Archetypal Antagonists for Each of the Six Archetypal Character Arcs

Antagonists are an interesting consideration for any writer. So often, when we conceive or plot a story, the antagonist may be an afterthought—especially in genre or “plot-driven” fiction in which the antagonist is less likely to be in a relationship with the protagonist and more likely to be a “Big Bad” of some sort.

But in many ways, the antagonist in any type of story is the point. The antagonist is the reason there is a story at all. Without the antagonist—without something to oppose the protagonist’s forward progress or to prompt the protagonist’s growth through the necessity for evolving personal and social paradigms—we don’t have much of a story, do we? At the least, we don’t have much of a transformation.

And so it is just as worthwhile to examine archetypal antagonists as it is archetypal protagonists.

Earlier this year, I shared a lengthy series about archetypal character arcs. This series discussed certain archetypes of positive change, negative regression or stagnation, and “resting” or flat archetypes that intersperse the major transformational cycles of the human life.

Many of these archetypes interact with each other as one another’s antagonists. Particularly, the negative shadow archetypes can often be seen as both the inner and outer antagonists that positive archetypes (such as the Hero or the Queen) may have to overcome in order to complete their own character arcs. Within the series, I also recognized and mentioned, but did not discuss in depth, certain archetypal antagonists that are more abstract and not always characterized as specific human antagonists in the same way as the “negative archetypes.” Early on in that series’ publication, one of you asked that I explore these archetypal antagonistic forces in greater depth—a request for which I am very grateful, as it has prompted me to further exploration and thought on this evergreen topic of archetypal characters and arcs.

So today, I’m going to kick off a comparatively short (just [!] seven-part) series looking at the archetypal antagonists inherent within each of the six main archetypal “life arcs.” Following is an overview reminder of each of those arcs, as well as the adjoining archetypal antagonists we will be discussing in this new series:

1. The Maiden Arc

Archetypal Antagonists: Authority and Predator

2. The Hero Arc

Archetypal Antagonists: Dragon and Sick King

3. The Queen Arc

Archetypal Antagonists: Invader and Empty Throne

4. The King Arc

Archetypal Antagonists: Cataclysm and Rebel

5. The Crone Arc

Archetypal Antagonists: Death Blight and Tempter

6. The Mage Arc

Archetypal Antagonists: Evil and the Weakness of Humankind

In future posts, we will examine each of these more closely in relationship to the specific arcs. For today, I want to start with a quick overview of what these archetypal antagonists represent globally throughout the arcs.

What Is the Difference Between an Antagonist and an Antagonistic Force?

One of the reasons I didn’t thoroughly expand upon the archetypal antagonists in the original series was because the overarching thematic antagonists within each arc or journey are clearly abstract forces: Dragon, Cataclysm, Death, Evil, etc. Although they can be personified or anthropomorphized in certain types of stories (e.g., Smaug in The Hobbit or Death in Harry Potter‘s “The Tale of the Three Brothers”), in any “realistic” story, these forces will be symbolically represented by either a mere human, or a human system, or simply an abstraction that is never even named beyond the protagonist’s inner struggle (e.g., the “Evil” faced by Will Smith’s Mage character in The Legend of Bagger Vance is “merely” one man’s loss of meaning and purpose after suffering in World War I).

And this is where it becomes important to distinguish between an “antagonist” and an “antagonistic force.” Defined simply, the antagonist in a story is whoever or whatever consistently creates obstacles between the protagonist and his or her ultimate plot goal. Although the archetypal antagonists we will be discussing in this series are recognized as representing a moral corruption of some sort, the word “antagonist” in itself never indicates any kind of moral alignment. It is possible for the antagonist to be the most moral person in the story and the protagonist the least moral—which is often the case in stories with a Negative-Change Arc protagonist.

Therefore, the antagonist need not be human or even specifically conscious. Generally, the term “antagonist” can be used to distinguish a human (or humanized) antagonist, while the broader term “antagonistic force” can be used to indicate a more abstract form of obstacle to the protagonist’s forward progression.

More than that, it is both possible and prevalent to see a specific human antagonist “representing” a greater and more abstract antagonistic force. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, the Sorcerer Saruman is a proxy both directly (at times) for the greater antagonistic force of Sauron (a barely anthropomorphized representation of Evil) and as a human antagonist against whom the protagonists must do battle.

Antagonistic “forces,” even more than antagonists, have a tendency to be deeply thematic. They may even be nothing more within the story than a representation of the Lie the Protagonist Believes—and which the protagonist must overcome into order to continue down a growthful path. Even if a protagonist must physically defeat a human antagonist in the end, that final outward battle is really only a representation (an externalized metaphor) of the defeat of the greater thematic antagonist. Therefore, it is often useful and even desirable to create a story that offers both an antagonistic force and a specific antagonist to represent that abstract force within the actual plot conflict.

Inner and Outer Antagonists

As I began thinking about expanding on the archetypal antagonists, I realized all of the six main Positive-Change life arcs offered up inherently archetypal examples of both the thematic antagonistic force (e.g., the King’s Cataclysm) and a more practical plot-based antagonist represented by another character or characters (e.g., the King’s Rebels).

Whether or not you choose to characterize these separately, they offer the opportunity to more thoroughly examine your protagonist’s inner and outer conflicts—and how you can bring them together with cohesion and resonance. As you may have noticed in my above list of archetypal antagonists, I’ve added a few that weren’t directly specified as such in the original series. This is because I’ve put equal emphasis on both types of antagonist for each archetypal arc.

However, which antagonist is represented in the outer conflict and which is primarily a concern of the inner conflict will depend on how you choose to dramatize your story’s theme. For example, in a Maiden Arc, her inner conflict may concentrate on her own internalized sense of Authority while the Predator is externalized (as in Jane Eyre). Equally valid, however, would be the presentation of a disempowering and devouring Predator as her own inner critic, while she faces abusive or restrictive Authority in the external plot (as in Little Dorrit).

Really, they are two sides of the same coin—one representing the other but ultimately both representing the same thematic struggle. The emphasis of one over the other often depends on whether the story itself is more internal and relationship-driven or more external and action-driven. Regardless, your protagonist will confront both, in some guise, in the end. If the external antagonist is to be defeated, it is usually because the protagonist has already conquered the internal antagonist. Or, if the inner conflict isn’t much addressed within the story, then the destruction of the external antagonist can be seen as a metaphor for the character’s internal triumph over the greater antagonistic force.

Antagonists and Contagonists

Within the Dramatica system of story theory, Chris Huntley and Melanie Anne Phillips coined the term “Contagonist” to indicate an opposing force within the story who was not as directly opposed to the protagonist as the actual antagonist. Although sometimes the contagonist might be a direct proxy for the antagonist or what John Truby calls a “false ally,” the contagonist is just as likely to be a character who, at least on a plot level (if not a thematic one), is totally separate from the main antagonistic force.

The contagonist is a sort of “subplot antagonist,” one who may be closer to the protagonist than the actual “Big Bad” antagonist and who therefore has more influence over the protagonist’s internal conflict. The Dramatica system contrasts the contagonist with the mentor (in a supporting-character role). Together they act as the competing “devil” and “angel” on the protagonist’s shoulders, each seeking to be the Impact Character who influences the protagonist’s thematic choices and determine whether the protagonist will remain in the Lie or evolve into the Truth.

Although the archetypal-antagonist pairings we will be discussing will not always fall neatly into antagonist/contagonist roles, it is useful to keep this dynamic in mind as another way to examine the greater and more abstract thematic antagonistic force and the nearer and more intimate human antagonists that people your story.

Again, Saruman in Lord of the Rings presents a good example, in that he offers a specific human antagonist who can be seen to fill that role across archetypes, depending on which characters are opposing him: Heroes, Queens, Crones, Mages, etc. For example, he can be seen variously as the Sick King whose realm is dying because of his neglect and whom the “Hero” Frodo must heal, the Tyrant whom the “Queen” Aragorn must replace, and the Tempter whom the “Crone” Gandalf of the Gray must resist.

Saruman is the proxy of the overarching antagonistic force represented by Sauron, but he is also operating on his own account, sometimes even (secretly) in opposition to Sauron. His presence within the story allows the characters to confront different facets and embodiments of the overarching thematic antagonistic force—which would not have been available if they merely faced the Big Bad Sauron.

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In many ways, understanding your story’s antagonist and/or antagonistic force is the key not just to the plot but to understanding your story’s true thematic significance—whether it is specifically following an archetypal plot or not.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we will examine the Maiden’s archetypal antagonists, Authority and the Predator.

Related Posts:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you identify any archetypal antagonists or antagonistic forces you have portrayed in your own stories? 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. Grace Dvorachek says

    I must confess, I’ve been looking forward to this mini-series. Antagonists are one my favorite elements of a story–if done the right way. The part I most enjoy is making the human antagonist so… human. So right. So believable, that they make the choice between the Truth and the Lie harder still. That emphasizes the antagonist inside the MC as he struggles with this conflict.

    Can’t wait ’til the next post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “So believable, that they make the choice between the Truth and the Lie harder still.”

      This!

  2. Eric Troyer says

    Looking forward to the series. I really like the idea of the contagonist. I just watched the movie St. Vincent with Bill Murray. In that, the kid, Oliver, seems to mostly play a contagonist. In it, he plays the “most moral person in the story and the protagonist the least moral.” But I could see a situation in which a character plays both contagonist and antagonist as the relationship changes. Interesting stuff to think about.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If memory serves, I would put the kid as the protagonist. His is the throughline, if I remember correctly.

  3. Off to a great start with this block, and one I’m particularly keen on. I’m happy to see the emphasis on antagonistic forces as well as antagonists. This opens the door to Man vs. Nature type of stories, and provides for an element of depth. I’m happily looking forward to 6 weeks of you beating my brains out with these!

    Incidentally, in story talk, this is one place where I think Harry Potter excelled. She created a little universe of co/antagonists. Game of Thrones did the same. There’s a lesson in there somewhere for writers of epic fantasy.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s important to have a solid antagonistic throughline in serial fiction, but both the series you mention also do a great job of diversifying the antagonists throughout the story in thematically powerful ways.

  4. Joan Kessler says

    This introduction has me more curious about antagonists than I had been. I’m excited for another deep-dive session into character.

  5. Ingmar Albizu says

    Since I enjoyed and learned a lot from the previous series, I am looking forward to your analysis of the archetypal antagonists.
    Thank you, K.

  6. I also look forward to this series and watching you explore these concepts in greater depth.

  7. This looks like another fun, informative series! I wrote a contagonist in my latest trilogy, and he was a blast to write. He was basically a negative mentor who, unknowingly, steered my protagonist in the wrong direction, reinforced his Lie, etc. He bore no malice against the protagonist and actually thought of him as a son. I love writing characters like that.

    I actually had an antagonistic force (an evil corporation committing genocide against a species from another dimension and causing climate problems on Earth) and an antagonist that represented it. (The contagonist also worked for the corporation and oversaw my protagonist’s internship.) The whole thing was really fun. I miss writing it.

  8. Oh boy. What a clarifying post! Thank you, as always for this kind of deep dive into thematic material. In my WIP, a crime novel, the antagonistic force is justice itself, the demands of which would reveal information that would damage the crime victim, whom the protagonist–the detective–has come to love. So when he confronts the human antagonist, he is forced to bargain with him to conceal those damaging facts. In the end, he allows the antagonist to commit suicide without charging him with the crime. And the title of this WIP? Justice Deferred.

  9. This webpage is related to your series. Especially if you consider the polar opposite of your protagonist as being the antagonist. or even the same mbti type as the protagonist. https://astroligion.com/mbti-types-super-villains/

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s nice to see examinations of how all the types might be be villainous, rather than just focusing on the INTJ. :p

  10. I use the Enneagram to organize motivations AND who the antagonists are supposed to be. If the hero or heroine is a rugged individualist, a kind of champion (example: Superman) then the villain needs to be an intellectual. If the hero is seeking love, the villain needs to be a tyrant of some sort. If the hero is a patriot, loyalist, or anyone seeking to trust another or a group, then the villain needs to be a treacherous status-seeker.

    Love the idea of the contagonist. I’ve called that a “foil.” Not necessarily a villain, but a character who makes the hero’s life more miserable than it has to be. Sort of like J. Jonah Jameson with Spiderman (and Peter Parker).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve also found the Enneagram particularly helpful in understanding how personalities can digress into dangerous unhealth.

  11. This explanation about the antagonist, etc appears loaded inti describing only the Fantasy genre. This situation requires writ not doing Fantasy to transpose, hopefully accurately to be used in the genre they are working in. Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Fantasy is, itself, archetypal fiction, which means any discussion of archetypes will easily translate into stories of the fantasy genre. But when viewed symbolically, the archetypes can be translated and used in stories of any genre, even those that are hyper-realistic. I used examples from many different types of stories in the original series, which you can reference for inspiration about using archetypes in genres other than fantasy.

    • Hey Richard, you’re taking the labels too literally. Archetypes are everywhere. Check out her original series and the books she has listed for each post, but also look up Carl Jung. I think you’ll find his work very interesting. Archetypes help us frame reoccurring themes and patterns in life. They aren’t even helpful just for writing, they’re helpful for living a full, meaningful life.

      One of the books she mentions in her original series on archetypes is especially useful for men: King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Mature Masculine by Robert Moore and Doug Gillette. It has nothing to do with fantasy and everything to do with being a man. Cheers!

  12. Am familiar with Jung and Moore. The issue is the blog wasn’t clearly written to advise using archetypes in a flexible way in different genres. That was necessary. Thank you.

  13. On the question of the Lie the hero believes – do you think the hero needs to believe both and internal lie and an external lie?

    I find this way of thinking about a character’s flaws deeply significant, but also somewhat puzzling. I think because so much of a writer’s story theme and heroic journey comes from our own lives – and it is not easy to discover the lies we ourselves are believing.

    Do you think it is when the external lies are tripping the hero up in their outer life that they begin to examine what inside them is contributing to these disasters? (And I guess that is what we need to do in our own lives – yet how easy it is to ignore or downplay the evidence and blame others!)

    So looking forward to this series and getting some deeper understanding of how to pair up hero’s and their antagonists. Thank you for your brilliant posts.

  14. This is fantastic. Thanks for continuing the series! I was thinking the Shadow Archetypes were the antagonists, and I am excited to see there is more to this.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Shadow archetypes definitely *can* be utilized as antagonists, but they are not in themselves usually the primal antagonistic force within the archetypal arcs.

  15. Another gray area in this series.

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