The Role of the Antagonist in Story Structure, Pt. 1 of 2

If you’re a student of story structure, then you probably have a pretty good idea how each of the major plot beats affects your protagonist—and, indeed, how the protagonist in turn drives the plot beats. But what about the antagonist? What is the role of the antagonist in story structure?

Plot can be described in many ways, but one of the simplest and most useful is that of plot as conflict. And what creates that conflict? Although we often hear the word “conflict” and think of confrontations and altercations, what “conflict” really points to within story is simply the complications that arise when a character’s goal is met by obstacles. The character must re-calibrate—sometimes in a minor way, sometimes in a drastic way—and form a new plan to try to either maintain equilibrium or keep moving forward toward a specific goal.

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The beats of classic story structure present a roadmap of sorts through the rising and falling repeat cycles of a character’s intention, action, and reaction. That character is the protagonist, and we often speak of this character as “driving the plot.” It is the protagonist’s intention and subsequent ability to act upon that intention that frame the plot.

But what about the antagonist?

First, it’s important to remember not all stories will feature human antagonists or even specific antagonists. For example, a story’s main conflict might arise from the protagonist encountering multiple antagonistic proxies who represent the larger antagonistic force of a corrupt societal system, such as we find in stories like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street. That said, the antagonist’s function within the plot is usually most obvious in stories that feature a specific human antagonist whose personal intentions, actions, and reactions oppose the protagonist’s in such a way that they create obstacles for one another.

Especially in a tightly plotted story, the antagonist is every bit as important a driver of the story structure as is the protagonist. Therefore, there’s little wonder I’ve been receiving quite a few requests for a post that focuses on the antagonist’s role at each of the ten major plot beats.

Before diving into an overview of the antagonist’s impact upon each of the structural beats, I want offer a few clarifications:

1. There’s a difference between the antagonist’s structural role and the antagonist’s POV (point of view). Even if the antagonist does not have a POV within the story, he will still be an active force upon the structural beats (even if sometimes just implicitly).

2. The antagonist’s most important structural role is that of impacting the protagonist. From a characterization perspective, it is always important to create the antagonist as a person who is as fully dimensional as the protagonist. However from the perspective of plot dynamics, the antagonist functions primarily as a catalyst for the protagonist’s choices, actions, and development. Therefore, in most stories the best approach will be to view the antagonist less as an equal player within the story’s structure and more as a force that moves the protagonist through the structural arc. This a zoomed-out, mechanical perspective that can help you prevent the problem of an antagonist “taking over” the story. But if it feels too confining, just keep it in the back of your mind and don’t worry about it too much.

3. What follow are generalizations for the antagonist’s function at the major plot beats. Particularly in a story that is focused on a less personal version of the antagonist (more of an antagonistic force instead), the antagonistic effect upon the protagonist will often be less precise. Indeed the catalyst that complicates the protagonist’s desires and moves her forward to seek new solutions may well arise primarily from within the protagonist herself.

4. What I am referencing below is based on a story structure in which the protagonist follows a Positive-Change Arc—which I view as the foundational character arc, upon which all others are adapted. With an understanding of the other arcs (Flat and Negative), you can adjust the following to your needs.

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

Because this turned into quite a lengthy discussion, I’ve split it into two posts. Today we will examine the antagonist’s role in the first half of a story’s structure, from the Hook through the Midpoint.

1. The Role of the Antagonist at the Hook

In some stories, the antagonist will be present from the very beginning of the story. His goal will almost always predate the protagonist’s in some way, although he may or may not be aware of the protagonist’s potential threat to that goal. For that matter, the antagonist may not even be aware of the protagonist’s existence as yet. However, this does not necessarily mean the antagonist will personally show up in the story’s Hook or even in the First Act for that matter.

In a protagonist-centric story (and especially one that does not feature the antagonist’s POV), the Hook will usually focus on the protagonist. If the antagonist is not personally present, the force of antagonism within the story will be represented symbolically via the protagonist’s current state of existence. Thematically, the true antagonistic force in any story is the Lie the Protagonist Believes. One way or another, this Lie will come to be represented by the story’s specific antagonist. However, at the very beginning, it is often enough to simply dramatize the protagonist’s inner conflict, which will prepare a place for the antagonist’s role in her life later on.

Antagonist’s Plot Role in Hook: As a character at this stage in the story, the antagonist will be at work on his own plot goal, probably with no correlation to protagonist. If the goal does directly involve the protagonist, the antagonist may approach or initiate contact with the protagonist in this scene. Since the protagonist has not yet formed her own specific plot goal, she is unlikely to cause or suffer from direct conflict with the antagonist. Their contact, insofar as the protagonist (and perhaps the antagonist as well) knows, is so far incidental.

2. The Role of the Antagonist at the Inciting Event

I like to describe the Inciting Event (or Call to Adventure) as the moment when the protagonist first “brushes” against the story’s main conflict. In some stories, this will mean the protagonist has now become aware of the antagonist as either a person or as someone with the potential to affect the protagonist’s life in ways the protagonist isn’t completely aligned with. In other stories, the protagonist’s Call to Adventure will have more to do with some sort of “invitation” into what will be the Adventure World of the Second Act. Although there can be direct opposition or threat from the antagonist at this point, the conflict is just as likely to arise more symbolically through the personal situations that are challenging the protagonist to accept this invitation.

Again, from a thematic perspective, the antagonistic force may be represented solely through the protagonist’s relationship to the Lie and the Truth. The protagonist’s Normal World is now becoming less functional (although this can be a sign of evolution rather than devolution, as in the case of a protagonist rising to a generally positive life challenge, such as getting a new job). The antagonist may be directly responsible for this growing dysfunction or may simply be symbolically fitted to step into a representation of that dysfunction when he does show up in the Second Act.

Antagonist’s Plot Role in Inciting Event: The antagonist character will also be facing an Inciting Event of sorts, although he may not realize it if he is, in fact, deep into his own plans. He, too, is “brushing” against this story’s main conflict, since the character who will become his primary opponent (i.e., the protagonist) is now on the brink of becoming an obstacle.

In some stories, the antagonist will be aware of the protagonist as a potential problem and will react in some way—which will probably lead to his “meeting his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it” by precipitating the events of the First Plot Point and causing the protagonist to become fully involved with him in the main conflict.

In other stories, the antagonist will remain mutually unaware of the protagonist as a threat (or perhaps even a person) and will interact with any conflict at the Inciting Event in the same thematic way as the protagonist.

3. The Role of the Antagonist at the First Plot Point

In most stories, if the protagonist and antagonist have not physically met each other yet, they will do so at the First Plot Point. At the very least, the events of the First Plot Point will directly propel them into opposing each other’s goals. In stories with “big bads,” the protagonist and antagonist may not physically meet until the Climax, but the protagonist will at least begin encountering significant antagonistic “proxies” who represent the main antagonist’s interests and work against the protagonist to achieve them. In a more personal story, this can signify the beginning of some sort of relationship between protagonist and antagonist—or at least an intensifying of their interaction.

As the turning point into the Adventure World of the Second Act’s main conflict, the First Plot Point signifies the moment at which the protagonist and antagonist become fully engaged with each other in pursuit of their mutually exclusive goals. In fact, one or the other of them may have the specific goal of stopping the other person in order to prevent a catastrophic obstacle to their overarching goal. A story in which the protagonist’s main goal is that of stopping the antagonist will be a story in which the protagonist is in a more reactive role. But it might also be that either the protagonist or the antagonist does not directly oppose the other’s goals until later in the story. For example, in a story about competitors, the bulk of the characters’ obstacles may be personal (learning to master the necessary skills, gaining confidence, etc.) until they finally end up in a direct confrontation at the end of the story.

Antagonist’s Plot Role in First Plot Point: The antagonist character will almost certainly make an appearance, by proxy if nothing else, at this point in the story. He will have become aware of the protagonist in some capacity. Even if he is not yet directly concerned with the protagonist’s ability to obstruct his goals, he will at least recognize the threat and move to protect himself from the protagonist in some way. The connection between the protagonist and the antagonist at this point will be definitive in that it causes a specific domino effect for both characters. Their encounter with each other at this point creates consequences—and their successive attempts to grapple with those consequences will engineer the entirety of the plot conflict to follow.

4. The Role of the Antagonist in the First Pinch Point

Even in a heavily protagonist-centric story, the Pinch Points are designed to put the focus on the antagonistic force. This does not necessarily mean that the antagonist’s POV must be utilized here (especially if it wasn’t used previously). Nor does it mean that the antagonist must necessarily be present in the scene. What is most important at the Pinch Points is that the protagonist feels the “pinch” of the antagonist’s power and presence in the story. Specifically, the First Pinch Point should be a significant reminder to the protagonist of the antagonist’s ability to prevent her from reaching her goals. It is an emphasis of what the protagonist stands to lose and of the antagonist’s potential ability to take that thing away from the protagonist.

For the protagonist, the First Half of the Second Act (which the First Pinch Point splits in half) is a period of relative “reaction.” The protagonist does not yet fully understand the conflict or himself in it. Although this does not always directly correlate to the First Half of the Second Act being a period of “action” for the antagonist, it is an indication that the antagonist is usually at least a little farther ahead of the game than is the protagonist. He might not have much more figured out than the protagonist, but he is one step ahead of the game.

Antagonist’s Plot Role in First Pinch Point: The antagonist will probably make some sort of move against the protagonist here. At the very least, the antagonist will achieve an incidental victory at the protagonist’s expense. The antagonist, too, will have things at stake, and those may be referenced here but specifically in the context of the antagonist’s seemingly being able to protect them better than the protagonist is able to protect hers.

However, in achieving this minor victory, whether physical or psychological, the antagonist will also have sacrificed a little something. Specifically, he will have showed his hand to the protagonist, at least a little bit. The protagonist will gain information or insight about the antagonist. These new clues could be specifically about the antagonist’s plans within the conflict and/or they could be about the thematic context in which both characters are operating. Either way, the protagonist’s growing understanding of the antagonist will lead directly into the Moment of the Truth at the Midpoint.

5. The Role of the Antagonist in the Midpoint

The Midpoint signals a major shift in the conflict. Up to this point, the protagonist will have been operating in a relative state of “reaction,” in which she did not fully grasp the thematic or practical nature of the conflict. But thanks in part to the insights she gained about the antagonist (and thus the conflict) at the previous beat of the First Pinch Point, she will encounter a full-blown revelation or Moment of Truth at the Midpoint. Although this revelation is not enough to yet allow the protagonist to fully overcome the antagonist and reach her goals, it does allow her to shift from a primarily reactive and defensive role into an increasingly active and offensive role.

By extension, this means the antagonist’s fortunes are shifting too. Not all stories will demand that the protagonist’s victory at the end of the story must come by way of the antagonist’s defeat. It’s always possible that the conflict resolves, instead, in a mutually satisfactory way with both characters more or less achieving their goals. In that case, the “antagonistic force” driving the conflict will be less a specific person and more a problematic mindset or mode of being for one or both characters.

However, in classic conflict, the protagonist’s shift into action at the Midpoint will indicate the antagonist’s shift in the opposite direction. Particularly if the antagonist is following a tragic arc, his experience will begin to devolve from here. In contrast to the protagonist’s Moment of Truth, the antagonist is more likely to double down on dysfunctional mindsets and tactics that will eventually prove themselves ineffective in the final outcome.

Antagonist’s Plot Role in the Midpoint: Usually, the protagonist and the antagonist will come together in a significant confrontation of some sort at the Midpoint. Often, the antagonist will be the one who seems to emerge victorious. However, because the Midpoint and its Moment of Truth function as a major wake-up call for the protagonist, the antagonist’s seeming victory is often the result of the antagonist’s making a big move that ends up showing the protagonist the holes in her approach. The antagonist may “win” the Midpoint as a result, but because he fails to walk away with the same insights as the protagonist, he will not subsequently have the capacity to grow and adapt in the second half of the story. He will likely leave the Midpoint from a place of power, but however potent it may still be, it will prove to be a dwindling reserve throughout the rest of the story.


And that takes care of the antagonist’s role in the first half of a story’s structure.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we will study the second half, starting with the Second Pinch Point all the way through the Resolution.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What is your antagonist’s role 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.


  1. Thoughtful as always.

    The Pinch Point is more important than it looks. It’s really there to keep the story tight on two counts, suspense and also to re-center the conflict on the actual antagonist. It’s a godsend for any writer whose Act Two is becoming a “mushy middle” and losing track of which problem is most important.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Agree. Pinch Points are the secret for avoiding the Second-Act woes that writers often face.

  2. The antagonist may “win” the Midpoint as a result, but because he fails to walk away with the same insights as the protagonist, he will not subsequently have the capacity to grow and adapt in the second half of the story.

    Oooh, I love that. That is a cool and useful insight. I’ve been trying to explain to a friend of mine that people don’t change if everything they’re doing is working for them. Reinforcing them by rewarding their behavior with “victories” of any kind will just ensure they’ll maintain the unwanted behavior.

    The antagonist’s victory at this stage is reinforcing that their beliefs and methods are the correct ones. Why *would* they change? And even if the protagonist managed to get “uncomfortably close” to affecting the antagonist, that’s just likely to make the antagonist double down, or look to the wrong cause for any weakness they do perceive. After all, they’re RIGHT, so there’s no need to change. Good to keep in mind when thinking of the antagonist’s side of the journey.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      In a story that presents the protagonist as a hero and the antagonist as, at least, less than a hero, that’s really the whole dynamic: the hero is willing to change but the villain is not.

  3. I’m very happy to see the bad guy get some love!

    I have found that trying to “find” the appropriate role for a particular antagonist is made easier by interviewing the antagonist and getting the story from his or her perspective. Coupled with an interview of the antagonist, the collision points almost define themselves and the motivations of the characters don’t feel forced or contrived to simply fit a desired result.

    I really look forward to Part 2. Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I rarely feature antagonist POV scenes in my stories, but I *always* interview them as part of my outlining process. It’s key to know what’s motivating them, even that motivation remains largely under the surface of the story.

  4. Miriam Harmon says

    How do you always have such perfect timing?
    I was just wondering about this recently. My antagonists often come to play at certain plot beats, but at others they seem…nonexistent. This is definitely helpful for knowing what the antag might be doing at those times, and how to make it seem like they’re still going about their plans just like the protagonist.

    Though, I have to wonder. Since you made the excellent point that at the midpoint, the protagonist should start to see the holes in their ways and try to fix them, while the antagonist doesn’t change because they believe their ways are working—how would that work for a protagonist whose antagonist is himself?
    Let me know what you think, and amazing post as always 😁

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

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

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

      Take a look at what is consistently standing between your character and her goals throughout the story. Whatever you find, that’s your primary antagonistic force and that is what will follow the antagonist’s structural role as delineated here.

  5. Great column as always. One thing I would add, is that I think it helps to write some scenes from the Antagonist’s POV even if you do not plan to use them in the novel, just to get a depth of understanding and as insurance against the dreaded mustache-twirler (a particularly bad look for a female antagonist). If nothing else, it’s fodder for a future novella!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, we want our antags to feel like fully fleshed out human beings whose motivations are just as compelling as the protagonist’s.

  6. Grace Dvorachek says

    I think the antagonist can sometimes be written off as simply “THE Antagonist,” a shallow stereotype used due to a lack of understanding. This is the way I thought about my antagonists only a few years ago, but have since come to a realization: An antagonist is a real character just like a protagonist or a supporting character. The title “antagonist” shouldn’t define them (though perhaps their representation of the Lie might, at least to some extent). Once I acknowledged this, I started focusing on the antagonist’s personality, quirks, traits, etc. as much as I would for any other major supporting character. The result was a much better understanding of both the antagonist themself and their role in the story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The antagonist is a role I’ve always had to work extra hard at in my own fiction. I don’t like reading most antagonist POVs, so I don’t write them into my fiction. But this means it can be hard to get into the antagonist’s head and present his mindset appropriately to readers. It’s a tricky balancing act sometimes.

  7. Colleen F Janik says

    What an amazing, thought-provoking column. You just helped me start to understand my characters’ motivations and personalities more completely. Sometimes it’s a bit overwhelming to attempt to even begin to comprehend the width and breadth and depth of my characters. Sometimes they mystify me beyond words.

  8. In the novel I’m working on, the antagonist is present in the first sentence (in this draft). The antagonist already has a defined plan for the protagonist, even before the start of the story. But the story is told purely from the protagonist’s POV, and the protagonist doesn’t know this, nor does the reader (in the beginning).

  9. I’m writing a MG adventure novel where the 12 -year-old MC’s goal is to climb a mountain (very small, what passes for a mountain in Minnesota.) But it’s a challenging seven-mile wilderness hike for a kid who’s not much of an athlete. He’ll be hiking with an older mentor who is encouraging him to pursue his goals–one of which is becoming a mountain climber someday

    To me, the actual mountain will be one antagonist because the MC will encounter mishaps and problems during the hike. Until that happens, my antagonists in the first half will be a school bully who reminds the MC he’s a loser every chance he gets, a deadbeat father who gets in trouble and almost scuttles the hike, and other family problems that cause setbacks and instill doubt in the MC.

    My question: Does it work to have a “team” of antagonists like this that throws various obstacles and challenges at the MC, or might it lead to a flabby story with no single, clearcut, and formidable antagonist?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It will depend, of course, on how it’s presented. However, it’s totally fine to utilize antagonistic “proxies” who can represent the big antagonist even when he isn’t present onstage. In your case, it sounds more like the mountain is a metaphor for the antagonistic force within the character’s own inner conflict, with the bully character and others representing the actual problems/obstacles/antagonists that the character is trying to grapple with in the outer conflict.

  10. Thanks Katie. My WIP is set in 1930s Berlin and the antagonistic force is the Nazi regime. Mostly it is in the form of laws or cultural attitudes eg anti semitism, which thwart the protagonist’s goals and is portrayed through various officials such as police or members of the public. I then decided to introduce a minor but recurring character who is a Nazi and who complicates/presents obstacles to the heroine’s goal. I notice in film there is often a tendency to have individuals who display the antagonistic force’s characteristics. I now feel my story is stronger for doing this. I guess as readers/viewers we like things personified in some way.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good call! In most instances, personifying a larger antagonistic force, such as a regime or system, makes the threat much more personal and relatable.

      • Thanks for putting that all together in one (2) place with this slant on the antagonist/ic force.
        The first references in my “Keep top of mind” notes, are your earlier posts on antagonist/ic (and contagionist) forces driving the plot(subplots), ensuring the MC “keeps in contact” (even if indirectly) with the antagonist to keep current the raison d’etre for the story, and a third about other characters being the MC of their own stories (citing e.g. Wide Sargasso sea) Without regular convincing evidence of antagonistic motivations and forces, readers need to ignore the lack of drive – which I link to your early cautionary podcast against destroying “Suspension of Disbelief”
        In my own outlining-for-dummies spreadsheet, I have tried to explicitly reference the antagonist’s relationship to MC goals e.g. “Get my love interest by besting my rival, debt collector and societal prejudice.” and in the scene list, I have a key column for recording how the main protagonist/ic/contagionist is or more importantly is NOT driving the other characters.

  11. Great breakdown, as usual, and just what I need. I’m writing middle grade and my antagonist bullies my protagonist, who is determined to make a friend out of him. Of course, that’s what the antagonist wants, too, but doesn’t know how, and doesn’t want to admit it. And my protagonist must evaluate his reason for befriending the antagonist. I feel like we attract the people we need, including the right antagonist to help us grow. Thanks for the post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “I feel like we attract the people we need, including the right antagonist to help us grow.”

      Indeed–and really, this is a great metric to use when choosing an antagonist for a story.

  12. Looking forward to Part II!

  13. My protagonist isn’t aware of the antagonist at the call to adventure, when the woman she believes was her mother dies. It is at this point when she is thrust into a world where she learns the woman was not her mother, but she was kidnaped as a baby. She does not meet the antagonist until “Tests, Allies, Enemies” of the hero’s journey. At which point the antagonist will attempt to manipulate the protagonist into believing those who are her allies are her enemies and she is her ally. My question is: how does this play in to the role of the antagonist vs protagonist you write about?

  14. Wonderful Article! I was able to match up your insights with events in my novel. What I need to revisit are the Pinch Points.

    For much of the novel the protagonist is her own worst enemy, until she understands her Lie, although the antagonistic force has set her up for ultimate failure (in order to take down a notch or two Our Arrogant Bitch Cousin).

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