The Role of the Antagonist in Story Structure, Pt. 2 of 2

One way to think about plot is as a “push-pull between protagonist and antagonist.” Although the protagonist is the character who frames and, indeed, decides the story’s structure, the role of the antagonist in story structure is equally important.

Last week, I shared an overview of the antagonist’s role in the first five major structural beats within a story. I originally intended it to be one post, but it turned out to be nearly twice as long as usual, so I split it in two. Today, we’ll be rounding out the subject by examining the role of the antagonist in the second half of a story’s structure—the Second Pinch Point through the Resolution.

Once again, it is important to remember the distinction between the antagonistic force that impacts storyform in a general sense and the antagonist who is a specific character representing this force within the story.

1. The antagonistic force will function in fixed (and therefore relatively universal) ways within story structure, in order to evoke the most resonant responses from the protagonist.

2. The antagonist, as a human character, however, will be much more dynamic and even unpredictable within the story. What I’ve shared in this series is focused more on the antagonistic force’s impact upon the structure, and is therefore very general. Within your specific story, the antagonist as a character may function in ways much more nuanced than what is presented here.

The Antagonist’s Role in the Second Half of a Story’s Structure

6. The Role of the Antagonist in the Second Pinch Point

For the protagonist, the Second Pinch Point mirrors the First Pinch Point in emphasizing the stakes and the potential threat of the antagonist. Specifically, it will foreshadow the “Low Moment” of the Third Plot Point to follow. Whatever the antagonist threatens here will be significantly endangered or destroyed later in the Third Plot Point. However, the very threat itself is what prompts the protagonist into the (possibly hubristic) gambit of the False Victory that precedes the Low Moment.

For the antagonist, the Second Pinch Point also mirrors the First Pinch Point in representing a moment of significant aggression (to whatever degree) against the protagonist. Here, the antagonist flexes his muscles, acting from his place of strength after the Midpoint. His strength is real, but because he has not gained any new insights (either practically or thematically), his ability to adapt to the forward momentum of the plot is beginning to stall out. In short, the protagonist is evolving faster than the antagonist—and this will be the deciding factor in the end.

Antagonist’s Role in the Second Pinch Point: The antagonist will initiate the events of the Second Pinch Point based on his advancements at the Midpoint. From his perspective, what he enacts here may seem like the beginning of the endgame. He may push back at the protagonist in the belief that one more shove will be enough to topple his foe and remove the protagonist as an obstacle. However, he will likely overestimate his own position and underestimate the protagonist’s. As a result, he may not even fully realize that the effort he expends here does not have its desired effect. The protagonist may seem to retreat, but unbeknownst to the antagonist, this retreat is only so the protagonist can gather her forces for what the protagonist deems as the beginning of the endgame.

7. The Role of the Antagonist in the Third Plot Point

At the Third Plot Point, everything changes for both characters. The protagonist initiates this major beat with a calculated pushback against the antagonist (or, alternatively, toward the protagonist’s own plot goal). In many ways, the protagonist’s gambit will succeed. She will use what she has learned in the previous beats to overcome the obstacles that once stymied her. She may well strike a significant and damaging blow against the antagonist. But because of her own ongoing and incomplete inner conflict between Lie and Truth, she will also pay a huge price for this attack. For the protagonist, the two sides of the Third Plot Point can be termed False Victory and Low Moment.

For the antagonist, this beat is similarly complicated. On the one hand, the protagonist just hit him where it hurts. Prior to this, the antagonist believed himself in a good position from which to triumph. Now, his weaknesses and blind spots have been exposed. But on the other hand, as we’ve already seen, this was a Pyrrhic victory for the protagonist—meaning the antagonist may still be able to win, if only by default. Both parties will retreat to lick their wounds. From here on, a final confrontation is not only necessary but inevitable. Their next meeting will decide who will reach their ultimate plot goals and who will not.

The Role of the Antagonist in the Third Plot Point: The antagonist will be consolidating his own resources and preparing for a major pushback against the protagonist as well. He may receive the protagonist’s efforts with some sort of ambush, which turns the tables on the protagonist at the last minute. The antagonist will not be defeated here and may even gain some significant ground in the overall conflict. However, for the antagonist too, the Third Plot Point will usually represent a comparatively desperate moment. Time is running out; both parties will recognize that the conflict will soon have to be decided. Although the antagonist may well still hold at least a slight advantage over the protagonist, the playing field will have leveled some since the beginning of the conflict. Even if the antagonist’s goal is within reach, he is still likely to be feeling the tremendous pressure of the stakes.

8. The Role of the Antagonist in the Climax

The Climax properly begins halfway through the Third Act and will ramp up to varying degrees until the Climactic Moment at the end of the entire story. This turning point is what moves the protagonist and antagonist out of their respective reactions to the Third Plot Point and into their final confrontation.

This confrontation may be directly between these two characters and may even be the entire point of the story. One character will defeat the other. This defeat is either the goal of the story or the single remaining obstacle to enabling the goal.

However, the “confrontation” may also be indirect or even incidental. It’s possible the protagonist’s final pursuit of her goal may not require that she directly move against or overcome the antagonist; rather, just in doing whatever she must to triumph in her own goal, she may incidentally defeat the antagonistic force. The latter is particularly likely in stories that focus on inner or relational conflict.

The Antagonist’s Role in the Climax: At this point in the story, it is more important than ever to keep in mind that the antagonist is a character with personal desires and goals of his own. Although his primary goal at this point may indeed be to destroy the protagonist, he must still be pursuing that end for a reason—and now that the conflict has reached its final deciding stroke, that reason will be more important to the antagonist than ever. What he has been working toward throughout the story is about to be decided in a definitive way. Even if the stakes seemed higher for the protagonist throughout most of the story, now the playing field has been leveled. The antagonist has every bit as much at stake as does the protagonist.

9. The Role of the Antagonist in the Climactic Moment

The Climactic Moment ends the Climax—and the plot conflict. It is the moment that decides who “wins” and who “loses.” In a positive story, the winner is almost always the protagonist. However, the concept of “defeating” the antagonistic force should be understood in the context of the obstacles having been removed from between the protagonist and her ultimate plot goal. This is what brings the conflict to an end. (Thus, it is not so much that there is no conflict without an antagonist, but more so that there is no antagonist without the need for conflict.)

In a story in which the predominate aspect of the antagonistic force is found within the protagonist, the external antagonist’s ultimate positioning within the finale will not be as important. For instance, returning to last week’s example of a story about competitors, the protagonist’s victory may be more moral than literal. Even if it is a literal victory within the competition, the emphasis will be less on the protagonist’s having overcome at the antagonist’s expense and more on the protagonist’s own inner transformation into strength.

In fact, in some stories the conflict will end with the protagonist and antagonist resolving their differences and perhaps even mutually claiming the plot goal.

The Antagonist’s Role in the Climactic Moment: The Climactic Moment functions similarly for both characters. It is the beat in which the conflict ends. The relationship of both protagonist and antagonist to their plot goals will be definitively decided, via their actions, in some way. There will be no forward progression toward this particular goal any longer.

10. The Role of the Antagonist in the Resolution

The Resolution is the beat after the Climactic Moment. In most stories, it will be given at least a scene, maybe more. In other stories, it is literally nothing more than a beat. It is the closing note in the story, the “fade out.” Functionally, it exists to provide closure to the cause and effect of the entire story and the Climactic Moment in particular. It shows the reactions of the protagonist and antagonist to what just happened.

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The Antagonist’s Role in the Resolution: In many stories, the antagonist will not be present for the Resolution. Either he will have been functionally eliminated from the story world (killed off, banished, etc.), or he will have become irrelevant to the protagonist now that he is no longer an obstacle. In other stories, particularly those in which the antagonist is an important relationship character, the Resolution may offer a conciliation between the characters. This may range from a full-on partnership agreement between them to merely a shaking of hands and a nod of respect before they go their separate ways. It is also possible that one party (probably the protagonist if she’s following Positive-Change Arc) may be willing to reconcile but the other is not and simply walks away, effectively banishing himself.

***

Too often, we synonymize “antagonist” with “bad guy.” From a structural perspective, the antagonist is merely a force opposing the protagonist’s forward progress and therefore prompting the protagonist’s growth. Understood in this way, the role of the antagonist in structure can be strengthened to create a more rounded and convincing story at every beat.

Related Posts:

Wordplayers tell me your opinions! What sort of character is the antagonist in your story? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. This two-part Role of the Antagonist posting is really excellent. But here’s a question for the final Resolution: What if the story is a Tragedy? For example, in the movie “Dances with Wolves,” the hero (Kevin Costner) “wins” the Climatic Moment by helping his Indian tribemates in defeating the awful soldiers (and what they represent). And then Positive-Change Arc-Costner disappears into the mountains with his new family. But the Resolution (to me) is that we know that the Indians have lost to the “progress” of the soldiers and the white civilization they represent. In fact, there’s a final epilogue that states that 13 years later, the Indians have submitted to white authority and have been, basically, destroyed.

    And in my debut novel about the birth of NYC in the early 17th century, I have a similar final Resolution scene where the remaining two Lenape Indians are looking across the Hudson River to where the hero has been battling the Europeans. And one says to the other that “everything will be fine… So long as the rivers flow and the grasses grow, we will be fine.” Which we know is not what happens in the long run.

    So, can misplaced positivity or lack of knowledge of the reality of the “bigger story”—where the Antagonistic force has, in fact, not been eliminated—be another way to handle the Resolution?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, as I mentioned in the first post and should have reiterated here, the beats I’ve presented here are obviously based on a Positive Change Arc and should be adapted from there for variations. However, what’s most important, as we can see in stories such as Dances With Wolves, is that the conflict between protagonist and antagonist is resolved. When the protagonist “loses” the conflict, as in Dances With Wolves, they may be the one to walk away rather than the antagonist.

  2. I guess the lovers in my latest m/m romance novel are each other’s main antagonist. They’re trying to catch a murderer, but they have opposing relationship goals this time. After a traumatic event where the disabled MC is nearly killed, his lover wants him to take a more passive role in their investigations. The MC, meanwhile, wants his lover to realize he’s capable of handling whatever the case throws at them. I’m guessing, even though I have a murderer to catch, this lovers’ quarrel is the main conflict since it’s a romance at heart? It ends with the couple catching the murderer together and resolving this relationship conflict in the process. One has to cope with his fears, while the other has to realize his partner’s fear stems from love, not a desire to control him.

    Does that sound right? This stuff always confuses me. Thank you for your wonderful articles and books!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It depends on which part of the plot is given structural prominence throughout. Often, in a story that has both a strong relational and action aspect, the relational aspect will act as more of the “inner conflict” or arc, while the action (mystery, in this case) element is emphasized in the outer conflict–and the resolution of one will create the solution to the other, harmonizing them in the Climax.

  3. L. David Morris says

    I appreciate your illustration on the antagonist.

  4. Miriam Harmon says

    I have multiple stories I’m working on, but the main one I was thinking about while reading this has its antagonistic forces hit every beat I believe. My main struggle is that there are two major antagonistic forces both symbolized in two powerful antagonists. One is the big bad, causing most of the plot problems at every story beat, but the other is just a largely personal antagonist, the protagonist’s own father, but he kinda shows up shortly after each plot beat and marks the beats in the inner journey, I think. It’s very interesting. I normally plan one antag and one protag, but I somehow end up with multiple of each in most of my stories. Is there such a thing as having separate “story beats” for the inner and outer journeys, but still around the right timeframe, if that makes sense? It’s like a have an antagonist for the protagonist’s character arc and then an antagonist for the protagonist’s plot goal. The two antagonists have never met and don’t come in the same scene, but they both have a huge impact on the protagonist’s journey. The plot antag is pushing protagonist towards their truth while the personal antag is pushing the protagonist towards their lie.
    Again, is this a thing? Is it possible to have a sequel-scene antagonist and an action-scene antagonist who are separate and fulfill different roles while still being antagonists?
    I’m not sure what I’ve created. Sorry if this is confusing. 😂

    • I am reminded of Harry Potter. The Big Bad antagonist is Voldemort, but Harry also has personal antagonists Vernon Dursley, Draco Malfoy, Severus Snape, et al. It seems to work.

      Or For Whom the Bell Tolls. Big Bad antagonist is the fascist army. But the personal antagonist is Pablo, who also opposes the fascists.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It sounds like to me like the protag’s dad might be more a contagonist than an antagonist (as per this post: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/8-%C2%BD-character-archetypes-writing). Either way, the main thing to check would be the structural cohesion. If it feels like these two antagonists are pulling the conflict in different directions, or that the resolution of one conflict does not directly impact the final resolution of the other, then that could indicate a fragmented thematic focus.

  5. The antagonist in the stories I’m working on has a few sources of inspiration. One of them is the ‘Cursed Sword’ card in the board game Shadowhunters. The ‘Cursed Sword’ is the most powerful weapon in the game, but it compels the player who holds it to attack every round. Even the only other players within range are allies, the player with the ‘Cursed Sword’ card must attack. It’s great for a player who is the last one remaining in their team since it gives them a chance to win even when they’re outnumbered and they don’t have to worry about ‘friendly fire.’ It can also mess up a winning team since it may force self-sabotage. The assignment of the ‘Cursed Sword’ is quasi-random, so nobody knows at the beginning of the game who will get the card.

    My antagonist is also a powerful sword who tends to dominate whoever wields it. And my protagonist’s flaw is that she’s too submissive…

  6. Thanks for another masterclass. I love how the antagonistic force shapes and informs the responses of the protagonist. This is a great insight: “…the protagonist is evolving faster than the antagonist–and this will be the deciding factor in the end.” So defending the lie, or wallowing in the wound, gets in the way of the antagonist’s growth. Even though he may be smart, he’s not learning.

    Regarding the Climactic Moment, I was thinking of Harry and Cedric in the maze deciding to take the Triwizard Cup together, which got me thinking that we can have a temporary or lesser antagonist (if the scope of the story calls for it).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “So defending the lie, or wallowing in the wound, gets in the way of the antagonist’s growth. Even though he may be smart, he’s not learning.”

      Exactly. And when the protagonist fails in this accelerated growth, that’s when get tragic Negative Change Arcs.

  7. Here’s one for you. In the novel I am working on, the plot flip-flops back and forth to the vigilantes who are dispensing their own form of justice and the detective determined to stop them. Which would you say is the protagonist and antagonist?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Protagonist and antagonist are morally neutral terms, referring only to the characters’ roles within the story. So your protagonist will be whichever character(s) is the primary actor, whose actions create the main structural throughline.

    • Hey 80sMetalMan! Have you seen the movie Hell or High Water? The MC and his brother are bank robbers. The antagonistic force is the predatory bank trying to foreclose on their mom’s land, and the antagonist is a Texas Ranger trying to catch the brothers. It’s really good. It’s probably the best movie I’ve seen recently besides 71. I wonder if your vigilantes are operating from a higher moral code than just law and order. Paraphrasing the MLK quote, the law is right until it isn’t. Or like that thought experiment—I can’t remember the name—Koehler or something—-where a poor man needs a prescription for his sick wife or she’ll die. The pharmacist refuses to sell him the medicine at a fair price. The letter of the law says to leave it at that, but morally, saving the life of his wife is more important than the letter of the law. In this case, stealing the medicine would be the more moral choice. (I think in D&D this is called chaotic good.)

  8. Victoria Leo says

    Thanks for this wonderful series on the Antagonist. In my series, there are occasional characters who represent the antagonistic force in one lunge of that force, but the force is the antagonist. So many writing experts talk only in terms of a character as the Antagonist. So thank you and hooray!

    Had to laugh about your post on the Antagonist ending up twice as long as planned. So was my 2nd novel in the series. I got to The End and THEN realized that it was 700 pages long. No wonder it was 2 months late! So I broke it in half, at a nice cliff-hanger, rewrote a bit to shave off 100 pages (making really long paragraphs helped too! LOL) and had two books. So I can imagine how you felt with these two teachings! There’s always a solution!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hah. Yes, I felt like it was an important enough subject that it deserved not to be abbreviated. Plus, I get two posts for the price of one this way. 😉

  9. In my memoir, my antagonist is a hospital that was endangering patient lives. The supervisor of the department, along with the department director, HR managers, the CEO, fellow employees, attorneys, and others, all came against me when I spoke up to protect patients from an unsafe practice. Legally, the employees and the hospital were considered to be synonymous, so when the hospital was found guilty, in court, of violating patient safety laws, and committing malice towards me, all of the perpetrators and the facility were equally culpable.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Which is a great example of how antagonistic “proxies” can function under the broader umbrella of a main antagonistic force.

  10. Hmmm. My prior comment didn’t post. Simply put, I’m a healthcare whistleblower, so the antagonist in my memoir is the healthcare organization that came against me when I spoke up to protect patients. The employees and managers involved were considered synonymous with the hospital, so the antagonist in my story is both the hospital and the individuals who opposed me.

  11. My WIP is totally from the vantage of the protagonist. So thank you for taking me on a walk through my plot using the eyes of my antagonist. I love my antagonist and don’t want to lose her humanity in telling the story. It is good to remember how high the stakes are for her as well as the protagonist. Thanks for making this post a two-parter instead of abridging it! I needed it all.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I tend to like stories that focus their POVs on the protagonist, but it *can* get very tricky to keep the antagonist feeling lively and “human.” We need all the tricks we can get. 🙂

  12. sjhopkirk says

    Awesome podcast as always (I couldn’t wait to see it today to finish the pair.

    Here’s an analysis of what I’ve written based on your teaching:
    My antagonist is a hidden force causing a compulsion for Father’s and sons in pursuit of NHL careers.
    The protagonist, a son, goes through a positive change arc. Seeing the lie of the hidden force. Making a proactive important decision to steer away from the NHL pathway to avoid it.
    Another boy embodies the worst possible outcome in a negative, or disillusionment, arc. He engages the hidden forces to get to the NHL whatever the cost.
    I was motivated by the notion of their two worlds colliding in the conflation of the forces on the NHL pathway. Thus, to “show” their contrast when engaging the antagonistic force.
    First meeting as peers, but from different towns. Almost becoming friends; becoming brutal enemies. Parting paths at the third plot point. Then coming together at the climactic moment to a reconciliation with the truth.
    The two do have a significant and dramatic clash at the midpoint. Yes a mirror gets broken as a natural part of the scene : )
    Along the way the boys are more similar than different but opposite sides of the same coin. (Also enjoyed podcast on that, and highlighted their similarities more as a result).
    The flat arc fathers collide on top of this adding more stress and contrast. Each has a different motivation toward the same end of NHL careers for their boys.
    The two boys appear as grown men in the climactic scene. One is a “Hermit” by this point. The other a “Crone”, but with a new found confidence and power that slides him toward the Witch side of Crone.
    I struggled with how they would come together in the climactic moment. Especially as a natural consequence of their two arcs. Given their distance apart at the end it is unlikely they would meet in person.
    Yet, I maintained a modest undercurrent of supernatural effect and affect throughout. So I decided to leverage this with an embodiment of Karma. Starting early, in act one, and then making it more conscious in the protagonist in act two onward. And, so this embodiment presides over the two. Their meeting in the climatic moment takes place in a connected dream-hallucination state.
    True events inspired the manuscript, so I am worried. But, if their next state is to become a “Mage” or “Miser” or “Sorcerer”. The scene sets the stage for them to make more informed choices based on a joint reflection of what brought them together in the first place…thoughts welcome.

    My Best, Steve from Calgary (pen name SJ HopKirk)

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