How to Use Antagonists in Your Story: The Right Way and the Wrong Way

How to use antagonists in your story is a critical skill that can either elevate or undermine your entire story. In many ways, antagonists are the true architects of unforgettable plots, and as you navigate the path between narrative brilliance and potential pitfalls, the art of utilizing your story’s antagonists becomes crucial to success.

When we think of antagonists and how they should be written, what often comes to mind are specific characteristics. We envision villains, or perhaps just complicated anti-heroes, who offer enough charisma and enigma to spark reader curiosity and, hopefully, create scintillating scenes with the protagonist. However, if we zoom back to look at storyform, we see the antagonist’s true function within story is that of creating plot.

As the person or thing standing between the protagonist and the story goal, the antagonist is what creates the conflict. This conflict is what creates the narrative throughline (aka plot), and that throughline is then what creates the opportunity for a cohesive thematic argument.

In short, the antagonist is so much more than just the “bad guy.” The antagonist (or “antagonistic force,” if not personified) is one of the most integral pieces to creating a story that works. Your protagonist may be the main attraction, but the antagonist is the one who provides the stage on which your protagonist gets to shine. Without a well-realized antagonist, the entire plot begins to sag. Understanding how the antagonist operates at the level of plot makes all the difference in helping you frame a solid plot and character arc for your protagonist.

How to Use Antagonists: Napoleon vs. Saving Private Ryan

Last fall, I had the opportunity to view two movies in the theater in the same week—Napoleon, Ridley Scott’s recent bi-epic (see what I did there?), and a 25th-anniversary (!!!) showing of Steven Spielberg’s WWII classic Saving Private Ryan. Other than the fact that both films focus on subjects of war, they don’t obviously have much in common. However, the contrast between how they manage their antagonistic forces—and thus their plots—provided striking examples of how to use antagonists the right way versus the wrong way.

Mostly, this post is inspired by Napoleon and why, in my opinion, it fell flat. To start, I will say that Ridley Scott has directed some of my all-time favorite films (Gladiator and Black Hawk Down), and when he’s hot, he’s hot. But when he’s not, well, he’s not. My experience of Napoleon was well iterated by “BurekAuFromage,” as featured on the movie-review site Letterboxd:

If the only things you knew going in were that Napoleon was good at military stuff, became the main guy in France, lost in Russia, came back and lost again, you will come away from this movie being sure of less than when you came in. No discernible cause and effect to anything, not the faintest political or contextual framework for a single action that he takes.…

Napoleon (2023), Columbia Pictures.

The film was a beautiful explosion of blood and thunder, sound and fury. But for me, this couldn’t overcome the fact that, aside from being a disappointing historical experience, it was also just a boring story. It fell into one of the main pitfalls of historical fiction, which is offering a rote recitation of the facts (or approximations thereof) without thoughtfully stringing them together into a narrative that offers thematic grist.

Contrast that with even a cursory examination of Saving Private Ryan and its intentional commentary on the thematic patterns available from within its own historical context. Now, I won’t say Saving Private Ryan, for all its merits, is the best movie ever. (I can never watch it without comparing it to Band of Brothers, which is, in my opinion, superior in all ways.) But even apart from its own significance as a groundbreaking cinematic experience, it is undeniably a story that works.

Saving Private Ryan Tom Hanks Matt Damon

Saving Private Ryan (1998), DreamWorks Pictures.

There are many contrasting examples and lessons that could be drawn between Saving Private Ryan and Napoleon, but perhaps the most significant reason the former works and the latter does not is their differing treatments of their antagonistic forces.

As epic war stories, both films largely feature abstract and systemic antagonistic forcesSaving Private Ryan offers up the Nazi Army as the primary antagonist, represented mostly by faceless troops and most significantly in the personification of “Steamboat Willie”—the German gunner who is captured, released, and then returns to kill again.

Saving Private Ryan (1998), DreamWorks Pictures.

In Napoleon, the protagonist confronts a series of oppositions, most of which boil down to either resistance from his own French government or the armies of opposing nations, such as Austria, Russia, and, climactically, England. Although various historical politicians and heads of state provide faces and names to represent these greater threats, they never emerge as dimensional characters in their own right, rendering them just as vague and general as the armies they front. The one exception is the Duke of Wellington, who famously hands the brilliant Napoleon a crushing defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.

Napoleon (2023), Columbia Pictures.

Significantly, this section pulls out of Napoleon’s POV to focus primarily on Wellington. It is Wellington’s goals, actions, and reactions that drive this section. In essence, Wellington becomes the protagonist in this section, with Napoleon functioning as the antagonist. Apart from the arguable British bias of this choice, it is interesting to note that (for my money, anyway) this Third Act sequence is the single most interesting section of the entire film.

Why is this? As I walked out of the theater afterward, what struck me was that Wellington’s segment was really the only one in the entire movie that offered a solid back-and-forth between equally characterized protagonist and antagonist. Unlike the rest of the film, the Battle of Waterloo offered a narrative throughline and the necessary characterization to create enough comparison and contrast for patterns of thematic exploration to emerge.

Contrast this with Saving Private Ryan. Although the film only rarely characterizes its antagonists, it does accomplish two vital tasks:

1. It utilizes a consistent antagonistic force to create a seamless narrative throughline from beginning to end.

2. It carefully dramatizes its mostly unseen antagonistic force (via the subtext of the antagonist’s effects upon the landscape and the characters in it) to oppose the protagonist and the other main characters in ways that require thematic consideration.

In Napoleon, opposing armies are mowed down one after the other without any consideration or discussion. As presented, Napoleon himself is not much affected by the opposition he faces. He merely swats away one enemy before moving on to the next one. One obstacle does not necessarily catalyze the confrontation with the next, which inevitably creates an episodic and scattered feel within the narrative. More than that, because the antagonist is never treated as much more than scenery, there is no opportunity to examine the landscape created by this context and what deeper meanings may emerge for both sides in pursuing the conflict.

Napoleon (2023), Columbia Pictures.

The difference here is striking. (I feel pretty safe in promising that Napoleon is not gonna get a 25th-anniversary showing at your local theater.) One of these films is a story; the other is just a string of scenes. This is not because one had better source material than the other (although Saving Private Ryan certainly benefitted from a much higher concept). It certainly isn’t because one had inherently more fascinating characters than the other (indeed, Saving Private Ryan‘s characters are arguably on-the-nose in comparison to the complexities available in so influential a personality as Napoleon Bonaparte). Rather, it all comes down to how the plot was affected by the antagonist—or lack thereof.

How to Use Antagonists the Right Way: 4 Necessities

How can you learn from these two films to make sure your story gets the kind of plot treatment that not only rivets audiences, but also creates the foundation for amazing character arcs and themes? Following are the four most important things to understand about how to use antagonists to create a functional storyform.

1. Goals Create Antagonists

We can argue which comes first in creating story: the protagonist or the antagonist. By their very integrality to plot, we can certainly take the approach that the context created by the antagonistic force is what allows the protagonist to emerge as such. However, it is equally true that the protagonist’s goal is what creates the antagonist.

First, let us define “goal” as the overarching story goal or desire that will lead the protagonist through the entire story. This goal is the scarlet thread that holds the narrative together. Without that goal, there is no antagonist. This is because, by its very nature, the story goal creates opposition between the protagonist and someone or something else. If the goal aligns the protagonist with someone/thing, then there can be no conflict. Therefore, to ensure your story features an antagonist strong enough to create the plot, you must first ensure your protagonist wants something badly enough to pursue it against all opposition to the very end of the story.

The Wrong Way: In Napoleon, although we understand Napoleon wants to conquer everybody’s armies and rule the world, this is generally presented as an incidental goal. It is not really his purpose to make war on everyone; but what’s he to do when armies keep popping up all over the place and tempting him? Likewise, it isn’t really his goal to rule France. He wants the crown, but as shown in the movie, he more or less just stumbles into grasping it. As a result, a solid antagonistic opposition never emerges. There is plenty of conflict, but none of it is focused.

Napoleon (2023), Columbia Pictures.

The Right Way: In Saving Private Ryan, the characters’ goals are explicit throughout. Their mission is to trek through occupied France, looking for “a needle in a needlestack,” and return Private Ryan to his grieving mother, regardless of the cost to themselves. Like Napoleon, they face episodic opposition at every turn, but unlike Napoleon every one of their encounters is defined by their goal.

Saving Private Ryan (1998), DreamWorks Pictures.

2. Antagonists Create Conflict

When we get under the hood of story to look at how the different parts function, we can see that the whole point of the antagonist is to create obstacles to the protagonist’s goal. These obstacles are what create the conflict. Although the word “conflict” tends to evoke ideas of altercation, conflict within story is simply opposition. The protagonist has a goal—and that goal is met with opposition. This opposition is what deepens the story by generating complexity. The more obstacles a character encounters, the less straightforward it becomes to reach the goal. Scene after scene emerges, until suddenly you have a whole story!

The antagonistic force’s role is to create these obstacles. A consistent antagonistic force generates a seamless chain of obstacles, ensuring that each conflict the protagonist encounters is not random, but builds into the larger pattern leading to the final confrontation for the ultimate goal.

The Wrong Way: Aside from Wellington at the very end, Napoleon never faces a cohesive antagonistic force. He flails against his own countrymen as he seeks control of the army and then the state, meanwhile pursuing battles with one country’s army after another. Because the story is not framed around a specific protagonistic goal, it is unable to bring a sense of cohesion to its varied antagonistic forces, which dooms its narrative to feel unfocused and episodic.

Napoleon (2023), Columbia Pictures.

The Right Way: As Captain John Miller leads his squad deep behind enemy lines in occupied France, they encounter conflict after conflict as they confront the enemy over and over again. Not only are all of these encounters unified by a) a consistent antagonistic force and b) an unwavering overall plot goal, they avoid monotony by using the repetition to explore varying faces of the same antagonistic force, revealing its complexity.

Saving Private Ryan (1998), DreamWorks Pictures.

3. Conflict Creates Throughlines

While conflict is easy enough to create on the scene level, truly functional plot conflict arises from a well-chosen and consistently executed antagonistic force in opposition to the protagonist’s goals. With this foundation in place, the conflict that emerges in every scene becomes meaningful to the larger whole. When this happens, a solid narrative throughline begins to emerge.

The throughline is that scarlet thread we talked about. It is the unifying principle in every scene which creates the pleasing patterns of the larger whole. From those patterns, audiences derive meaning from the story. It ceases to be nothing more than a series of scenes strung together and becomes a story—a resonant and thought-provoking commentary on its own events.

The Wrong Way: If we had to sum up a throughline for Napoleon, it would simply be “Napoleon tries to conquer Europe.” Although that’s not an inherently bad throughline, it suffers from general vagueness. There is no meaning inherent in this emerging pattern. It is simply an observation of something that happened. More than that, as executed in the film, the episodic randomness that is created by its lack of antagonistic foundation fails to enforce this throughline. It lacks the urgency of a solid protagonistic goal met by solid antagonistic opposition, and thus fails to provide the story with the necessary momentum.

Napoleon (2023), Columbia Pictures.

The Right Way: Every scene in Saving Private Ryan is focused on one thing and one thing only, and that is the primary conflict between the titular goal and the steadily increasing opposition that continuously raises the stakes. Because the story narrows its focus to one goal and one antagonist, what emerges is the ability to go deeper and deeper into the tension between the two. As opposition increases in a story, the inevitable question a protagonist must ask is, “Is it worth it?” The answers to that question inform the story’s throughline.

Saving Private Ryan (1998), DreamWorks Pictures.

4. Throughlines Create Themes

Writing Your Story’s Theme (Amazon affiliate link)

The consistency of a solid throughline creates the context of pattern within a story. From within this pattern—with all its opportunities for comparison and contrast—arise the opportunities for deep and meaningful themes. The very idea of “theme” is something that shows up so often within a particular context that it defines it (e.g., if there are unicorns all over the place at a kid’s birthday party, then the theme must be unicorns). This kind of repetitive variation is only possible in a story that maintains a strict focus on its primary goal and conflict.

Within a story, theme emerges from plot and character. The antagonist frames the external conflict and forces the protagonist into the inner conflict that raises the chewy thematic questions. If the antagonist is not well chosen to oppose the protagonist’s goal or is not consistently presented as the primary opposition throughout the story, the entire thematic potential of the story will be undermined. When set up with consistency, however, the antagonist can ensure that the story not only works at the level of plot but also the deeper level of theme.

The Wrong Way: Although the complexity inherent in the history dangles all sorts of opportunities for Napoleon to explore interesting themes, the film itself never gets around to exploring much of anything. It comments upon this and that aspect of Napoleon’s life and motivations, but never circles back to raise the stakes by going deeper. Most of this is due simply to its general lack of focus in the external plot, in which a consistent antagonistic force is never developed.

Napoleon (2023), Columbia Pictures.

The Right Way: Twenty-five years later, Saving Private Ryan continues to deeply affect audiences. Some of this is due to its shocking spectacle and to its historical importance (both in the subject it treats and in its own right as a groundbreaking film). But, mostly, it’s because its careful plotting takes its central conflict beyond just its surface action to a deep thematic exploration. This is only possible thanks to its use of a unifying antagonistic force.

Saving Private Ryan (1998), DreamWorks Pictures.

***

Comparing Napoleon and Saving Private Ryan allows us to distinguish the right and wrong ways to use antagonists. While the former film succumbs to episodic randomness and a lack of thematic exploration, the latter meticulously crafts a narrative throughline, leveraging a consistent antagonist to elevate the story into a resonant commentary on the human condition.

Antagonists are not mere shadows cast by the protagonists but rather dynamic architects shaping the very essence of a compelling plot. They are the linchpins that either fortify or undermine the entire narrative structure. Once you understand how the antagonist is the key to unlocking not just conflict but also thematic richness, you can utilize antagonists as the cornerstone in creating stories that endure and captivate.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think is the most important thing to understand about how to use antagonists in a 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. An important scene in SPR was the discussion between Capt. Miller and Sergeant Mike about Ryan’s refusal to leave his platoon and to stay to defend a strategically important bridge. That scene and the sergeant’s “thoughts” about their mission, beautifully encapsulated the theme of the movie and the global climax of the story. “Napoleon” may not have had the same type of answer to the story question “Was all of this worth it?”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, it can be an oversight on an author’s part to assume readers/viewers will simply intuit a character’s motives and/or accept that it *was* worth it. A well-crafted scene like the one you mention can make a tremendous difference in anchoring a story’s stakes.

  2. I haven’t seen Napoleon but I read a review from a military historian who said that the film proves that historical fact should be left documentary makers and you’re comments prove that films like that should have all the things you have written about, a clear protagonist.
    In the case of Saving Private Ryan, we know right from the outset that the antagonist is the German army and it makes the American soldiers goal of getting to Private Ryan quite a compelling one. It is symbolic at the end that when Private Ryan returns to France more than 50 years later, he breaks down at Captain Miller’s grave.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I imagine the historian was referring to some of Ridley Scott’s comments about not really caring if he got certain details right. However, I absolutely *do* think historical fiction is an important genre that, when done well, helps us understand the past in ways that are extremely accessible.

  3. One thing I’ll point out – you mention that Band of Brothers was better that Saving Private Ryan. I’d agree, but you’re comparing a mini-series to a single (though long) movie. So, there was a lot more space to develop sub characters and separate plot. I’ll point out that Band of Brothers did what Napoleon apparently failed to do – it shifted antagonists as the story went along. The Nazis were always there, but they started with the Captain as the big problem. I haven’t seen Napoleon, but was intrigued when it came out, however, when I found out it tried to cover everything about him, I decided to give it a pass. Napoleon was one complex character. What I’d love to see is probably a triple mini-series – his rise, his perch at the top and his fall. If the movie said he stumbled into anything, they didn’t understand him very well. Capitalizing on opportunities and stumbling into things are not the same! If you pick a single antagonist for the bulk of Napoleon’s life, it had to be Napoleon, although the English tried awfully hard for that role. Putting aside all questions of morality and everything important in life, the real life Napoleon can be seen as the Hero who couldn’t stop. He certainly acted as King, but whenever the chance to go be hero again popped up, he was all over it. He also never turned down a chance to stick a relative in a position they were unsuited for, and I’m not sure what arc that fits in with.

    • Nicely put.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Band of Brothers maintains a strong antagonistic throughline. This is emphasized in that the first episode is framed around the invasion of Normandy, with the scenes at Camp Toccoa (featuring Winters’s conflict with Sobel) shown as a flashback. Even then, the conflict is always focused on dealing with the ultimate antagonist of the war itself, with Sobel representing one of many obstacles to Easy Company’s survival and success.

  4. Eric Troyer says

    Excellent post! It left me thinking that creating and adhering to a well-written logline is an important part of creating a good story. Even if you do it after your first draft.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Definitely. Creating a solid logline in the beginning can offer a touchstone for everything you create afterwards, and checking in with it periodically while writing the story can help you see where you may be deviating from (or necessarily amending) your original vision for the story.

  5. Wow! I really appreciated this post. I am trying to plot a historical novel set during a different war, with a female protagonist in an era when women had little agency. As if that weren’t problem enough, the issue of the war as faceless antagonist has had me chewing my fingers. Your post provoked many useful thoughts. I showed SPR every year as a teaching tool so I know it well, and after reading the reviews of NAPOLEON I have avoided it, but worried for my own tale. Thank you for pointing out some of the pitfalls the latter fell into. So helpful!

    • Susan Meissner’s Lady in Waiting is a good novel about women with little agency (which is actually kinda the point of the story). It follows a modern woman who feels she had little control over her choices and the historic Lady Jane Grey who definitely had little to no control over her life and shows how even when it seems like we have no choices, we do have the choices of what we do with it. That plays more into theme than the specific historical issue, but I think it shows an interesting light on the subject.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Another example that springs to mind, which may be helpful to you, is All the Light We Cannot See, which also seems to feature a young woman protagonist with little agency against the overwhelming antagonist of an occupying enemy. Examining the small ways in which the story does in fact give her agency might prove helpful in inspiring some of your own choices.

  6. Violet Oldenski says

    The first draft of my story contained a antagonist who was all evil. That didn’t work. In order to have a connection with the antagonist, we have to feel for him as well as hate him. Make him human, perhaps in the loss of something–love, family, whatever, and the evil is emotionally more powerful.

  7. Great post. I think The Duellists (1977) also by Ridley Scott, and also set in the Napoleonic Wars is a good comparison to Napoleon, through demonstrating how a strong and consistent antagonist drives the plot and anchors the theme.

    Keith Carradine’s character finds himself unwittingly having to battle Harvey Kietel again and again in personal combat despite the larger drama of Europe at war going on about them. Every scene is different, complications come from the enemy, the army high command, expectations of honour, and finally expectations made on oneself.

    Harvey Keitel is as relentless in his pursuit of Carradine as the truck after Dennis Weaver in Duel (1971). A man blinded by the upward classism of his lower status, a false sense of honour, egged on by his skill as a swordsman, legitimised by his adherence to Napoleon (which could not be questioned). By no means a shallow antagonist and very easily one for the ages.

  8. More great content from you. However, you include a statement that seems contrary to the point of your post. Your statement is: “If the goal aligns the protagonist with someone/thing, then there can be no conflict”

    I assume that is a typo – or am I missing something?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Typo! Thanks for pointing it out.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Or, actually, no. :p I went back and read it in context. The point is that if the protagonist is in alignment with the antagonist, then there is no conflict. Rather, the protagonist needs to be opposed by the antagonist.

  9. COLLEEN JANIK says

    Thank you again for such helpful suggestions. I understand that a film might have a much more difficult time relating some of the information about Napoleon. I’m currently reading Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserable, in which he spends a lot of time discussing Napoleon. I highly recommend this book. Much of his writing is poetic and absolutely brilliant.

  10. Victoria C Leo says

    In all my previous work, the antagonist was a species (Kazier, Talfi), and the former had several characters who personified it … but it was really the whole Kazier desire to conquer that was the enemy, like the German army.
    In my next book, it’s a political battle for the soul of a species and the protagonist will be in conflict with specific leaders of the anti faction and I’m glad to have your thoughts here, to help me make that an engrossing battle.

    BTW, I hated Napoleon but it was the historical horribleness that I gagged over, never even noticed the glaring plot problems, LOL. Thank you!!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      A good plot can occasionally make us forgive a lot of factual sins. Otherwise, not much to redeem!

  11. Charlotte French says

    Excellent as always. Napoleon was a great disappointment to me—a string of scenes pretty much nails it. I too, fell asleep for a bit.

  12. This is a question you might not be able to answer, but I wonder how a film like Napoleon (2023) could have such a glaring storytelling problem. It’s one thing if it’s a novelist with a small support team who messes up this way, but a lot of people with a solid understanding of how stories work have input/oversight over a big budget Hollywood movie. How did nobody catch this kind of problem at an early stage? Does Ridley Scott have so much influence that other people can’t stop him from making mistakes like this? Or are the people with power so cynical that they figure the movie will be just as profitable even if the story falls flat. Obviously this isn’t the first big budget Hollywood movie to have this kind of problem. It still baffles me. (Note: I haven’t seen the movie so I rely on your assessment).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think, yes, to both assumptions. I haven’t looked into this extensively, so take it for what it’s worth, but Ridley Scott did make some pretty dismissive comments in response to criticisms of the movie, particularly people’s historical concerns. (Although every artist has the right to realize their own individual vison for a story, regardless of input, this does stand in pretty glaring contrast to the extreme care Spielberg took in honoring WWII vets during the making of Saving Private Ryan.)

      • I think you’re right. Added to which, when you’re successful, people tend to defer, assuming you must know what you’re doing. RS is great with a great script, not so great when the script isn’t. Some directors know how to work with a writer to make the script great (I recommend reading Hitchcock’s Secret Notebooks for fascinating insights behind the scenes). But this is not RS’s superpower!

  13. Jim Sutherland says

    I’ve always believed that when writing on something as grand as an overall war or a quest, you need to have a specific focus in that war/quest that actually rises above the war/quest to be the central focus. It keeps characters grounded and focussed and can be used to tie in their development and advance the plot against the backdrop of the war/quest. Napoleon lacked that focus, while Saving Private Ryan had it as the main plot driver.

    Saving Private Ryan also wove character and setting together in the plot, having each serve the other to advance the story – conflict, overcome, character revelation and growth, repeat – as the story built forward and the viewer slowly grew a vested interest in the quest. Napoleon read like a variation of documentary facts with very little growth and very little viewer buy in.

    I think Napoleon was trying to rely too much on Joaquin Phoenix delivering a tour de force performance to carry the movie. I love the person of Napoleon from a historical perspective as he was so complex and driven. Definitely well worth a deep character study. But this movie somehow missed that. Maybe it was because they tried to put so much of his life (20+ years) into a 157 minute movie. Saving Private Ryan simplified it and made the entire film (except the last few minutes) a snapshot of conflict over a week or so. It’s a lesson to me that you need strong characters AND a great plot. There’s no point in having the best written characters you can write if there is really nothing for them to do.

  14. I have seen none of the movies listed, although @Ronan reminds me that I’ve been meaning look for “The Duelists.” 🙂 And I agree that Napoleon as a subject lends itself better to a miniseries, and that a movie might have better concentrated on just one aspect of his life.

    There’s another wrong way to use an antagonist and that’s as a plot device to make a weak protagonist look good. Antagonists who have oddly failed to eat their Wheaties and who are incompetent, stupid, unprepared, easily goaded, etc, all so that the protagonist looks good in comparison. That’s how you end up with a Mary Sue / Marty Stu, and I see it over and over.

    Taking a page from war and sports: there’s a reason teams are named after assorted people, e.g., “the Chiefs,” or “the Zulus” etc. depending on the cultural groups of the teams. This is called “borrowed glory,” and the idea is that if you fight a people who are particularly tough and cunning, you get glory from having gone toe to toe with them. Especially if they made you earn any victory you achieved over them. Even losing isn’t shameful in that case because “you went down fighting; you took your pounds of flesh from them, etc.”

    The stronger the antagonist, the better the protagonist’s A-game has to be, and the more it matters if they win or lose. Incidentally this can lead to the common trope — especially in anime / Western cartoons — of “defeat equals friendship,” which is the result of two foes earning each other’s respect. The Japanese sailors actually salute Godzilla in “Godzilla Minus One” because defeating him required exceptional valor and ingenuity; victory wasn’t cheap and easy.

    A properly used antagonist forces the protagonist to grow and step up their game. A dumb antagonist confers no glory on a protagonist, because the protagonist didn’t even have to be intelligent in absolute terms, only relative. The protagonist doesn’t look smart at all, and the story itself looks like a waste of time.

    Now I guess I should finally get around to watching Saving Private Ryan / Band of Brothers 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “There’s another wrong way to use an antagonist and that’s as a plot device to make a weak protagonist look good. Antagonists who have oddly failed to eat their Wheaties and who are incompetent, stupid, unprepared, easily goaded, etc, all so that the protagonist looks good in comparison. That’s how you end up with a Mary Sue / Marty Stu, and I see it over and over.”

      Very true.

  15. Black Hawk Down, Band of Brothers……aren’t we quite the war film connoisseur. Well anyway, I concur. They are some of the best of the genre.

    The Pacific from the same BOB people is an excellent miniseries with harrowing combat scenes in the South Pacific. You wouldn’t expect anything less from this group. However, The Pacific chose to focus on various individuals in various battles and homefront challenges. It’s kind of vignettes that don’t entirely hold together other than it’s the Pacific theater.

    The Pacific never coalesces like BOB around the soldiers as a combat unit moving together across Europe fighting the Germans and trying to survive the conflict. For this reason, I think The Pacific lacks something in the dynamic between Protagonist and Antagonist. The tight camaraderie of Easy Company versus a mostly faceless German enemy is what drives Band of Brothers.

    I am looking forward to watching Masters of the Air.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree. Band of Brothers had the benefit of very special source material, in that it was able to follow the story of a cohesive unit through multiple historical epochs. Everything was already there in the premise: characters, plot, theme. It uniquely encapsulated the larger story of WWII through a very specific and personalized group of characters. Because The Pacific borrowed from multiple sources, it wasn’t, as a story, able to achieve the same cohesion and resonance.

  16. Michael Albrecht says

    Totally agree with you Katie, protagonist and antagonist pulling the story string into different directions and that makes for great story lines. Stories without this internal pull leave us bored and dissatisfied. Good example with Napoleon, I thought the same. Although I personally find the Private Ryan to brutal and creates nightmares in me, but I would acknowledge the story structure is excellent.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “protagonist and antagonist pulling the story string into different directions”

      I like this imagery for emphasizing the importance of the protagonist’s and antagonist’s unified focus within the narrative.

  17. Wow! Another hit!
    This was so well thought out and expressed. Another eye opener with connecting the antagonist to theme. I now get why focusing down the antagonistic force and the goal create a stronger, richer theme.
    Brava!

  18. I totally agree about the importance of a ‘real life’ antagonist instead of a cardboard cut out. I haven’t seen the Napoleon film, thought the criticisms I have read are not positive. I did see Saving Private Ryan, but it was many years ago and I have forgotten it maybe worth another watch. I saw some episodes of Band of Brothers and really liked it.
    I’m at now the point of searching for an Agent and it wasn’t until I was writing the dreaded synopsis, that I realised how much the antagonists (there are two) had driven the plot. Both have flashback stories in the book which hopefully gives some sort of insight as to why they are as they are, but not over-egged.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, nothing distills story down to its true essence like having to summarize it into smaller and smaller entities. Writing a logline can be a very humbling experience. :p

  19. Avery K Tingle says

    I need to go back and watch SPR. I’ve never thought of antagonists as a narrative force. I’ve always thought it had to be a person or people. Thanks for giving us something to think about.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The terms “protagonist” and “antagonist” are really referring to “engines” within the story. However, because the terms have become conflated with characters, it can be easy to confuse their true function within story. This is one reason I often prefer to use the less personalized term “antagonistic force,” since it leaves more room for antagonistic elements that are not strictly represented by a person. (Which is not to say that antagonistic characters are not extremely important in most stories.)

  20. In a recent historical fiction novel set in Asia in 1857, the strait of Malacca in particular, I tried an experiment with antagonists. They were bloodthirsty pirates that plagued and still plague all ships in that waterway. However, research indicated that they were also farmers on Sumatra during the growing season and only pirated when they could not farm. I tried to show them as desperate, poor farmers with no other options. This makes them people but reinforces that their desperation forces them into unstoppable behavior that is even more dangerous.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nice. This also brings home another common conflation, which is that of antagonist with villain. “Protagonist” and “antagonist” are both morally neutral terms. They refer only to which character is moving toward the main story goal and which character (or force) is creating opposition to that forward momentum. The protagonist can be the most morally negative character in a story, and the antagonist can be the most morally positive.

  21. This is so good! Thank you for writing this post. I know that antagonist have always been a rough spot for me. This gives a whole new context for me in when examining the “bad guys”.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, antagonists have always been a point of curiosity for me as well. We often tend to think of them as simply needing to be “evil” in contrast to the protagonist, when really their role is so much more complex and important.

  22. Actually, “Steamboat Willie” did not return and kill again. Steamboat Willie wore regular German army uniform. The Nazi who killed Wellish wore an SS uniform.

    Does the audience really have difficulty distinguishing the two?

    Or is it the old sentiment that if you show mercy to your enemies, they will circle back and kill you; therefore kill all enemies and let God sort them all?

  23. Thankyou, I am starting to work out how the elements of antagonism have come about, in my protagonists worlds! And with whom, or where the buck stops. It’s more complex than I thought… Yes that’s a great phrase about the strings pulling in different directions… and like, for generations…This post and discussion has helped significantly. Great topic K.M.

  24. What stood out to me most was the protagonist’s goal. He (or she) needs a specific goal, and all antagonistic opposition should revolve around that. The goal should be external and internal. Behind the protagonist’s goal is a well-structured plot. I used to be very wary about goals, until I started reading your posts. Each one points to the importance of story structure in a way that makes them appeal to me, as a pantser, highlighting the freedom and inspiration that can stem from the structure itself. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s great! And, yes, the goal as a storyform element is what everything hangs upon. However, that goal needn’t always be a fully formed, conscious goal. In some stories, it will be more of an intention. See this post: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/conflict-in-fiction-what-it-really-is-and-why-its-important-to-plot-2/

      • Thanks for pointing me to that post. It really cleared the subconscious confusion I had. Right now I’m editing my first book (that I wrote at 14. It needs a lot of work, lol! I just couldn’t put it down), and it’s about a girl who lost her home island to invaders. During her time of refuge far away, she vows to take back what she has lost. Ultimately, this feeds her hatred of the antagonist who destroyed her village, setting up her goal to kill him when he comes to attack the village where she’s staying. With all that background information, now to my point. One of my beta readers asked me, “What is her goal? It’s very obscure, just a desire to ‘take back what she had lost’. Her family is dead, her village destroyed. How does that work?” This post, and the one you pointed to, helped clear that up. From what I understand, (please correct me if I’m wrong) it’s okay to have the vague intention as long as it moves the story forward and increases the stakes, which is what happens in my story.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Yes, and very often that intention will solidify into specific goals (e.g., whatever she has to do to take the island back).

  25. Okay nerd alert. I used to play Napoleonic wargames as a kid, and have the details of some of the battles ingrained in my head. Both Scott and Phoenix have been super-defensive about the liberties that their film took with history. But, historical novelists take note. There’s a good deal of difference between taking artistic license with some of the details and mangling history beyond recognition. The “lake” at Austerlitz was more of a a duck pond than a lake. Apparently boney had it drained to see if anyone drowned. No-one did. Napoleon never led a cavalary charge in his life and the idea of a Commander in Chief risking himself and the battle in this way was patently ridiculous. Besides, Boney was a lousy horseman.

    But worse than any of this was the total lack of tension in the set piece battle of Waterloo. “Where are the Prussians?” “12 miles away.” Where are they now?” “Eight miles away.” etc etc. That device fell flatter than a Kansas pancake.

    If you want to see an historic battle done right, watch Sergei Bondarchuk’s “Waterloo” (1970) with Christopher Plummer as Wellington and Rod Steiger as Napoleon looking like the spitting image of the older Napoleon. Bondarchuk is widely regarded as the greatest battle director ever, and in Waterloo he delivers the intensity and blood and mud of battle with both narrative tension and a respect for important historical details.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Kinda like how Braveheart left Stirling Bridge out of the Battle of Stirling Bridge. :p That one drives me nuts, not just because it renders the name of the battle nonsensical, but because the entire battle revolved around the bridge. The Scottish victory couldn’t have happened without it. More than that, the tactics involved were just incredibly fascinating and cool. I’m sure they just couldn’t afford the bridge or whatever, but it was a wasted story moment.

  26. In A Man Called Ove/Otto and The Holdovers, the goal (of becoming a nicer person) is not clear until we seeing it happening. My WIP is like that. The antagonist is trying to goad the protagonist into violence (by his actions) but it is hard to explicitly state the goal early and I feel like I need to let the reader figure out the goal without me stating it clearly, early on.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sometimes it’s more helpful to think of the overall “goal” as an intention. However, in both of the mentioned stories, the characters have concrete goals. Ove/Otto’s is to kill himself and Paul Giamatti’s character in The Holdovers has the goal/intention of chaperoning the students through Christmas break. Obstacles to these goals are what create the conflict and generate change in the characters’ relationship to their original intentions.

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