how to plot your book start with the antagonist

How to Plot a Book: Start With the Antagonist

why plotting always starts with the antagonist pinterestI hate antagonists. Not so much because they’re, you know, the bad guys. No, I hate them because 90% of the time, they bore me into catatonia. Evil plan to take over the world? Yawn. Just please do whatever you gotta do to make the hero look good.

That’s how many authors approach their antagonists–as an external force who is present in the book solely for the purpose of giving the hero a reason to do all his cool hero-y stuff.

You may have planned almost all of your story–in your head, in an outline, or in a first draft–before giving even an afterthought to the antagonistic force. This is a mistake. Why? Because the antagonist is the catalyst for everything your hero does in his story.

TL;DR: Your antagonist is the catalyst for the entire plot.

In short, if you’re struggling with how to plot a book, the answer is easy: start with your antagonist.

The Plotting Mistake Almost All Authors Make

I’ll admit it if you will: my creative inspiration for my stories is always the protagonist. I can see him so clearly in my mind. There he is: going all Jason Bourne on some faceless thug, maybe weeping touchingly over a fallen comrade, then striking a melancholy heroic pose against the sunset. Let’s start writing!

But the plot? Hrm. You mean the reason why nameless thugs are coming after him, felling his comrades, and leaving him in such a melancholic mood? You mean the antagonistic force that’s opposing him for presumably watertight reasons?

Um, yeah, that’s a little blurry.

It’s no crime to start your creative process with the protagonist. He is, after all, the hero of the story–the whole reason for the story. He’s presumably the most interesting and likable person in the entire book.

But the protagonist doesn’t drive the plot.

If you sit down to plot your story and you start with your protagonist‘s desires, goals, and plans–then you’re coming at the whole thing backwards. Seems counter-intuitive, right? After all, that’s how almost all authors start their stories. If you look at the vast majority of the outlines I’ve written, that’s certainly how I have started.

That’s why I can tell you from experience that if you approach your plot this way, you will struggle throughout the entire process to maintain a linear line of cause-and-effect scenes, to create authentic antagonist motivations, and, frankly, to keep your entire conflict from feeling extraneous.

There Is No Plot Without the Antagonist

We think of the protagonist as being the point of the story. But he’s actually not. The antagonist is the point.

Think about it. Without the antagonist, there is no story. The antagonistic force is the obstacle between your character and his goal. Without that obstacle, the protagonist gets what he wants, no problem–and remains stagnated personally because he didn’t have to struggle to get it.

Almost all authors understand this. We understand that without conflict, we have no story. However, by the time we remember it, we’re already so deep into the protagonist’s adventures, we have to start manufacturing conflict by coming up with reasons for the antagonist to want to block the protagonist’s plan.

What results is not an organic plot.

But what happens when you flip this process on its head? What happens when you start figuring out how to plot your book by first examining what the antagonist wants and why his desires are inevitably going to interfere with the protagonist’s desires?

Now we’re talking about rock-solid cause and effect! We’re talking about the organic evolution of two people pitted against each other. We’re talking about a very realistic approach to conflict.

In real life, this is exactly how conflict works. The person who is in control of a conflict (which, in a story, is always your antagonist) does not plan his actions around the other person. Rather, the reactive person (which, in the beginning of your story, is always your protagonist) is bombarded by events outside of his control.

If you’re planning your conflict by deciding what you want your protagonist to do and then deciding what your antagonist should do–you’re plotting your cause and effect in entirely the wrong order. Not only is this likely to create a less-than-solid plot, it’s also going to make your job in plotting your novel about a dozen times harder.

How to Plot a Book Using Your Antagonist

I know, I know–when you start plotting your book, you’re undoubtedly chomping at the bit to start exploring your hero’s awesomeness.

Kung Fu Panda: There is no charge for awesomeness... or attractiveness.

But hang with me for a sec and exert a little patience. Before the hero can be awesome, you must first lay the foundation for your entire story by figuring out everything there is to figure out about your antagonist.

Sit down with your brainstorming tools of choice (mine are notebook and pen) and devote as much time as you need to answering the following questions:

1. Who Is Your Antagonist?

When I start plotting my stories, I usually have a foggy notion at best of who my antagonistic force will be. But before you can create a solid conflict for your story, you must first know who will be creating that conflict.

Remember: the antagonist doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad guy. He is merely an opponent to your protagonist. He is someone whose own personal desires and goals are going to create an obstacle between your protagonist and his goals. Moral relativity has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not a person is an antagonist. (In fact, the antagonist need not even be a person.)

Alien

2. What Does Your Antagonist Want?

Here’s the kicker. Your antagonist–just like your protagonist–will be defined by what he wants. If he doesn’t want anything, then he has no reason to get in your protag’s way.

And please note, it is not sufficient for the antagonist to simply want to get in the protag’s way. It’s not enough for him to want to obstruct the protag’s goals just because. He should start the story totally unconcerned by your protag’s goals. It’s his goals that are driving the story in the beginning. If he’s only in the story to splash mud on your protagonist, kill his puppy, or ruin his chances for promotion–just because he doesn’t like the protag–then you can be pretty sure you’ve created a stagnant, one-dimensional antagonist.

The antagonist comes alive only when he is dynamic in his own personal desires and drive. He will not directly care about destroying the protagonist until that moment with the protagonist gets in his way.

alan-rickman-Die Hard

3. Why Does Your Antagonist Want What He Wants?

This is arguably the single most important factor in creating a dynamic and realistic antagonist. As stated above, it’s not enough for the antagonist to be mean to the protag simply because he’s, you know, the bad guy.

The antagonist must have a compelling and watertight motivation for his story goal. This is where you look your antagonist in the eye and pretend, for the moment, he’s the hero of his own story.

Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story.

What Ghost is motivating him? Why does he believe his actions are right? How does he justify his beliefs?

The more convincing his motivation, the more compelling your conflict (and your theme) will be. The best antagonists are those that make both the protagonist and the reader sit back and think, even if only for just a second, What if he’s right?

4. What Is the Antagonist’s Plan for Getting What He Wants?

Here’s where the plotting starts in earnest. Your antagonist’s plan for getting what he wants–and, eventually, for directly opposing the protagonist when he starts getting in his way–is the foundation for your entire plot.

What’s his plan for achieving his goal and gaining his desire? And how does the protag’s goal get in his way? How do the goals interfere with each other?

Daniel Bruhl Baron Zemo Captain American Civil War

Boom. Just like that, you have an organic conflict between two people who are deeply invested, for solid and personal reasons, in making sure the other person never gets what he wants.

5. What Is the Thematic Significance of Your Antagonist’s Goal?

The other advantage to plotting your antagonist’s motives, goals, and plans first is that it gives you a clearer picture of the thematic questions your conflict will be raising. The heart of your theme will always be nestled within the comparisons and contrasts of your protagonist and antagonist. The ways in which their values are both similar and opposite will present and prove your story’s moral premise.

Venn Diagram Protagonist Antagonist Theme

If you start plotting by basing your theme solely on your protagonist and his inner arc, then it’s all too possible that your outer conflict will be only indirectly related (if at all). The result is a story with a scattered, or even perhaps even divided, focus.

If, however, you begin with an understanding of what your antagonist is after and why your protagonist must stop him–you can then use this outer conflict to create organic catalyst after organic catalyst within your protagonist’s inner evolution.

The 5 Types of Antagonist-Driven Stakes

Depending on the nature of your story, you will probably need to answer the above questions in regard to as many as five different antagonistic forces. I’ve just started outlining Dreambreaker, the sequel to my portal fantasy Dreamlander (yay!). This is epic fantasy, so it incorporates all five levels of conflict. To fully understand the conflicts my heroes will be facing, I have to make sure I’ve laid the foundation for all five levels of antagonism before I can fully decide what my heroes will be doing and the choices they will be making within the plot.

5 LEVELS OF ANTAGONIST-DRIVEN STORY STAKES

Ask yourself, what antagonist is driving the following:

1. Global Stakes

These are massive, world-ending stakes, driven by an antagonist who wants to take over or destroy the world. A non-human antagonistic force–such as the asteroid in Armageddon–also qualifies. In fact, often (but certainly not always), global antagonists will end up being impersonal threats.

2. International Stakes

These are stakes between countries. Think World War II, the Hundred Years War, Game of Thrones. When you’re dealing with stakes on such a massive level, you will still want to narrow down the overall threat to a single, personified antagonist driving his country’s choices (e.g., in World War II, the antagonist isn’t “Germany,” but rather “Hitler”).

3. National Stakes

Let’s say your hero is King Arthur. He’s out there taking on the international stakes and whupping all neighboring kings and kingdoms. But he’s also dealing with national stakes within his own country: some of his Knights of the Round Table are plotting regicide.

4. Public Stakes

Now, we’re narrowing our focus into the protagonist’s private circle. We’re looking for conflict amongst the people with whom he interacts every day: co-workers, family, even friends. Remember, antagonists don’t have to be “bad.” They don’t even have to dislike the protagonist. They just have to oppose his goals–and they can be doing that with the best of intentions.

5. Personal Stakes

And, finally, we have what is, for my money, the most interesting type of conflict: relational conflict. This is conflict between the protagonist and the most important supporting characters: the relationship characters. In a romance, this is the kind of the conflict that arises between the leads and keeps them apart for the entire story.

But What About My Protagonist?

At this point, you might be thinking: This all makes sense, but… what about my protagonist? Likely, you’re coming to your story with at least a good handful of awesome scenes that all revolve around your protagonist. Your antagonist might not even be present in them. You also probably have a good sense of who your protagonist is, what he wants, and how his character arc is going to evolve.

Do you now have to scrap all that in pursuit of your antagonist?

Not at all. Use what you already know about your protagonist and your story to craft an antagonistic force that takes perfect advantage of these elements. For example, if you know your hero is going to be forcefully conscripted into an enemy army, while his wife and family are torn away from him and sent to a concentration camp, then you also probably know his goal is going to be to escape and rescue his family.

No problem. All you have to do is fill in the blanks by asking yourself what kind of antagonist would create this situation. Before you go any further with your protagonist’s journey, start working on that antagonist. Answer all the above questions about him. Lay the foundation for the horrible world in which your hero lives. Create a formidable opponent for him.

Then turn your hero loose within this conflict, force him figure out how to react to your antagonist–and watch as your story develops a rock-solid, cohesive plot built around the epic struggle between two equally dynamic characters.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Who is your antagonist, what does he want, and how is the protagonist going to interfere with his desires? 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. Huh.
    I’ve never had a problem with ‘starting with the antagonist’, as you say. Half the time, they’re the character who inspires the story in the first place.

    This is a great post on how the antag and protag are interrelated, and can help with reverse engineering too. (To figure out your protagonist)

    😉

  2. TYPO – or rather a punctuation mistake.
    YOU WROTE: This is arguably the single most important factor in creating a dynamic and realistic antagonist. As stated above, it’s not enough for the antagonist to be mean to the protag simply because he’s, you know, the bad guy,

    sentence ended with a comma.

  3. Woah! That was weird, I opened the link in the email you sent about this and all of this blogs layout format was gone, it was just a bunch of links on the left side. You might want to look into this.

    Didn’t you just send this posting not that long ago? I sear you did … If course with me a year can feel like a day as my sense of time is erratic.

    This is still a great article. I too started with the protog, then, I think somewhere in the second year of struggling with the book the antagonists voice got stronger and now has equal time with the protagonist. This works as they are “sharing” the same body. It makes for some interesting conversions they have with each other (in her mind.)

    I love my antagonists without them it would be a heck of boring story!

  4. I have two questions.

    How would you write the goals and motivation for an antagonistic force such as man vs. society? Would it be better if I used a human antagonist to represent the bigger societal antagonist’s goals and motivations?

    For man vs. self conflict, how would you write goals and motivations for the antagonist if he is the protagonist himself?

    • I have a couple of comments:

      1) An example of Man vs Nature is “The Perfect Storm.” The protagonist has a goal which involves a job or a mission, but this time nature isn’t cooperating and presents a risk, even to his life. He has a choice to make, with consequences either way.

      2) Man vs Society – My WIP is a romance between a guy in college and a girl in high school who is also his cousin. Too far apart in age, too close in relation. He’s had to wait for love and found it in the wrong place. They have to worry about the extent that each person they encounter, if they find out, wants to impose those societal norms on them. Will it break them apart? Will he go to jail?

      3) Man vs Himself – Again in my WIP, the guy didn’t find a relationship until he was in college because of his deep seated anxieties. He’s always fighting his own fears and insecurities. The root of many may well be his relationship with his father, who’s shown as an antagonist who doesn’t openly try to oppose his son but who’s always reinforcing the reasons the son struggles.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In the first instance, it often is best to personify the general antagonist with a specific face. But even if you don’t, consider what the “founders” of this society wanted to accomplish. Those are usually the antagonistic goals the protagonist will be opposing throughout the story.

      In the second instance, you’re going to want to look at the heart of character arc–at the conflict between the character’s Need and Want, Truth and Lie. Lots more on that here.

  5. Just wanted to say thanks. In my few years of writing I hadn’t once considered this approach. And I’ve struggled with creating a proper antagonist. Thanks again!

  6. This is encouraging. When I was creating my story bible and back story I spent a lot of time and effort on understanding why in the world this person (who happens to be the primary antagonist-person) would ever kill someone. I felt like I was over-analyzing or procrastinating. But it has been really easy to go from scene to scene because I just have to ask myself what would happen next given the motivations of the murderer and my hero. The answer is almost always obvious. It’s nice to find I’ve done something right without knowing it! Stumbled on this article on Pinterest; will follow from now on. Thanks.

  7. I am “catching up” on many of your wonderful posts! Once again, I love this. I’ve always been a fan of the antagonist myself. In fact, some of my favorite characters are the opposition XD. I love the 5 levels! That is very helpful. I do have a question for clarification (I tend to overthink things a lot, sadly) and I am wondering if, can you have an antagonist or an antagonistic force that encompasses more than one of those?

    My current WIP is going to be a trilogy, epic fantasy. The first book deals with a pretty personal antagonist, though there are some public ramifications as well. The second book will lead them to a different antagonist with national and international ramifications. The third book will deal with the global issues, deity level in fact. My thought was using the- shadows (?) of the next two books in the first book, but without really getting into that too much in the first book. The first book is more about the protagonist gaining what she needs to tackle the bigger threats later on, though there will be more personal, public, and national opposition as the books progress and she finds herself with more responsibility, etc.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Oh, definitely. You could theoretically have a single antagonist who fulfills all five categories.

      • Oh good! I’ve always been a pretty instinctual writer, but I’ve been seriously delving into as much about the craft of writing as I can lately and I think I’m getting too caught up in the mechanics of it, spending too much time with my left-brain so my right-brain is kinda left in the dark XD

  8. I’ve always had problems plotting – and as hard as I slogged at filling in what other people said should be the protagonist-centered detail, the place where I always fell down was when I had to figure out the challenges befalling them. I’ve always felt there was a hole at the heart of my plotting but could never figure out where I was going wrong. And reading this post, it just sort of clicked into place that it’s not working because I’m approaching it backwards. Thank you so much! I think that gives me a real place to start from.

    The story I’m trying to work on at the moment is a regency story, and my protagonist has chronic ill-health (probably in modern terms, post-polio syndrome or something similar – but I’m trying to balance modern medical knowledge with period understanding). She’s at least partly based on Anne DeBourgh, from Pride and Prejudice, as I’ve often wondered what happened to her after Darcy married Elizabeth – and I like the idea of giving her a chance to shine in her own right!

    What I can’t quite figure out, is who or what the antagonist is. Her control-freak of a mother’s not exactly helping matters – running roughshod over every choice the protag might choose to make for her own self – but I feel like the real primary antagonist has to be either society’s expectations (as in the “social model of disability”!) or her illness…or maybe even both, I guess! And I’m not quite sure how to transfer that onto your scale of story stakes, or how much I can really anthropomorphise an impersonal force to plot out what an illness’s goals are!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      When you’re having trouble finding your story’s main antagonistic force, look first at your protagonist’s main story goal. What does she want? And–then–what is getting in the way of what she wants? Whoever or whatever is placing the majority of the obstacles–either directly or indirectly–is your main antagonistic force.

  9. Samiul Lameem Akbor says:

    I have a question. In my story, the antagonistic force is an evil cult. My protagonist has shady magic powers. The cult, The Apostles of the White Flame, believe that magic should be exterminated. Magic poses a threat to the continent. What type of stakes are these?

    Secondly, I am wondering if it is okay to have minor antagonists? The cult would be a minor opponent. Whereas my protagonist is the key to his own downfall.

    Finally, can I have one antagonist through most of the series, but at the last moment another antagonist reveals himself as true enemy?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      1. Depends how much power the cult wields: local, national, or global.

      2. 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 her goals throughout the story. Whatever you find, that’s your primary antagonistic force.

      3. As long as you’ve foreshadowed the main antagonist’s role from the beginning, yes.

  10. A question. What is exactly the difference between an antagonist in the Public Stakes and Personal Stakes?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Personal Stakes are the foundational relationships of the story. Public stakes are people who are part of the protagonist’s world, but whose relationships aren’t as important. For example, the personal stakes might be with the protag’s girlfriend, while the public stakes might be with his boss.

  11. Thank you for the very helpful post.

    I have a question though. If my protagonist’s flaw is that he refuses to take accountability for wrong doing, than wouldn’t he be the one to kick off the chain of events by doing something wrong? Based on your advice, it should be the antagonist. Yet, I cannot think how I can make that work. The only possible solution I can think of is to give my antagonist my hero’s inner flaw and assign something else for my protagonist. Thoughts?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In order for there to be a conflict, someone has to bring it to the protagonist’s doorstep. Who is demanding he be responsible for his actions? The roles of protagonist and antagonist have nothing to do with moral alignment.

  12. Richard Berrigan says:

    But we want to make our protags active not passive, right? Superman has fallen into this rut in the past few years with his comics. He’s just hangin’ around in his world at rest until some bad guy comes along and upends it all, so he spends the rest of the story trying to regain control of his world again. Brandon Sanderson has been doing some interesting podcasts on Writing Excuses about creating protags that proactively do stuff instead of just hanging around observing until a bad guy shows up.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Protagonists definitely need to be pursuing their own active goals. But there is no conflict until the protagonist’s goals and the antagonist’s goals interfere with each other.

  13. This is a fabulous concept. I’ve been wrestling with my protagonist to the point of putting the book not on the back burner, but totally off the stove. then I came across this concept with the antagonist, and my characters have come roaring back.

  14. I am SO glad I found your website. You have so much great content on here, I could spend hours just reading and learning new things. You’ve answered all my questions and then some. Anyone thinking about writing a book needs to have your website in their back pocket. It’s become an invaluable resource for me. Thanks!

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