How to Choose the Right Antagonist for Your Story

How to Choose the Right Antagonist for Your StoryPart 12 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel

What’s the secret of how to choose the right antagonist for your story? If you’re thinking it’s probably a little more complicated than simply making him a “bad” guy who’s out to get your protagonist, you’re definitely on the right track.

In fact, how to choose the right antagonist will influence everything about your story—from the coherency of its plot to the quality of its conflict to the focus of its theme.

In short, who will fill the role of your story’s antagonist is never a decision to be taken likely. Make the wrong decision and it could derail your story. Make the right decision, and it could be the key to making your entire book just click.

Today, let’s examine the qualifications of how to choose the right antagonist for your story.

Ant-Man: The Little-Big Addition to the Marvel Universe

Welcome to the twelfth installment in our serial exploration of the good and the bad in the Marvel movies. In light of that exploration, I find Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man a singularly interesting addition to the Marvel movies. For me, it’s a middle-of-the-road movie within the series, not so much because it’s a mediocre film as because my every reaction to it has an equal and opposite reaction to balance it.

  • It’s a unique film within the comic book genre: more heist than superhero.

Michael Pena Undercover Ant-Man

  • And yet… it also packs very few surprises, hitting the beats of its various storylines (heist, redemption, protege vs. mentor, superhero origin) mechanically and without much irony or subtext.

Ant-Man Suit

  • It’s big, bold new addition to the series, bringing in the first of an entirely new set of heroes—charmingly funny and earnest antihero Scott Lang.

Ant-Man Kiss

  • And yet, it somehow feels small in comparison to the previous heroic entries of Tony Stark, Thor, and Steve Rogers. Scott’s an add-on to the team, not a founding member—and it feels that way.

Ant-Man and Falcon

  • It throws in the unique twist of sidelining original Ant-Man Hank Pym as the mentor character, which gives audiences, in essence, two Ant-Mans for the price of one.

Michael Douglas Ant-Man Hank Pym

  • And yet, in doing so, it misaligns the conflict with its main antagonist, Darren Cross—Hank’s one-time protege and the rogue leader of his company.

Darren Cross Ant-Man Yellowjacket

And this is why Ant-Man offers a unique opportunity to study how to choose the right antagonist for your story. Objectively, Cross is the wrong antagonist for this story—and yet the story still makes it work.

Let’s take a look.

The 4 Qualifications of How to Choose the Right Antagonist

Want an antagonist who will help you take advantage of every aspect of your story? All you have to do is double-check him against the following four-part checklist.

1. The Antagonist Directly Opposes the Protagonist in the Plot

Let’s do a quick refresher on what an antagonist actually is. Boiled down to the lowest common denominator, an antagonist is nothing more or less than the obstacle between your protagonist and his goal.

As such, the right antagonist will always be directly opposed to your protagonist. He won’t stand off to the side of the road, taunting the protagonist or throwing rocks at him. Nope, he’ll be the guy right smack in the middle of the road, pointing a gun straight at your protagonist’s head and telling him to stand down or it’s curtains.

If he’s not in the middle of the road, then he’s not the main antagonist (and/or whatever is at the end of that road is the wrong goal for your protagonist to be pursuing in the main conflict).

How to Choose the Right Antagonist to Oppose Your Protagonist

Ask yourself:

Does Ant-Man‘s Antagonist Oppose Its Protagonist?

Ultimately, Cross is the wrong antagonist for Ant-Man simply because Scott Lang is the wrong protagonist. Granted, it’s kind of a chicken-and-egg problem. But the bottom line is that if Scott Lang is your protagonist, you must choose an antagonist directly opposed to his goals—and not Hank Pym’s.

In short, the choice of Cross as the main antagonist tells us this is really Hank Pym’s story, even though Scott is clearly set up as the protagonist.

Assuming, we want Scott as protagonist (which we obviously do), then a more appropriate antagonistic choice for him would be one that directly opposes his goal of staying clean, earning money, and regaining visitation rights with his daughter. Cross ends up opposing these goals, but only incidentally through Scott’s relationship with Hank.

Darren Cross and Hank Pym Ant-Man

2. The Antagonist Directly Opposes the Protagonist Thematically

The antagonist is a central cog in the wheel of your theme. Because he drives the external conflict—which is a visual metaphor for the protagonist’s inner conflict—he and the conflict he creates must be directly pertinent to the theme.

Now, granted, every character within your story should reflect upon some aspect of your theme in one way or another. But the main antagonist must be a direct commentary on your thematic premise. If he’s off chasing some other Lie or Truth—or even just a thematic blank—a crucial part of the thematic equation will be missing from your protagonist’s arc.

Alternatively, if the antagonist is not directly opposed to your protagonist in the conflict, then it doesn’t matter how thematically pertinent he is. His impact on the story simply won’t be as vital, because the protagonist’s personal discoveries won’t be directly connected to overcoming this external antagonist.

How to Choose the Right Antagonist to Thematically Oppose Your Protagonist

Ask yourself:

  • Does this character start out either
    • believing basically the same Lie as the protagonist?
    • believing a Truth contrary to the protagonist’s Lie?
  • Is this character painfully similar to the protagonist in some ways?
  • Is this character an example of either
    • someone the protagonist would desperately like to be?
    • someone the protagonist desperately wants to avoid being (or perhaps already is)?
  • Will this character be able to offer convincing thematic arguments with the potential to seduce the protagonist away from the story’s Truth—and, as a result, away from his story goal?

Does Ant-Man‘s Antagonist Thematically Oppose Its Protagonist?

There isn’t a ton of thematic depth in this movie, but what there is all revolves around parent/child relationships. Scott’s relationship with his loving, trusting daughter is one example. In this, he is following a similar path to Hank’s: except Scott succeeds in fulfilling his daughter’s trust, whereas Hank failed long ago with Hope after his wife’s death.

So far so good. Except… the antagonist Cross isn’t in a parental role. He’s in the child role, as resentful toward his former mentor Hank as is Hank’s daughter Hope. Cross certainly contributes to the theme, but his contributions relate more directly to Hank’s journey than to Scott’s. If Scott gets anything at all out of Cross’s insistence that Hank was a lousy father figure, it affects his own evolution only incidentally and subtextually.

Hank and Hope Pym Ant-Man

3. The Antagonist Is a Mirror for the Protagonist

As part and parcel of the antagonist’s thematic role, he needs to offer a jarring funhouse reflection of the protagonist. He is a representation of the protagonist’s dark side—of his Lie. Perhaps he is an omen of the protagonist’s future fate, or a consequence of the protagonist’s past choices, or a revelation of who the protagonist might have been in a different life.

The antagonist is almost always a “negative impact character,” one who influences the protagonist’s journey toward the light by forcing him to face the power of the Lie’s darkness. The more striking the similarities between these vastly different characters, the more opportunities you’ll have to explore and develop your theme.

How to Choose the Right Antagonist to Mirror Your Protagonist

Ask yourself:

  • What character best represents where the protagonist will end up if he takes the wrong path?
  • What character best represents where the protagonist wants to end up externally?
  • What character shares a similar backstory journey with your protagonist?
  • What character represents or shares similarities with your protagonist’s greatest failures to date?

Note that it’s not vital for your antagonist to represent the answer to all of these questions, but he should ideally be able to fulfill at least one of them.

Is Ant-Man‘s Antagonist a Mirror for Its Protagonist?

This is probably the one qualification Cross best fulfills for Scott, in that both are proteges of Hank Pym. Cross represents the dark potential of Scott’s relationship with Hank (and, also, much less directly, of the dark potential within Scott’s own relationship with his daughter if he fails her).

However, Cross is, by far, a better reflection of Hank than he is of Scott. Both are brilliant scientists. Both are ambitious and consumed with their discoveries. Both have invented shrinking suits, designed for warfare. Cross, in short, is Hank’s darkest self realized—made all the more poignant for Hank by the fact that he essentially created Cross.

Ant-Man-Photo-Darren-Cross-Talks-Down-Hank-Pym

4. The Antagonist Creates Obstacles for the Protagonist From the Start

In order to create and maintain a cohesive overarching narrative within your story, you must first have a cohesive and overarching conflict. That only happens when you have a main antagonist who is in position to oppose your protagonist’s main goals from page one (even if he doesn’t immediately reveal himself).

Even if your protagonist maintains a consistent plot goal throughout, if he is opposed by first one antagonist and then another, the consistency of both conflict and theme will suffer from the jerkiness.

It’s very possible both your protagonist and your antagonist will begin your story knowing nothing about each other. But they will still be obstructing each other, from the very beginning, in ways they won’t understand until a little later in the story. When the characters (and the readers) look back on your story, they should be able to see the main antagonist was in play from the very beginning, in one way or another.

How to Choose the Right Antagonist From the Start

Ask yourself:

  • What antagonist will be present in the Climax’s final confrontation?
  • How can this antagonist be the major opposing force against the protagonist at all of the major structural beats?
  • How can this antagonist be set up as an obstacle (or the inevitable potential for an obstacle) from the very first scene?
  • How will the protagonist “brush” against this antagonist’s power in the Inciting Event?
  • How will this antagonist drag your character into the main conflict at the First Plot Point?

Does Ant-Man‘s Antagonist Oppose Its Protagonist From the Start?

The short answer is: no. Protagonist Scott gets out of prison with the big story goal of reuniting with his daughter, for which he must earn money and stay out of trouble. His obstacles have everything to do with his criminal past and nothing whatsoever to do with Cross’s determination to create a functional Yellowjacket suit.

Scott’s conflict finally touches Cross’s when Hank recruits Scott to help him steal the Yellowjacket suit. But even then, Cross remains only a vague obstacle to Scott’s personal goals. Scott has no personal investment in opposing Cross—which robs their final showdown in his daughter’s bedroom of much of the personal power it might otherwise have wielded.

Once again, it is Hank who is directly opposed by Cross—on every possible level: professional, personal, practical, and thematic.

Train Fight Ant-Man

Why We Like Ant-Man Anyway

Did Ant-Man choose the wrong antagonist and/or protagonist? Without question.

Would it have been a better movie had it chosen an antagonist more suited to directly oppose Scott Lang? Definitely.

But, happily for us, it’s also an example of how, even when a story bombs on such an important element, it can still salvage itself through overall charm. This may not be a super-strong movie, but it’s still an utterly likable movie, driven by an utterly likable hero with an utterly relatable motive.

Ant-Man's Daughter

At the end of the day, those things are almost always more important than the finer points of antagonism and conflict. But just think how much more awesome your story can be if it gets all of that right, including finding the perfect antagonist for its specific conflict!

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about why Captain America: Civil War‘s gutsiest move was portraying its characters with honesty.

Previous Posts in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How did you decide to choose the right antagonist to directly oppose your protagonist throughout your story? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Kate, I have a question I’d welcome your thoughts on if you’d be so kind.

    I’ve been plotting through a story with a flat-arc protagonist who serves as the positive impact character and a main character following a positive change arc. If a protag knows and represents the truth, does the antag then represent the dark path the main character can go down if he doesn’t change his ways? I’m curious if some of the guidelines you outlined in the post shift in such a scenario, as I’m not sure my brain is working through the connections correctly.

    Thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The antagonist can represent many possible facets within the Lie/Truth dynamic (he can even represent the Truth). But having him act as a “negative impact character,” who tries to lure the protag toward the Lie and eventually pushes the protag toward the Truth, via his bad example, is an extremely legitimate approach.

      • A follow up question if you don’t mind.

        I have plotted out a different antagonist for the Main Character (an ally-opponent), and he drives the key turning points in Act Two. However, this character manipulates events so that the Protag and Main Character are under the impression that it’s the Main Antag driving the events. His deception is revealed at the third plot point, after which the Main Antag comes back into the fray.

        However, considering your points about making sure you choose the right antagonist, I was wondering if you think this would rob the main antagonist of his “rightness”. My Main Antag defeats my Protag at the First Plot Point, forcing him out of his Normal World, but taking this approach means the Main Antag then doesn’t directly oppose my Protag for the middle of the story.

        But does the fact that the Main Antag appears to be driving the opposition at the major structural beats in the second act allow him to remain the “right” antagonist?

  2. I am a newbie to your blog, but I am already learning a lot. (So far I have devoured several of your posts on character arc – I have found your thoughts on the Lie, and what the MC wants vs. what they need to be very helpful.)

    So it may be that my question is ill-informed or covered in another post that I have not read yet, but: what about stories that don’t have a human antagonist? I am thinking especially about horror stories, ones that focus on a paranormal or supernatural threat. Does a good horror story need a human antagonist who is intentionally or unintentionally helping the forces of evil?

    • To give a more specific example – the novel I am working on right now is about two young women who find themselves endangered by an ancient creature, a proto-God whose intentions are to pit them against one another to earn powerful and terrifying supernatural abilities. (In actuality, they would be earning the right to allow the creature to consume their soul and use their body as a human puppet for another generation.) But this creature’s primary goals are all based on instinct – this is how it survives and grows; it doesn’t have the capacity to empathize with humans and doesn’t realize or understand the harm it’s doing.

      There is a third human ‘character’ present but so far I have just been conceiving of her as a puppet the creature is using until it finds a more suitable long-term host. I am wondering if I should develope her more into a fully-fledged human antagonist, with her own reasons for helping the creature.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good question, especially since I pulled a potentially misleading stunt in slanting this post toward human antagonists. Short answer: no, your antagonist does not have to be human. In fact, I generally prefer the term “antagonistic force,” since it allows for any type of obstacle to fill this role within the story.

      Although you often get more mileage out of personifying your antagonistic force, you don’t have to. The most important thing to remember about antagonistic forces is that they are nothing more or less than an obstacle between the protagonist and his goals. As long as that obstacle is thematically pertinent, that’s what’s most important.

      • I would also think that using a human antagonist (in this case, making the puppet a more active antagonist) might affect the theme of the story, so it depends on whether you like where that takes the story. 🙂

        I also had a question about inhuman antagonists, since the antagonistic force in my WIP is a magic spell that the MC accidentally imbued with undesirable side effects (so the story is her figuring that out and how to undo it).

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I agree. One of the chief considerations in choosing the right antagonist(ic force) is finding the right one for your theme.

      • Thank you so much for your response!

  3. Thank you for your post, it’s very interesting, as usual. I currently stuggle with finding proper antagonist for my spase opera. My protagonist is war veteran, who left the army after getting severe injuries and PTSD – only to get in a different fight. She also is guilt-rided because of some war-crimes she commited and because of the death of her whole squad she feels responsible of. The whole story is supposed to be kind of antimilitaristic, so I think the main antagonist should have something to do whith her days in army, but I’m still not sure how to tie it up with her main goal to get redemption and a new life.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Take a look at whoever or whatever is creating the main obstacle between the protagonist that goal. Whoever it is, that’s the main antagonist.

    • This mirrors what I did in one of mine. When Jane was working undercover she, as part of her camouflage, went out a few times with young engineer called Alan. The relationship never got past hand-holding and going to a dance. Then, when the assignment is over, Jane explains that she must move on.
      Alan tries to find her again, and turns up uninvited while she is in an anti-terrorist operation. She tries to turn him away gently, this develops into a full-on argument and he storms off into the darkness.
      But in the dark of the empty spaceport a sniper, waiting for Jane, kills Alan by mistake.
      This devastates Jane. As a Space Fleet officer she is sworn to protect, but she has become the cause of Alan’s death.
      Somehow she must adjust to this and go on.
      And it is that adjusting that enables her to find the inner strength to take on a much deadlier situation.
      In the end she discovers that the major antagonist is also the man who gave the sniper his orders. It is by putting her life on the line to defeat him that she finds closure.
      That’s how I did it. I hope that will give you some ideas.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Good example, R. Obstacles don’t have to be physical ones. Sometimes the most devastating are those that are spiritual and emotional.

  4. Hannah Killian says:

    I might have to watch Frozen again, but this article is just solidifying my opinion that the twist shouldn’t have happened. I think Wreck-It-Ralph’s twist was better, since King Candy is opposed to Vanellope from the moment we see them interact. I think Ralph too, but I can’t remember. I’ve only seen it all the way through once.

    I also have to figure out the whole antagonist thing in my story. Like, the rebels are definitely antagonists, but they don’t feature much. I’d say the hero’s dad and cousin are antagonists, but. . .sigh. It’s a mess, even though I know where I want to go. I just need a few extra supplies.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s a good point about Frozen. I always found that twist unsatisfying, but never really thought about why. Now I’ll have to go back and watch too!

  5. Nikolaus Dubinin says:

    What a wonderful article. I’m thankful for this information, and for this site. Now comes my woe. I’m having trouble with picking the right antagonist from a short list of several faces.

    Story in the briefest brief: age gape romance most unexpected.

    But writing in an antagonist is the hardest thing. In short, I have no idea what kind of antagonist would play the role of opposing the protagonist/s without overpowering and crumpling the whole plot….

    I’m having a lot of trouble finding the right kind of antag – he or she who is in balance with the story.

    These soft hands are open to the alms of advice….

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Man against Himself is, of course, a time-honored storyform, so there’s nothing wrong with writing a book that centers primarily around a character’s inner conflict.

      However, that conflict will almost always manifest in the outer world as well. The best way to think of conflict is as a series of related obstacles that prevent the character from reaching her overall goal until the end of the story. The best way to think of an antagonistic force is as whoever or whatever is presenting those obstacles. (The antagonistic force’s moral alignment within the the story is irrelevant as far as the foundational conflict goes.)

      Take a look at what is consistently standing between your character and his goals throughout the story. Whatever you find, that’s your primary antagonistic force.

      • Nikolaus Dubinin says:

        Thank you so much for taking the time to reply to my cry for help. Alms truly cherished, and they won’t be wasted.

        I do enjoy the inner battle of character against self. Of course, I must. (This exercise in which I’m trying to find an antag is an example of one). And a few good tales still stand strong in which the antagonist is the external representation of the darkest side of the protagonist – his unruly twin. (Lolita, or even the Temple of Doom come to mind). The dark doppelganger.

        I suppose it is a case of fearlessly knowing the characters and not being afraid to embrace the mortality of the protagonist… even daring to throw the felling stone at him, once he is secure in his tree, and when his back is turned. Humanizing elements give shape and texture to flat figure outlines. The vast majority of characters, among the likeable ones, live mortal lives, after all; and every super human has his or her kryptonite.

        Now, I simply follow the path to where the stones are waiting to be thrown; or to where kryptonite first got its name.

        Again, many and every thanks. 🙂

        ND

  6. Hello, Miss Weiland! My main antagonist actually showed himself to me… I didn’t find him. It’s not like I had a choice. I am writing a story about the dead and angels, so the antagonist is Lucifer, obviously. However, I am having quite the trouble to discover how the hell (pun intended) he relates to my main protagonist, Hope (a selfless teenage boy who has medium powers and who has a guardian angel). Their paths seem to cross only towards the end… which is not what I want! I need them to be intertwined throughout the series….

    Do you have any tips about that?

    P.S.: I really enjoyed this post! Thanks for writing it because it made me think a bit more about my antagonist.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The best way to intertwine your protagonist’s journey with the antagonist’s is to scale back to look at the big picture. Instead of figuring out your plot starting with the protagonist and his goals, start with the antagonist, and then figure out how the protagonist will bring himself to the antagonist’s attention by getting in the way of those goals. More in this post: How to Plot a Book: Start With the Antagonist.

  7. mauricio says:

    I have two questions.

    1. Is it okay for a protagonist to fight against an antagonist while believing in a lie contrary to the antagonist’s truth but then come to agree with his opponent’s truth at the end of the plot? In a story I am currently writing, my main character wants to stop a rebel leader who tries to overthrow the person ruling their hometown; the main character believes he’ll always be a prisoner ruled under authority while the rebel leader believes the truth that people can free themselves, a truth that the main character agrees with at the end of the plot.

    2. Is it okay for the protagonist to fail in his main story goal? As an example, in the story I mentioned above, the main character fails in trying to stop the rebel leader from overthrowing the ruling authority.

  8. Molly Stegmeier says:

    I have two potential antagonists for my WIP. One is on the side of the Lie and one on the side of the Truth. Both directly oppose the protagonist in their own ways throughout the book, but the type of opposition switches. The one who represents the Truth seems more like an outright antagonist for most of the story, while the one on the side of the Lie seems more like an antagonistic ally. But as the protagonist comes to terms with the Truth by the end, they switch roles. If I go with the antagonist who poses the biggest threat at the end, which seems to be the way to go, can I reconcile that with the fact that, to the readers, it will seem like I switched antagonists? Part of the point of my story is the fact that my protagonist’s Lie has her chasing the wrong thing (the Thing She Wants) the whole time, so I don’t want to lose that.

    • Molly Stegmeier says:

      There’s also another character that would make for a super powerful and emotionally charged climax (more so than either of the ones I mentioned) precisely because she was a close ally of the protagonist the entire time (in fact, she’s her sister) and would be the one person who might be able to convince her to go back to the Lie. But she’s not opposed to the protagonist’s main goal (the Thing She Wants) for most of the book. She’s only opposed to her at the end because she still believes the Lie.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Take a look at your structural throughline. The antagonist should show up, in some form or another, at all the major beats.

        • Molly Stegmeier says:

          Both of my potential antagonists are there (and antagonizing her) at all the major points. I guess my question is, can I get away with having a ‘false’ antagonist for more than half the book, since the point of her arc is realizing she’s fighting the wrong battle? Especially since the real antagonist will have been there all along, just not at the forefront of her or the reader’s attention. Or would that be pulling a bait and switch on my readers?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            “False” antagonists can be done, but they’re really tricky. It can’t seem like a switcheroo in the end, but rather has to be a natural progression in which the real antagonist was backing the false one, in some measure or another, throughout.

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