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How to Choose the Right Antagonist for Any Type of Story

Here’s how to choose the right antagonist for your story. You know “If I Didn’t Have You”—that song John Goodman and Billy Crystal belt out at the end of Monsters, Inc.? It’s this total bromance duet about the undying friendship of our two favorite monsters. But pretty much every lyric in there could also be crooned in gratitude by any good protagonist to any good antagonist:

I wouldn’t be nothing
If I didn’t have you
I wouldn’t know where to go
Wouldn’t know what to do

The antagonist may not be the big-money reason readers pick up a book or audiences flock to a theater. But he is ultimately the reason the protagonist either a) has a reason to stop wasting her life eating potato chips on the couch or b) doesn’t just coast through every obstacle with boring ease.

So we gotta give our antagonists some love. For starters, this means crafting them with as much nuance and care as what we lavish on our protagonists. If you stand up an amazingly dimensional protagonist against a cardboard antagonist, it’s always going to show.

The antagonist is the flint to the protagonist’s steel, the immovable object to the protagonist’s unstoppable force, the destiny to the protagonist’s free choice. Apart, they may not even be that interesting. Together—whammo! Can anyone say Inciting Event?

But it’s not enough to throw a bad guy and a good guy in the ring together. It’s not even enough to dream up an antagonist who just happens to be opposed to your protagonist’s every move (although that’s way better). It’s also worth noting that giving the devil his due doesn’t mean giving him the spotlight. I feel like there’s an unfortunate trend these days toward overemphasizing the antagonist at the expense of the protagonist. Enemies-turned-antiheroes and redemptive arcs are all fine and well, but not at the expense of narrative integrity or, for that matter, proper use of character-audience identification.

The only way to get your protagonist and antagonist to sing in harmony is to craft them that way from the beginning. The harmonics in any story arise out of theme. Just as your protagonist must be carefully chosen/crafted to suit your theme (or vice versa), so too your antagonist.

There are many ways to approach this union of protagonist-antagonist-theme (which, ultimately, is just another representation of that trifecta of character-plot-theme). One of the best ways is to take cues from your protagonist’s character arc. If you know how your most important character will be thematically impacted by the events of the plot, then you will be able to holistically figure out how to choose the right antagonist, one who both impacts and is impacted by your protagonist’s changes.

5 Different Types of Antagonists

Usually, I prefer the more inclusive term “antagonistic force” since it doesn’t assume the antagonist is human. Today, we’ll be talking mostly about antagonists who are characters in their own right so I’m mostly using the term “antagonist,” but don’t forget the same principles apply, if only symbolically, even in stories that don’t offer a personified antagonist. Before we start exploring how your protagonist’s and antagonist’s character arcs might thematically influence each other, let’s first take a look at some broad categories of antagonistic forces.

1. Protagonist vs. Society

Here we have a protagonist facing off against not just an individual, but an entire society—usually one that is corrupt in some way. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (not to be confused with H.G. Wells’s book of the same title) and Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games represent this genre. However, even in stories of this epic scope, it’s usually best to personify the society in either a specific antagonist (Collins’s President Snow) or at least a series of symbolic characters (as in Invisible Man).

2. Protagonist vs. Nature

This would be any story in which the protagonist is trying to accomplish something (usually survival) in the face of weather (e.g., a hurricane), an unforgiving setting (e.g., a desert), an animal (e.g., predators), illness (e.g., epidemics—or, technically, zombies), etc. These stories may also introduce a human foe, but usually in the role of contagonist rather than antagonist. More often, the protagonist’s personal and thematic arc will interact with the faceless antagonistic force in a more symbolic manner—with the force of nature offering an externalization of the character’s inner battle.

What Jurassic Park Can Teach You About Compounding Conflict in Your Story

3. Protagonist vs. Self

Very few plots are literally about the Protagonist vs. Self. Even in stories in which the character’s internal conflict is the central focus, the conflict will also be externalized in some symbolic way. It could be the protagonist literally gets in his own way by self-destructively throwing up obstacles to his plot goal. But it could also be the struggle against self is represented on a grander scale by having it mirror a larger, faceless conflict (as in Protagonist vs. Nature or even Society) and/or that the protagonist’s inner demons are metaphorically represented by the various people he meets throughout the narrative.

4. Protagonist vs. Protagonist

Most of the time when we hear “protagonist” and “antagonist,” we think “good guy” and “bad guy.” But this isn’t actually accurate, since these terms are meant to indicate narrative function rather than moral alignment (it’s totally possible to have your protagonist be the most evil person in the story and your antagonist be the most angelic). This is most obvious in stories in which the antagonist is more of a co-protagonist. What this really means is that each protagonist is going to be creating the obstacles to the other’s plot goals. These stories are often great for exploring morally complicated themes. They’re also customary in romances, in which the central conflict is relational with both characters being equally important in the climactic decision to be (or not to be) together.

5. Protagonist vs. Antagonist

Finally, we have the classic setup of protagonist vs. antagonist. In this type of narrative, the protagonist represents the structural throughline—and, as such, the character with whom audiences are intended to identify. The antagonist is the person who stands in opposition to the protagonist after their goals turn out to be mutually exclusive. Almost always, the antagonist’s goals will predate the protagonist’s. The protagonist is the one who, for whatever reason, decides she must react to the antagonist, either to stop the antagonist from doing something or because the antagonist is the one trying to stop her.

Jessica Jones Kilgrave

The 3 Main Types of Story—and How to Choose the Right Antagonist Arc for Each

I’ve talked before about how you can view your entire plot as essentially one big thematic metaphor. But this only works if the antagonist is properly aligned within the theme as well as the plot. On a really abstract and zoomed-out level, you can think of your antagonist as the plot. Because he creates the obstacles to the protagonist’s plot goals, he is what creates the conflict—and the conflict is the plot.

What this means when we zoom back in is that your antagonist’s motives and actions must not just directly impact your protagonist in the plot, they must also impact your protagonist in the theme. Specifically, you want the antagonist to present a direct challenge to your protagonist’s thematic orientation. If your protagonist represents or will come to represent the thematic Truth, then your antagonist should be the thematic avatar of the Lie—and vice versa.

No one in the story should have a greater impact on your protagonist’s evolution from Lie to Truth (or Truth to Lie) than does your antagonist. This doesn’t mean the antagonist needs to sit down with the protag for an ideological or existential debate. It doesn’t even mean the two need to ever be physically present in the same room. But it does mean the protagonist’s character arc is catalyzed by the obstacles presented by the antagonist in the external plot.

Although there are myriad variations of character arc your protagonist might undertake in your story, we can group those variations within three broad categories. These categories, in turn, will offer guidance about what role your antagonist should play in both your story’s plot and, particularly, its theme.

1. If Your Protagonist Is Following a Positive-Change Arc…

In a Positive-Change Arc story, the protagonist will start out in a negative relationship to the thematic Truth. This means he will begin the story by resisting or outright rejecting the Truth in favor of an opposing Lie. As a direct result of the events created by the main conflict, the protagonist will be forced to confront the limitations of this Lie and start moving into an understanding and embrace of the Truth.

In response, the antagonist may take one of two thematic stances.

The first possibility will begin with an antagonist who also believes and represents the Lie. It may be exactly the same Lie the protagonist starts out with. Or it may be a “bigger” version of the Lie, to which the protagonist is initially attracted. Because of their similar alignment with the Lie, it may be the protagonist and antagonist start out on the same side of the conflict. Even if they represent differing goals, the protagonist will still be attracted to and feel an affinity to the antagonist—since, at least in their belief in the Lie, they are alike.

However, unlike the protagonist, who begins to see through the Lie in favor of the Truth, the antagonist will not change. By the story’s end, he will come to represent the full consequences of following the Lie and will probably be overcome by the protagonist’s new Truth.

The second possibility offers an antagonist who aligns with the Truth, opposes the protagonist’s Lie from the beginning, and eventually “breaks” the protagonist with the Truth as a way of helping her recognize that the Lie is unsustainable. This type of antagonist is less likely to be morally evil or ambiguous. Often, this type of antagonist is an important relationship character, such as the love interest in a romance. In order for the protagonist to be with the antagonist, the protagonist must overcome her destructive Lie-based mindset.

2. If Your Protagonist Is Following a Flat Arc…

In a Flat-Arc story, the protagonist does not change his primary thematic viewpoint. Thematically, he represents the Truth (or, less often and always tragically, the Lie). Because of his own powerful alignment to the theme, he will inspire change in other important characters by the end of the story. He will use his alignment with the theme to advance his plot goals.

Stories such as this, in which the protagonist does not personally change, usually present the thematic argument via opposing ideologies. As such, the antagonist will usually be equally resilient in representing the opposite side of the argument—the Lie if the protagonist represents the Truth, or vice versa.

In these stories, it is possible for the antagonist to undergo a change arc (either Positive or Negative) as a result of interacting with the protagonist. However, this can sometimes put the antagonist is a role of comparative weakness next to an immovable protagonist. A more powerful thematic argument (and thus story) usually arises when the antagonist is designed to represent the opposite, and equally forceful, side of the theme.

3. If Your Protagonist is Following a Negative-Change Arc…

Negative-Change Arcs offer more variation. The protagonist may start out in either a positive or negative relationship with the thematic Truth. As in a Positive-Arc story, she may start out already believing the Lie—in which case she will either arc into believing a disillusioning Truth or devolve into an even darker version of the Lie. She may also start out believing in the Truth, only to fall away into a Lie.

In these types of story, the antagonist may steadfastly represent the Truth, which will be futilely pitted against the protagonist’s Lie in a battle of ideologies. Or he will represent the Lie and serve to seduce the protagonist to her ultimate demise.

***

Both in creating plot and in creating theme, your two most important characters will always be your protagonist and antagonist. By figuring out how to choose the right antagonist, one whose plot actions are motivated by a thematically-appropriate relationship to the story’s posited Truth and Lie, you will all but guarantee a solid narrative. More than that, if you’re willing to deepen your understanding of your antagonist’s relationship to the theme, you can add even more nuance by mirroring your protagonist’s character arc with an equally powerful arc from a different perspective.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How do you choose the right antagonist for your 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. Once again very interesting, thank you.

    The only thing that I would add is that antagonists often see themselves as protagonists, believing that the evil they are doing is in fact good and necessary. Also there has to be a reason they became what they are, some ghastly turning point in their past which sent them to the dark side. This is what happened to Arthur:

    (Moira, Arthur’s ex-wife.) ‘Exactly. You’d not beat him because he wasn’t like the other lads. But that’s what Bruce Kelso did to his son, beat him till all that was left in the lad was hate.’
    (Annette, Space Fleet) ‘That’s dreadful.’
    ‘And you don’t know the worst of it. Bruce would come up beside the lad, hold his hand, and then turn on him. That was why Arthur could never stand my holding his hand, not if he wasn’t expecting it.’
    ‘Arthur—what did he do?’
    ‘He tried to run away, he scraped together enough for a ticket to Madoc—but your spaceline turned him back.’
    ‘That must have been dreadful for him.’
    ‘It was—but I can understand why. They saw a fourteen year old boy with a pile of creased stellar mark notes at a spaceport. Of course they looked for his parents—and found Bruce. They asked Arthur if everything was all right, but he was too frightened of Bruce to say it wasn’t. That hurt him. Late at night, if Arthur had been in drink, he’d say to me that one day he’d break the space line, and he’d decide where he went, not somebody in a uniform.’

    This explains Arthur’s hatred for women in uniform, so when Jane, in uniform, intrudes into his scheming:

    He (Arthur) clicked a switch and the tip of whatever he was holding began to glow first red then orange.
    Jane fought to tread water in a tidal wave of panic, her mind working furiously all the time. She refused to look at the glow, instead fixing Arthur with her eyes.
    ‘Jane,’ he said, almost pleading, ‘don’t make me do this to you.’
    ‘Arthur,’ she said, a cutting edge to her voice, ‘nobody is making you do anything. Whatever you do to me will be your fault, and yours alone. If there is a hell, and I pray that there is, you’ll burn in it for what you do.’
    ‘It’s almost a pity,’ he said, ‘you’re quite an attractive little thing. But after this,’ he moved his hand closer to her, ‘nobody will want to look at you, ever again. And you won’t have saved the drive. You’ll give in, one way or the other—none of it’ll have been worth the agony. So see sense, don’t make me.’
    ‘Make you? I’m not making you do anything.’

  2. My antagonist, the largest one, is someone who creates several conflicts which are much more personal to the protagonist than the overall conflict. She’s a princess and I’m exploring the concept of fairytale love in a world of arranged marriages and social climbing. She’s a fierce lady who wants to protect her country and the antagonist is trying to usurp the throne. She doesn’t want the throne, but she does want her country to be protected, at the expense of herself and other people. Which is where love comes it. Currently, there are several subplots revolving around forbidden love even her own mother, the queen and the princess needs to decide whether love is worth sacrificing her country over. I keep doubting the antagonist, because he doesn’t possess the same Lie as the princess but he helps her overcome her own Lie-based complex.

    • Simply, he isn’t personal to her, not in the way the other conflicts are. He’s mainly a plot device which I don’t really like and I’m struggling to dig down into him.

      • What are his motivations for usurping the throne? He has to have his own reasons for his actions, even if they have nothing to do with your Princess other than the fact she’s the heir to the throne. He has to want the kingdom for some reason OTHER than power in order to be relatable. Did he grow up in poverty and now he wants to use the kingdom’s wealth to actually fix the system? Was his father executed and now he wants to get revenge on the duke who ordered it? Don’t feel too bad if it doesn’t come right away… I was about 90,000 words into my first draft before my antagonist told me he wouldn’t do it that way and put a knife to my throat until I got his story right.

        • Oh wow. I like those ideas you’ve mentioned above. But the hard part is I need to align him with theme and character arc and I have no idea how to do that. Welp, back to the drawing board. But I’ll keep that motive thing in mind

          • Even if their lie is different and everything about them is different and the motivations aren’t something you can really “let” him have (ie let him get away with carrying out), if you can find a little bit of common ground, it can be momentous, even if it’s something tragic like the death of a loved one.

  3. I’m not entirely sure what pattern they follow—my protagonist is very young at the beginning and follows a sort of coming-of-age, disillusionment arc, but she is a stubborn (but not annoying) optimist, so it’s not necessarily a negative arc. My antagonist follows a very VERY shallow positive arc because of her quiet selflessness and because of his original plans falling apart between the 2nd pinch point and the 2nd plot point. I really appreciate your posts… my book would not be what it is becoming without your guidance!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Jenna’s points are great. I’d add that an antagonist doesn’t always need to start out “personally” connected to the protagonist in a practical way. In some stories, the main connection is more thematic, which then deepens as they begin to engage their at-odds goals in the conflict.

  4. Or, as the Joker tells Batman in The Dark Knight, “You complete me.”

  5. L.M. Norrman says

    Both my protagonist and antagonist are in a relationship of convenience but each with their own lies. He (protagonist) thinks the relationship is one of mutual no strings attached while her (antagonist) goal is to achieve monetary means through a criminal act. Once she purposefully creates an obstacle she knows exactly how he will react to, by fleeing, she flees to escape being caught by the officials. In my story the protagonist escapes to his family homestead where there are unresolved conflicts waiting for him and a new love interest that fights to tear down the carefully constructed walls his mind had for years built. While he is away the antagonist cast shades of guilt on him being responsible for her mysterious disappearance. So the whole time he is home she ends a criminal run that leaves his life’s work in shambles. Eventually his once midas touched life goes into a downward spiral that he sees no other way of fixing but to start where it had gone wrong and sets out to find her. In her way she tried to spare him the danger of catching up to her but in the end his need to make right the wrong he thought he had committed puts his life in the very danger she tried to protect him from. This is also where a spin off of her life was intended so even though she is the antagonist in this story she ends up the protagonist in the next story. This is difficult to tell without making it even lengthier. I hope my arch’s have legs! Thanks for any feedback.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sounds like a good story!

      • L.M. Norrman says

        You are an impressive young woman and this coming from you means a lot to me. I find your posts extremely helpful and am pleasantly surprised when I actually get what your teaching. There are teachers and then there are good teachers. You fall into the latter. Thank you and have a great Thanksgiving.

  6. Apologies for my English and I hope my question even makes sense.

    Would this be possible/should it happen?:
    The protagonist starts out believing the lie and at the end knows the truth and achieves their goal because of it.
    And at the same time:
    The antagonist starts out knowing the truth and at the end believes the lie and loses because of it.
    I’m not sure if this would work, because if the antagonist knows the truth, why has he not succeeded at his goal yet?
    Thank you for reading 🙂

  7. I am thankful for this post which is thoughtful and enlightening as always and wish you a happy thanksgiving!

  8. I want my antagonists to be more powerful than my protagonist to make it more impressive when my underdog protagonist wins.
    I was taught the antagonist “has the theme” meaning his/her actions force the hero to make choices which reflect the story’s theme.
    Great article, K.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ideally, the theme is manifest in every character in some way, but realizing that the antagonist is the thematic catalyst can be a gamechanger.

  9. Great insights (as usual). I realize that my true antagonist is the social issue that snares the protagonist and that the bad guys are spokesmen for the social issue. Each antagonist reflects this moral shortcoming in a different way. My protagonist doesn’t immediately realize that he’s fighting more than adversary. Wow! That’s really helpful in so many ways.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “The bad guys are spokesmen for the social issue.”

      This is a great way to think about the antagonistic force in some stories. Even when the true antagonistic force really is a “force,” it’s still usually most effective when that force is represented by a human proxy.

  10. TYPOS!!
    Memo to self: don’t write a comment while playing with the cat.

  11. Another deeply penetrating article. Thank you for all you do!! In my crime novel, the protagonist is the one who kills–albeit reluctantly because he’s been blackmailed into it by his partner in crime. The partner marries the victims and insures them, etc. I had assumed my antagonist was the female amateur detective who lures the killer and eventually entraps him. But based on the theme, I see now the antagonist is actually the killer’s partner. This new insight will help me rework–or at least rethink this book in important ways.

  12. Your opening comment about the song “If I Didn’t Have You” put a completely different tune in my head – one by Tim Minchin! At first the line “If I didn’t have you I’d probably have somebody else” didn’t gel with your post at all, and then I started thinking – what if you’re writing a series? It would be boring to always have the same villain…

  13. Jack Bannon says

    Story structure books and articles often seem to hinge on the lie the main character believes and the truth that sets him free, yet I wonder, is this lie an integral part of every plot? In some excellent books such as “The Martian” or “Never Go Back” there seems to be no lie in evidence despite the constant struggle. Is there something in these kinds of books that substitutes for the missing lie, or were they present and I just failed to ferret them out?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Some stories are more situation-based. But even in straight-up action stories, there is usually at least a basic Lie/Truth at play, even if it just as simple as “if I don’t get off this planet, I’m going to die.”

  14. Georgia Beard says

    This was a really informative article! I just wanted to ask, would a narrative work if the protagonist and the antagonist possessed different Lies and Truths?

    In my story, my protagonist believes the Lie that remaining silent and submissive will keep you safe from an oppressive force, and fighting against that force can only result in loss and suffering. She grows to learn the Truth that fighting this oppressive force is the only way to completely remove it, even if it means losing those you love – the freedom that comes after is worth that loss.

    I do have a secondary antagonist who mirrors this Lie and fails to change, which ultimately destroys him. He is a more personal character – a mentor/love interest – and represents what the protagonist could become if she also refused to change.

    However, my primary antagonist believes a completely unrelated Lie, which has a lot to do with the unhealthy need for approval and recognition from your superiors. I’m worried this will impact the effectiveness of this antagonist, who is quite an intimidating and dangerous villain and represents the oppressive force the protag is fighting against (mentioned in the protag’s Lie).

    So the villain represents an opposing force for the protagonist – he is trying to prevent her from achieving her goal, which would cause him to lose everything he’s worked for. They want opposite things, and their conflict (oppressed person VS oppressor) represents the theme. They also share common ground through their career passions, and the antagonist attempts to use this common ground to coerce the protag to his side.

    They just have completely unrelated personal discoveries.

    I’m not sure if I’ve given a clear-enough picture of my narrative, but ultimately I need to know if my primary antagonist can compel the protagonist to reject her Lie and accept her Truth despite having a different Lie/Truth.

    I hope this isn’t too difficult to answer! Thank you so much!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      All character arcs in a story should ideally relate to the main thematic idea in some way. However, they do not have to explicitly revolve around the same Lie/Truth. It sounds to me like your story does this just fine, as I would say both your protagonist and antagonist are on arcs that relate to their relationships with authority.

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