the more likely when the antagonist’s goals are large-scale. It’s easy enough to imagine understandable reasons for why someone might cheat on a spouse, or even why someone might murder another person. But it can be much harder to identify realistic reasons for why someone would enact a large-scale atrocity.

The antidote is to focus on keeping your antagonist’s motives, goals, and methods as simple as possible. “Simple” usually means “smart.” When you start wrangling an antagonist’s plot progression to fit what you want to see your protagonist doing, rather than allowing them to dance together, the result is usually a ridiculous antagonist who doesn’t live up to her hype.

If you ever find yourself having to dream up huge and elaborate backstories for why your antagonist is doing what she’s doing—or even if you simply find yourself needing explanations longer than short sentences and paragraphs—you would almost certainly do well to scale things back. What is the simplest and most obvious reason a person would want what the antagonist wants and do what she’s doing to get it? Chances are that reason is also the most powerful.

5. Make the Antagonist’s Reasoning Super Tempting to the Protagonist

Within the storyform, the antagonist exists not only to create the conflict and thus the plot, he also exists to create a thematic counterpoint to the protagonist. Even when an antagonist doesn’t share much screen time with the protagonist, he is still the single most important Impact Character within the story. He is the thematic catalyst, either directly through his own ideologies and/or indirectly through the pressure he puts on the protagonist’s methods via the plot obstacles.

The most powerful antagonists are those who offer the protagonist a compelling argument against whatever the protagonist’s climactic choice will be (whether she chooses in favor of the thematic Truth or a Lie). This means the reasons behind the antagonist’s motives and goals need to be legit. You need to play devil’s advocate so well that the readers themselves are almost convinced the protagonist would do well to listen to the antagonist’s arguments.

The protagonist’s temptation is one of the most important thematic moments within a story. But if the antagonist’s argument is obviously bogus, then the depth of the protagonist’s temptation will either be limited or will seem unrealistic. Again, it’s best to keep things simple. A super-elaborate explanation for the antagonist’s approach will usually fail to convince anyone.

6. Decide How You’ll Represent Your Antagonist’s Side of the Story

As mentioned, one of the great limiting factors of presenting dimensional antagonists is their often minimal screen time. This can be remedied by giving your antagonist a POV, and sometimes this is the right choice—but only if the antagonist is every bit as interesting a human being as the protagonist. If she is not—and/or if she is not acting in scenes and performing plot actions that are also every bit as interesting as those in which the protagonist is engaged—then her POV scenes are likely to function only as plot devices and thus slow the story.

If you choose not to give your antagonist a POV, then you must determine how else you can bring this character and her motivations into dimension. In some stories, the antagonist will be an important relationship character for the protagonist, and in this case you can characterize the antagonist through the protagonist’s viewpoint.

In other stories, the antagonist will be off-screen most of the time. If this is so, you will have to carefully plan how best to dramatize the antagonist’s reasons and actions—that is, you must show them, rather than tell them. You must make full use of those limited moments when the protagonist does interact with the antagonist.

7. Keep the Antagonist Central in the Story Structure

When you consider that your antagonist is the framework for your protagonist’s advancement through the plot, it’s obvious the antagonist should be central to your story structure. Even if your antagonist is off-screen most of the time, he should either be present or his presence should be felt at every major structural turning point in the story:

  • The Inciting Event (halfway through the First Act)
  • The First Plot Point (end of the First Act)
  • The First Pinch Point (quarter of the way through the Second Act)
  • The Midpoint or Second Plot Point (halfway through the book)
  • The Second Pinch Point (three-quarters of the way through the Second Act)
  • The Third Plot Point (end of the Second Act)
  • The Climax (second half of the Third Act)

Most obviously, the antagonist should be found in a direct and decisive confrontation with the protagonist at the Climactic Moment, which ends the story’s conflict one way or another. What is less obvious is that the Climactic Moment bookends the Inciting Event. Even if the antagonist is not physically present in the Inciting Event, which initially engages your protagonist with the main conflict in a Call to Adventure, the Inciting Event will still set up who or what will be the story’s antagonistic force.

The Inciting Event asks a question the Climactic Moment should answer. For the story to maintain coherence, the two must be joined, and the antagonistic force is the glue. If your story’s Climactic Moment deals with an antagonistic force that was not set up in the Inciting Event, then you can be pretty sure your plot’s throughline has gone off the rails somewhere along the line.

***

If you find yourself struggling with your plot, take a look at your antagonist. If he’s not quite measuring up to any of the above considerations, then he may be the reason your story as a whole isn’t working. Strengthen your antagonist’s motivations, and you will strengthen your entire story.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What are your antagonist’s motivations in your current story? Tell me in the comments!

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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.

Comments

  1. In the case of my main antagonist his motivation is simple:

    His father abused him, because he was a thoughtful, intellectual boy and his father was a raucous sports fanatic. He scraped together enough cash for a ticket to another planet. When he turned up at the spaceport ticket deck with a pile of tattered stellar mark notes, the nice lady on the desk thought he was lost and took him home to dad.

    Now he seriously hates women in uniform, Arcturian Interstellar Space Lines and the Arcturian monopoly on interstellar travel. He’s determined to exact revenge on them and at the same time make a vast amount of money. He’s taught his own son to think the same way.

    Then he discovers that the person who has got the better of his plan in the early stages is a young Arcturian officer, First Lieutenant Jane Gould. Now watch the sparks fly…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      And does his son follow in his footsteps?

      • I usually think of the antagonist’s diabolical plan when I’m writing the story. I’m a Pantser. I will experiment with writing the Antagonist’s P.O.V. before writing. Thank you.

  2. I’m glad you mentioned that for some types of stories, a pure evil villain is okay. I love stories that play the strait-up good versus evil conflict.

    That said, I’ve been working to break the habit of making evil-just-for-the-sake-of-evil my default. My current villain has `stop being banished and return home’ as his goal. He’d do anything to achieve it except repent, change his ways, and humbly ask for a pardon. That would be just too demeaning for someone who used to be a powerful warlord.

  3. I have a Fantasy story I am writing/outlining at the moment.
    Set in a post revolutionary world, that has killed it’s oppressive king (The Tsar). A group of heroes is sent to the end of the world, to preform a ritual. which used to be undertaken every generation to stop the world from falling in to chaos, until now had been outlawed under the Tsar.
    Our heroes attempt to make it to the end of the world, liberating towns and cities as they go. spreading the news that the Tsar is dead. Yet the further they go the more their morals get twisted and motivations become questionable.

    Having a main antagonist Has been a bit of an after thought for me. as I felt like in this setting. The Tsar WAS the antagonist, how the world deals with these scars, and that would be the conflict. Or the world is the antagonist, pushing our heroes over the edge. Or that one of our heroes suffers a break after all the stressful events and gradually becomes the villain.
    As it is, I have loosely added a villain to the story (Called Virrin), who chases our heroes across the world, trying to stop them. Putting a sense of urgency on the plot to make the heroes move faster.
    Yet still I question myself, if I took Virrin out of the story, would there still be enough conflict to drive the plot? Would he really add that much? or would it be better to have no specific “Evil” force, just people trying to do their best and gradually stepping over the line of their morality for the benefit of “Saving the world” yet leading them down a dark path.

    Should a villain exist here?
    I would appreciate any help

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s totally possible for the main antagonistic force to be just that–a force–rather than a person. The best way to tell who or what is the main antagonist (and thus if it has been set up properly throughout the story’s structure) is to examine the final confrontation in the Climax. What or who is presenting the final obstacle the protagonist must try overcome in reaching the plot goal?

  4. Once again, a solid exploration of something people don’t understand enough.

    I think so much of it comes down to simplifying and justifying the antagonist’s goal. A goal that doesn’t come through clearly or seems off amounts to an empty plot device. But when we lay out that after what a character is and what they’ve been through, they simply HAVE to get in the character’s way… *that’s* leap-off-the-page threatening.

    (Really that’s the whole reason to use an antagonist rather than harsh weather or bad luck, for how a person goes after the hero with an active, committed will backed by a history. The less inevitable that seems, the more that person just is a plot device.)

    And making that goal tempting to the hero (and the reader) is taking that up another level. Of course we need to see that the villain won’t stop, but it’s so much better if we find it harder to blame him at all. “Evil” (or “Me vs you”) is easy to build a story around, but it ignores how in the real world actual people (not just destined villains) end up on the wrong side all the time. The best stories explore how easy that tragedy is, or even make us wonder if we already are wrong.

    A story rarely has more energy than its hero, or its antagonist — whichever is weaker. And we don’t get a worthy antagonist without a reason that’s simple enough to work.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Agree. This is why, when possible, it’s often most powerful to have the protagonist catalyze the antagonist’s motivation. In other words, at some level, it’s the protagonist’s “fault” that he or she is in this mess with the antagonist.

  5. I have an archetypal Main Villain, who is a primordial force of evil. However, the Primordial Evil is off screen. The onscreen henchmen have recognizable, more down-to-Earth motives.

    Gangsters complain about the management of their gangster organization, using arguments that my coworkers have used about the management of our office. Problems like unclear objectives or half-baked plans, only the cost for them is their lives.

    Then there’s the king who is resentful that a prophet called the legitimacy of his rule into question. The king was so determined to keep his crown that he made a bargain with the Primordial Evil. His soldiers swore an oath to serve their king, but that was before they knew he was wicked. Now they fear divine retribution, not to mention more temporal terrors.

    A while back I started to read a book that completely embodied the topic of today’s post. Per Dorothy Parker, I would have *hurled* it across the room with great force … except it was on my Kindle. The villain’s motive, stated in the first couple of pages of the book, was so simple and childish I just could not compute. His motives would have made sense if he were 12, but he was an admiral holding a grudge over a minor slight that happened decades before the book begins.

    But, the book was a great lesson in why the antagonist’s motives need to make sense, so it had that going for it 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      What you’ve described is often a good way to get the “best of both worlds.” You get the powerful, mindless personification of Evil, but you also to get to explore how this archetypal force realistically affects actual nuanced human beings.

  6. Good article.

  7. This article delivered, helping me think about how to adjust my antagonist’s motivations to make a more compelling storyline. Thank you!

  8. Lots of food for thought here. In my last novel, there were many antagonists because everybody in the town bullied the protagonist. Now,I thinking how many of these guidelines I actually followed.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      For me, it’s a constant onwards-and-upwards journey with my implementation of the antagonistic force. There hasn’t been a book yet where I feel I’ve done it perfectly.

  9. I’m sorry you’ve been blocked. Thank you for another interesting and timely post! I’m writing a paranormal romance trilogy at the moment, and it feels like I’m working with two antagonists. The main antagonist is one lover’s low self esteem that keeps the pair at arm’s length, and then there’s the external force that threatens them (and others) physically. It’s almost like a double plot working as one. I’ll definitely think more about my antagonist now. It’s tough working with big bad whatever because in real life, I think the scariest part of evil is it’s banality

  10. Once again, I’ve been feverishly taking notes. Once I realized that my protagonist’s motivation for getting involved in the murder investigation was too weak, I made great strides. However, after reading this, I realize my antagonist’s motivation just isn’t strong enough either. He’s a childish man having an extramarital affair with an underage girl. I think he needs to begin to fear that the girl is getting close enough to the protagonist to possibly start confiding in her. How does he try to put the kibosh on that? Getting some ideas!

  11. When I started, I skim read the article. Then as I read more, it just made sense. My thoughts turned to my current work in progress and realised that I’d actually picked the wrong person as my antagonist. Wow. I can’t thank you enough. I think; as I’ve got to think through the story (again).

  12. This post was very helpful to me. I have been struggling to pin down the last 25% of my story. I know the true antagonist and her motivations, but she is not revealed as the actual force behind everything until the climax (or possibly the 3rd Plot pt). I want my protagonist to suspect a false opponent-ally, so getting all the false flags as well as the *real* antagonist’s actions to line up, while increasing the pressure, dropping hints, but holding back the Reveal…is so challenging.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Stories like that can be very complex to create. When done well though, readers love ’em! 😀

  13. Angelo Fresnedi says

    Hi,

    My main antagonist is someone who was dismissed from his position as a superintendent for a military academy because of the health issues he’s experiencing as he ages. I want his goal to be trying to reclaim his position. He would do this by pretending to side with the enemies of the military, a tribe that lives in hiding who do attacks on cities and towns. He would pretend to side with them only to bring the tribe out of hiding so that they can all be exposed to the military and the main antagonist believes this will get him accepted as superintendent again.

    That being said after reading this article I’m having second thoughts. Would the reason (wanting his position back) just seem too ridiculous to justify the large scale atrocity (taking the tribe out of hiding to be captured)? I was also thinking I could just make the main antagonist side with the tribe for real to bring down the military and the academy out of revenge but would that be another thing that’s too ridiculous given the reason?

    Thank you for your time.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It depends on whether the strategy aligns with the antagonist’s own moral code (i.e., is this something he would have contemplated *before* getting kicked out?) and/or whether it is actually a sound plan (i.e., its chances for success outweigh its risks).

  14. My novel, a political thriller, has multiple antagonists. They conspire together for their personal political power and/or financial gain. A large part of the novel is about his uncovering of additional antagonists as the plot unfolds and the stakes increase with each discovery.

    Are there any additional or different considerations when dealing with multiple antagonists rather than just one?

  15. Thanks! Very informative article.

  16. I enjoy good v evil plots. In my fantasy series, my villain is actually a charming character when he wants to be. He was sold into slavery as a punishment for using magic, the use of which was banned, and to appease raiders from across the sea. In growing up, he learns to control his magic, and returns to the land next to where he was born. There he rises to be the Master of that land. He plots to return to his birth country and wreak vengeance on its people. The protagonist discovered his intended actions in Book 2, but not the details.

    However, in my current wip, a historical novel, jealousy is the antagonist. My protagonist has to work through her feelings, and repent of her actions from her jealousy.

  17. This post made me realize that my antagonist and my protagonist are operating from the same kind of black moment in their history. My antagonist, Conrad, is raised in a hovel, always ashamed, yet sees himself as so much better. Stronger, smarter and more capable than his lush of a father. Abhors his mother’s whiny weakness. Steals his mom’s grocery money and a six pack of his dad’s beer (irony here) and hits the road mid teens. He’ll find a way to show everyone just how superior he is and there’s no boundary he won’t cross. Years of growth later, Oak Knoll looks like the perfect place for him to spread his goodwill and become the town’s darling.

    My protagonist, Samantha aka Sam, overhears a conversation between her parents when she is in early teens that convinces her she isn’t as smart or as creative and industrious as her sisters. She is the weak link that will need extra help on most levels. Sam leaves home right out of high school and teams up with a construction crew doing remodels. Putting to use the skills taught her by her fathers, she does well until…Dad’s death in a questionable car accident forces her back home, and the stipulations of her’s dad’s will keeps her tied to home for at least a year. Oak Knoll is the last place she wants to be.

    She and Conrad are both struggling with their inner demons to prove their worth and now the struggle will be with and against each other.

    You’ve given me so much to work on with and for my antagonist! Thanks so much. I’ve been stalled for so long, but I’m finally excited about going forward with my book.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s great when there’s a solid link or reflection between protagonist and antagonist. So many juicy thematic possibilities to explore!

  18. Thank you. I find it interesting how the antagonist links into the thematic statement. Actually, I am looking forward to that new book of yours on that subject! 🙂

  19. Robert Plowman says

    Excellent piece Katie! You’ve given me an insight into motivation that I need to work into the end of my story. Thank you so much.

  20. When I started my WIP, I thought that my antagonist would be a narcissistic former employer with a mean streak who pushed the weakened protagonist down a spiral of depression by firing him. As I wrote, it became clear that the former employer needed to be a stronger character. Oddly enough, that strength came by humanizing him and showing his choices to be motivated by struggles in his own life (a daughter’s cancer diagnosis). Now it seems more clear that the ultimate antagonistic force is the protagonist’s own pride. It’s like the former employer was a red herring. The protagonist’s pride has been raised as a topic but he still doesn’t get it. The plan, now, is to have him accept the reality and then resolve the conflict by solving a high stakes problem with the help of a team, rather than trying to mask his pride by claiming to need to be “good enough” to support his team members needs.

    Your article has helped me think through some of these issues. It will help as I go back through the story to tighten up motivations and the interactions with other main characters.

    Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Now it seems more clear that the ultimate antagonistic force is the protagonist’s own pride. It’s like the former employer was a red herring.”

      This is actually a broadly true statement. Even in stories with a very specific antagonist, that antagonist is still metaphorically a symbol of the protagonist’s own inner struggle with himself.

  21. Great article, Katie! Some good things to consider here. Interesting to consider whether the baddies of my story should find a middle ground between archetypal (like Anton from No Country for Old Men) or more nuanced (like Thanos of Avengers). Whether or not the main characters are archetypal or not, there generally always seems to be a character that represents the humanized approach to their motivation. I think having those different facets blends to give us everything our minds craves when we dive into a story! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, just as we can use supporting characters to illustrate and develop various aspects of the protagonist’s personality, we can do the same with the antagonist’s proxies as well.

  22. On your second point – crazy/insane antagonists need a reason even more than the rational ones do. That reason itself is likely to be insane, but it’s strong. Perhaps they think the hero is out to get them (rather like the guy Arthur Dent accidentally killed in countless reincarnations). Perhaps they want to end reality itself to stop the voices in their head. Perhaps they think the demonic ritual will bring back their lost love. Perhaps, most horrible of all, they’re doing it for the good of the nation/world, and your hero is the criminal to them (a narrative that fits the more fanatical followers of pretty much every religious cult and totalitarian regime in history).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good point. We’re all delusional and unrealistic in one way or another. We can draw on these aspects in ourselves and emphasize them in creating scary motivations for our antagonists.

  23. Max Simmons says

    Great article and for me, you always hit the mark.
    My novel is based upon a military theme: a search to find a Taliban bomb-maker responsible for IED attacks in Afghanistan.

    My antagonist is seen as an ally or more to the point, a false ally. She seems to be going along with the protagonist, initially because she’s picked him to be part of her official search team. When he doesn’t measure up she sticks to him like glue to ensure he doesn’t become rogue and go off with the potential to mess up her plans.
    In the end, as he becomes fixated on achieving his goal (which is the same as hers), she gets her team to ‘eliminate’ him. In the end the protagonist dies while the antagonist escapes responsibility for his death and claims the prize.
    The point here is that it is only in the climax scene that her role is seen as deadly antagonist. Should I thread subtle clues throughout the story or just present it as an unexpected finality.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It depends on how developed the antagonist character is. If readers see her development as a nuanced character throughout, that’s probably more than enough.

  24. Douglas R Thompson says

    My antagonist is in love with a woman he has known since childhood, but she has married someone else. He kills her husband and then makes it look like the killer is after her as well. He then suddenly shows up, pretends to help her find the killer, and hopes she will fall in love with him in the process. This is a murder mystery, so I’ve just gave away the “who” in the “whodunit.”

    But do you think it can work?

  25. Thanks! Very useful, even if I am not writing in English. The antagonists are designed the same everywhere 🙂

  26. I enjoyed this article. I am, indeed, having difficulty pinning down my antagonist, largely because my antagonist is the main character herself – or more specifically, the socially imposed concepts that she needs to shed. How to give a face to that has been quite the dilemma and while I haven’t solved it yet, this article and its points will help me pin it down.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      As I mentioned a little further up in the comments, the metaphorical significance of the antagonist is to symbolically represent the protagonist’s inner struggle. Even in a story that puts the emphasis on this inner struggle front and center, it can still be very useful to create another character who can personify some of the protagonist’s struggles and allow her to project them outwards onto the plot conflict.

      • Absolutely agreed. Also as you put it, no conflict, no story. No antagonist, no conflict. The story is for children but it still MUST have conflict and an antagonist. This morning as I pondered it all, I started considering using a cat… It’s fantasy so the cat can be as vocal as I might need. And while I happen to adore cats, a cat would so readily personify the less flattering voice we each have in our heads. I’m still very much in the initial formation of my story so everything is mights and maybes. But a cat would work on many levels. Still trying the idea on, but this article has helped me bring into focus what I’ve been trying to figure out. Much appreciated! 🙂

  27. Great post! I just sent off a long and painful revision to my agent because I got so caught up with the emotions and motivations of my antagonist, I blunted some of the darker aspects of her character, which stunted the protagonist’s and the antagonist’s growth. There are so many ways to err in writing…

  28. Awesome post!!

    My antagonist had issue No. 2 in the first draft. It was in first person (I, me, mine) in the POV of the protagonist, so basically my antagonist was a blank page. All I knew was that he was a bad guy… doing bad things.

    On the second draft, everything changed for the better. I saw how narrow first person was for my story so I turned it into third person and introduced the antagonist and his life… which meant I had to add his reasons, motivations, feelings, morals… etc. And it opened up a whole other level of my story.

    I figured out that the theme isn’t just realized by the protagonist. The antagonist has a place too. His motivation was so emotional that I actually had to up the protagonist’s so that she didn’t seem too boring.

    So basically, what I’m saying is- figure out your antagonist. Ask him questions. I found so many co-themes that involve him and it helped so much.

    -Staci Ana

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I rarely write from my antagonist’s POV, and it definitely creates challenges in conveying him as a fully dimensional character.

  29. I’m writing a screenplay. A fantasy set in a sci-fi world.

    My antagonist has lived for centuries. A former warrior for the Light, he embraced the Darkness when the love of his life was taken from him. The Darkness affords him great power but it corrupts his physical body. As a result, he must continually reap lives to replenish his own.

    Having suffered the pain of loss over the centuries and with his own life nearing its end, his desire is free existence from the curse of death so that he and everyone else can be free to embrace their own immortal purpose. He believes the only way to accomplish this is to extinguish the Light and its remnants from existence.

    After reading your article and listening to your podcast, I’m thinking of ways to simplify these motives a bit. I appreciate your insights!

  30. In my current WIP I basically have two characters (or group of characters) both with the goal to save the world(s). What distinguishes them (and turn them into heroes or villains) are their methods rather than their motivations. It’s a bit of the opposite of the ends justifies the means. It works fairly well for rather epic motivations and actions… I guess the biggest problem, especially in this day and age, might be to make sure readers know what methods you’re condoning…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sometimes it’s worthwhile just to let readers figure out for themselves what *they* condone.

      • Heh! What I’ve understood, you never need to let a reader have their own opinion about your text. It comes naturally all by it’s own!

        However, I would probably not be writing at all unless I felt I had something important to say…

        …and of course, the world is not made in such a way that great literature consists of telling the readers what to like and not to like and then have them just go and do that… which is good, since “bad” people would abuse it thoroughly…

        …so instead I have to be all cloak and dagger about it and hide it in plain sight and have my characters live it or resist it and worry if some evil critic will say I’m saying the total opposite… It’s a chore! 🙂

  31. Jim Sutherland says

    I currently have two stories on the go and am bouncing back and forth as I lose / gain steam and ideas. The first is a small town story where a rash of arson fires draws help from the Provincial Fire Marshal’s office (story is in eastern Canada). To help with investigation, the Fire Marshal’s office makes a request to the largest city in the Province to send one of their investigators. The catch? The investigator grew up in the small town and left after high school, swearing never to return as he was bullied. The second catch? The Deputy Chief of the small town Fire Department, a guy who doesn’t want a “fancy big city know it all” in his business, is the guy who bullied the investigator when he was younger. It sets up conflict quite well…
    For motivation, the antagonist (Deputy Chief) was seen as a big shot in school and was tagged to go places. But a series of bad life decisions and mishaps meant he never left the small town, something he regrets but feels unable to change. He blames everyone else for his missed opportunities.

    While in high school, the investigator was seen as an unmotivated loser type who would never amount to anything, and he returns to his hometown with a well respected position and a six figure salary. The Deputy resents the investigator and will stop at nothing to make him look like the failure he once was. A plot twist (maybe the second pinch point… not there yet…) shows just how serious and deep the hatred really is.

    Story number two isn’t as fleshed out yet… still at the rough outline stage. It’s a historical story set in the Middle East around 60 – 70 AD. It starts at an academy in which there are two opposing schools of thought (and therefore two factions) fighting for control. One has the king’s favour, the other doesn’t. The one in favour gets tasked with a secret mission, the task falling to the right hand man of the academy Superior. The protagonist is sent on a quest by this Superior, a quest that is multi layered. What’s more the protagonist doesn’t really believe in the quest, his doubts making him ripe for manipulation by the antagonist. The competing faction leader secretly sends his right hand man out to undermine the protagonist and to compete the mission in hopes of swinging the king’s favour towards the lesser faction. The antagonist and the protagonist have been rivals for years, having entered the academy at the same time, and both have been tagged as the heir to their faction. Whomever is successful in the mission will gain the king’s favour and secure permanent control of the academy. The other will be removed.

    As I said, number two is a work in progress as it still isn’t fully fleshed out yet, but it does have some promise.

  32. Oooh this was a really great article! Thanks for writing it! Keeping it simple is so hard, but a really good reminder cause it’s true that my antagonist motives tend to lead to over complicated. My antagonist motive is avoiding internal and external conflict because he wants to keep those he loves safe. (I’ve definitely had to rework him down to size so he wasn’t so over complicated :P)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Keeping it simple is so hard.”

      Soooo true. This is the essence of mastering fiction all in a nutshell.

  33. This article came at the right time for me, so thanks a lot!

    Can you explain a bit more on how the Inciting Event asks a question that the Climactic Moment should be answering in the result of the battle/choice the protagonist makes in the Climax?
    I still have some issues picturing how the antagonistic force will be the glue that joins the Inciting Incident and the Climactic Moment together and I’d love to read more about this from you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s probably topic enough for a post. I’ll mull on it and see what I come up with!

      • And that post I’m reading right now! I’m glad you’ve turned your answer in a whole post on its own. I thought it might not be something that is easily answered in a reply back, and this way more people can learn from it as well.

        Ps. I’ve clicked the ‘Notify me of new comments via email’ on my previous post, but I didn’t receive a message in my inbox saying that you’ve replied to my previous post here. I do get your new articles in my inbox so that works, but is working.
        Is this an error on my part?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Honestly, I’m not sure how the notifications work. I know sometimes they get twitchy depending the WordPress version.

          Thanks for the post idea!

  34. Beverley Hanna says

    This take on antagonists makes so much sense. I too have been blocked for far too long, because I had the wrong antagonist. Now that I know what the antagonist is, I need to figure out a way to personalize an abstract idea, since the antagonist was never the human I thought it was. This makes telling the story both easier and harder, but in the end, it will also be much deeper and more meaningful. Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “This makes telling the story both easier and harder, but in the end, it will also be much deeper and more meaningful.”

      Totally how I’m feeling about my own story right now.

  35. I also have an antagonist who wishes to obliterate existence itself, unfortunately for him the reader does not get to see his or his group POV’s directly. I just hope through some very limited dialogue I can convey the time paradox they intent to fix is in their eyes an abomination to their beliefs an embarrassment to their society and for many of them a cause of deep personal loss.

    • Oops this message sent before I had finished writing it. Sorry for the errors.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        As a reader, I almost always prefer it when the antagonist is NOT given a POV. In part, this is because it requires such clever writing to make the story work without ever seeing life from inside the antagonist’s head. It’s not always easy, but the good news is that it can be done brilliantly.

  36. Thanks so much for your insight Katie. you have such an original take and mastery of story structure, and characters, it really helps me appreciate stories in a new way. I recently rewatched Ragnorok, and even though it was a while ago that you wrote it, I was still thinking about your excellent article on humour (excuse the Australian spelling). Thanks for all you do.

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  1. […] week I stumbled across K.M. Weiland’s 7 Considerations for Your Antagonist’s Motivations.  I’ve been looking askance at the protagonist in the mystery I am currently reading and now […]

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