4 Ways to Write a Better Anta

4 Ways to Write a Better Antagonist

4 Ways to Write a Better AntagonistPart 19 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel

I have to believe Thanos would be a good writer.

Why? Because he totally understands one of the most important principles of story theory:

Pretty, isn’t it? Perfectly balanced. As all things should be. Too much to one side or the other… [and it doesn’t work].

Nowhere is this more critical than in the foundational balance of protagonist against antagonist. This partnership creates plot, creates theme, creates conflict, creates balance.

We might even go so far as to argue that the antagonist is the story. After all, without the antagonist, what is the protagonist? Just a happy dude in a happy world doing happy stuff. Makes for a good retirement-center commercial maybe. But it ain’t a story.

The definition of story, in a word, is change.

If we hark back to middle-school parts of speech, the protagonist is just the direct object. She’s the one being acted upon. The antagonist, though? The antagonist is the verb. The antagonist is the agent of change—the hammer to the protagonist’s stone.

To write a complete storyform—one that is perfectly balanced—your vision for that story must include a fully-realized antagonistic force that has been specifically crafted to oppose, challenge, and change your protagonist at every juncture.

Meet Thanos—the Hammer to the Avengers’ (Infinity) Stone

Hard to believe it, but here we are in Part 19 of our ongoing series the Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel. Like so many of you, I have been eagerly awaiting The Avengers: Infinity War—aka the beginning of the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (as we know it anyway). For a while now, I’ve been experiencing a bit of a malaise regarding the quality of stories we’re seeing come out of mainstream Hollywood, so it was fun just to be genuinely excited about a new movie for a change.

I went into the theater knowing the challenges the movie faced, and I left feeling like the crew at Marvel had made the best possible movie they could have made under those limitations. Is it a hot mess? Oh yeah. But it is also, for my money, a satisfactory payoff of everything so far in the series, as well as (and most importantly) being a grand setup for the final chapter.

It’s entertaining at every step. It carries its length well. It handles its monster-sized cast with as much finesse as was possible. It’s full of consequences (some of which will undoubtedly be overturned, but others that won’t). And it is the perfect stage for (finally) providing an antagonist strong enough and well-realized enough to counter-balance so doughty a protagonistic crew as the Avengers.

Is it a perfect movie? Absolutely not. For my money, it’s not even close to being the best entry in the series and probably not even the best Avengers movie. But it is a fun ride that respectfully and skillfully opens up the Third and final Act of our ten-year adventure.

So a few of my favorites:

  • Honestly, I think my favorite moment in the entire movie was Peter Quill’s utter insecurity in the presence of the mighty Thor.

Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy Avengers Infinity War

  • This moment, which totally gave me chills in the trailer.

TChalla Get This Man a Shield Avengers Infinity War

  • Pretty much all the groupings made for maximum characterizing: Thor and the Guardians; Tony, Peter, and Dr. Strange; Tony and the Guardians; Cap and the Wakandans.

Tony Stark Iron Man Peter Quill Starlord Avengers Infinity War

  • The Hulk refusing to fight after getting trashed by Thanos in the opening.

Hulkbuster Avengers Infinity War

  • And, of course, the snap.

Thanos Infinity war Snap

Not so favorite things included:

  • Not enough Cap. I read somewhere he only got six minutes of screentime, and his section does seem dramatically underserved, although I also read that they’ll be making up for this in the sequel.
  • Giant Peter Dinklage. Just totally didn’t work for me.

4 Ways to Instantly Write a Better Antagonist

One of the common complaints about the MCU is that they rarely realize their antagonists. This is so for two reasons:

1. The antagonist is rarely a direct influence upon the protagonist’s personal journey.

In other words, with a few exceptions (most notably, Iron Man, all of Cap’s movies, and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2), the external and internal conflicts aren’t inherent to one another. This means the climactic Third Act confrontation between antagonist and protagonist often feels somewhat ancillary to the larger story.

2. The antagonist doesn’t get much screentime.

This is usually a direct result of the outer antagonist’s supplementary role to the protagonist’s inner conflict. The further result is that the antagonist isn’t given much opportunity for development.

This is why Loki is so awesome. He’s totally a character in his own right. Over the course of the series, he’s been given nearly as much screentime as many of the main Avengers. He’s not just a token villain or a plot device; he’s a legitimate presence.

Loki Avengers Infinity War

While Thanos might not be the single best antagonist in the Marvel universe, he is unquestionably one of the best realized. Even though he has been present very little in previous movies, his presence has loomed large. By the time we get to Infinity War, we already feel like we know him. And then Infinity War itself does an extremely smart job of paying off all its foreshadowing by evolving Thanos beyond villainous plot device to a character in his own right.

I’m happy that, in Infinity War, they have essentially given Thanos his own movie. It provides profound weight to his presence within the MCU and makes his threat to the Avengers much more formidable for the sequel.

So today, in Thanos’s honor, let’s take a look at four ways Marvel turned Thanos into one of their best antagonists—and how you can learn from them to up your own antagonistic game.

1. Put the Antagonist in Charge of the Plot

This one is totally counter-intuitive. Isn’t the story supposed to be about the protagonist? Isn’t the protagonist supposed to be active rather than passive? Isn’t the protagonist supposed to be cooler, stronger, and ultimately more powerful than the antagonist?

The problem with that line of thinking is that all of these are trick questions. Their collectively affirmative answer isn’t necessarily a wrong one. But it is misleading.

If you’re going to tell a convincing story of change, then the antagonist must play the dual role of forcing that change and providing a yardstick of sorts against which to measure the protagonist.

There are two different ways you can create this dynamic within your story:

1. Give your antagonist a head start toward the goal.

To one degree or another, in almost all stories, the protagonist is not the one who initiates the larger conflict. Rather, the protagonist joins the conflict in the Second Act. In order for there to be conflict to be joined, something or someone else must be causing it.

That’s where your antagonist comes in. Whether your antagonist is a person, an oppressive system, or even the protagonist’s own inner problems, this opposing force is something your protagonist reacts against. It may be the protagonist recognizes the inherent destruction in the antagonist’s goal and forms his own goal of opposing the antagonist. Or it may be the protagonist forms his own goal, independent of the antagonist, only to discover their two goals oppose one another—creating conflict.

Either way, antagonistic forces that contribute cohesively to the entire storyform are almost always those that control the conflict from the outside. It is the protagonist who must rise to meet them, not the other way around.

2. Make your antagonist inherently stronger.

By extension, if you want to create gripping and realistic stakes within your story, the antagonist needs to be formidable. He needs to be someone the protagonist can’t defeat at the outset. He needs to be someone who makes not just the protagonist doubt his own abilities, but the audience as well.

After all, if the protagonist is more powerful than the antagonist from the start, why is it taking a whole story for the conflict to reach its obvious ending?

In Which Thanos Takes Charge

There are several nuances to Thanos’s formidibility.

1. Foreshadowing/Buildup

Thanos has the advantage of great press coverage. We’ve been anticipating this dude almost since the beginning of the series. He’s been teased over and over. The Avengers are duly freaked out about him. Some of them have even spent time onscreen trying futilely to hunt him down or oppose him. Before he even sets foot on the main stage, audiences are already primed to understand this guy is a big deal.

Thanos Arrives on Titan Infinity War

2. Characteristic Moment

And when he finally does step up to the camera, he is given a powerfully demonstrative take-no-prisoners Characteristic Moment. When he trashes Hulk in his first scene, he proves instantly and inarguably that he can take on the the strongest of the Avengers without breaking a sweat.

Thanos vs Hulk Avengers Infinity war

3. Longstanding Goal

Thanos was pursuing his goal of balancing the universe long before he ever registered on the Avengers’ radar. In other words, he’s way ahead of the game. At the beginning of this story, he’s already well into action, which leaves the Avengers no other choice but to react. His offense is truly his best defense. They can’t take it to him; they can only take it from him.

This will, of course, evolve in the next movie as they regroup and form active goals of their own in an attempt to reverse Thanos’s victory. But as with all solid storyforms, they start out in a reactive mode (not to be confused with passivity), scrambling to figure out why their old methods for living are no longer successful.

Thanos Crushing Cube Infinity War

4. Personal Strength/Resources

Finally, Thanos himself is an impressive personage. As a Titan, he is more physically powerful than any one of the Avengers. After half a dozen of them throw everything they’ve got at him, Thanos wryly points out:

All that for a drop of blood?

But if that weren’t enough, Thanos’s basic goal is one that will only enhance his power within the conflict. Everyone in the story understands that however formidable Thanos is without the stones, he will become unstoppable with them. Hence, the stakes.

Captain American Thanos Infinity Gauntlet Infinity War

2. Give the Antagonist Objectively Good Qualities, Even Virtues

Good characters are rounded. They’re real human beings. They’re neither black nor white. They’re gray. Good guys have bad qualities; bad guys have good qualities.

Although we all love a good bad guy we can love to hate, the best antagonists are those who are compelling characters in their own right. They need to have motives just as primal and vulnerable as the protagonist’s. They need to have convincing moral justifications for their actions.

They need to demonstrate the same basic needs and desires we all have:

  • To pursue meaning and purpose in their lives
  • To experience emotional connection with people they care about
  • To improve themselves as individuals
  • To expiate their sins

To this end, it’s important to realize that “antagonist” and “villain” are not always synonymous. The “antagonist” is an integral piece of the storyform, as an opposing force to the protagonist. In itself, the role demands no specific moral alignment. In fact, it is entirely possible for an antagonist to be the most righteous person in a story.

But even if they are not morally good, it’s still important to balance their negative attributes with convincing positive aspects. Bad guys who are charming or even kind are all the more interesting. Bad guys who are conflicted evoke our empathy. Bad guys who are funny or outrageous can make us like them in spite of ourselves.

In short, bad guys should be reasonably aware of how the world sees them, as well as how they want to be seen.

In Which Thanos Is a Good Ol’ Boy

When word first trickled down the grapevine that Josh Brolin had been cast as Marvel’s arch-villain, my initial reaction was Whaa? With that all-American jaw and that Pa Walton voice, he wasn’t exactly the scenery-chewing, death-wielding, baby-eating monster Thanos was supposed to be. In short, he initially seemed like a weak choice.

But now it all makes sense. The sincerity and even uprightness Brolin’s performance brings to the role is one of the things that lifts Thanos beyond the single dimension of pure evil to a nuanced and compelling exploration of humanity. He demonstrates many excellent qualities. His henchman wasn’t lying when he said:

No other being, has ever had the might, nay, the nobility, to wield not one, but two Infinity Stones.

As an antagonist, Thanos surprises us with his many “good” qualities, including his patience, his dignity, his compassion, and the “philanthropic” motives behind so evil a mission as wiping out half the universe.

Is he still bad? Still scary? Still the worst thing the Avengers will ever face? Yup. But it’s the balance brought to his character by his good traits that turn him into someone memorable.

Thanos in Titan Armor Infinity War

3. Create Someone Who Loves the Antagonist

This is a trick that is too often overlooked. Many authors understand the antagonist should have some good qualities to keep him from becoming a Snidely-Whiplash stereotype. Often, we try to accomplish this by giving the antagonist someone to love (i.e., a dog to pet). If they’re trying to enact their evil plan so they can save their little daughter from leukemia, then we’re giving him a sympathetic side, right?

Yes. But don’t stop there. Even more powerful than giving the antagonist someone to love is creating someone who loves the antagonist.

Creating an antagonist who loves someone else isn’t so surprising, or even endearing. Anybody can love. It’s the most natural of human instincts. But if someone else sees something worth loving within this potentially despicable person, then that can force readers into also viewing the antagonist through this surprisingly sympathetic lens.

This was done to great effect in Daredevil, another Marvel production, in which we see a woman fall genuinely in love with the antagonist Wilson Fisk. It causes us to view him in an entirely different light than if she had failed to find anything lovable in him.

In Which Thanos Loves and Is Loved

Thanos’s relationship with his adopted daughter Gamora is the emotional heart of the story. She is the only one among the Avengers (because technically she is an Avenger now, yeah?) who has a personal relationship with the antagonist.

She hates him. But she also loves him in spite of herself.

One of the best scenes in the film, for many reasons, is the scene in which she believes she has killed Thanos and weeps over his body. Thanos then reveals the entire moment was an illusion. He is obviously touched by her grief, however conflicted it may be:

Is it sadness I sense in you, daughter? In my heart, I knew you still cared.

In flashbacks, we see Thanos’s genuine kindness to a young Gamora juxtaposed against his ruthless brutality in slaughtering half her people, including her family. We understand the anguish Gamora suffers in being able to recognize both Thanos’s best and worst features—and loving and hating them in turn.

More than that, we see Thanos’s love for her. It softens and rounds him—and makes him all the more horrifying when he doesn’t hesitate to hurt and manipulate her, before finally choosing to sacrifice her in spite of his great love for her.

Thanos and Gamora hands Infinity War

4. Link the Antagonist and the Protagonist

The antagonist powers the external plot conflict; the protagonist powers the internal thematic conflict. For a story to be both cohesive and resonant, the two must be linked. They must each affect the other in equal measure.

The easiest way of accomplishing this is by making sure the antagonist and protagonist are linked in some way. As mentioned at the beginning of the article, this has been one of the biggest pitfalls for Marvel villains so far. If the protagonist’s presence in the conflict is not driven by his internal arc and if the external conflict is not ultimately decided in conjunction with the internal arc—then something’s amiss.

At some level, overcoming the external antagonist must be either a metaphor for or a direct application of the protagonist’s culminating inner journey (as it was in Black Panther). If not, it’s likely because the two conflicts aren’t joined at their heart.

This is just as true in stories that are not heavily thematic or focused on character change—because in these stories, the protag/antag battle is literally all there is. In these stories, the relationship between the characters and the reasons for their conflict against one another must be absolutely clear—and the more personal the better.

In Which Thanos and the Avengers Come Full Circle

In all fairness, Thanos actually had this one much easier than most of his villainous predecessors. Because he’s been teased almost from the beginning of the series, and because the Avengers have been preparing defenses against him for almost as long, there is an established link long before Infinity War even starts.

Thanos is committed to wiping out half the universe; the Avengers are committed to protecting that same universe. They are linked before they ever meet. In essence, the Inciting Event of their conflict has already taken place long since. The Avengers already aware of the conflict. Pretty much the entirety of this story is their “Second Act.”

Add to that Gamora’s direct connection to him—and thus her direct and personal responsibility to stop him—and you get a strong enough link between antagonist and protagonist to carry the story.

***

When a strong protagonist and a strong antagonist meet for a dance of death (whether literal or metaphorical), what you’ll end up with is a perfectly balanced storyform that aces cohesion, resonance, and effectiveness.

Stay Tuned: Next time, we’ll examine how Ant-Man and the Wasp could have improved its themes.

Previous Posts in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What do you think has helped you write a better antagonist? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

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

Comments

  1. Robert Billing says:

    Another interesting post, thanks. The one thing I learned at an early stage was that every good antagonist thinks that they are really the protagonist. They never think they are evil, never query the idea that they are right and the only ones who really know the truth. You can’t cause 9/11 if you have the slightest doubt that god wants you to kill thousands of people.

    From CS Lewis’s “Screwtape Letters” I also got the idea that great sinners are not fallen mice or fleas, but fallen angels. The greater power for good they would have been, the greater power for evil they become after falling.

    And so I came to create Arthur. He is an extremely talented engineer, his son believes in him and he is capable of developing some really nasty weapons. He suffered at the hands of his abusive father, scraped together enough cash for a ticket to another planet, and that’s where it all went wrong:

    (His wife) ‘They saw a fourteen year old boy with a pile of creased stellar mark notes at a spaceport. Of course they looked for his parents—and found Bruce. They asked Arthur if everything was all right, but he was too frightened of Bruce to say it wasn’t. That hurt him. Late at night, if Arthur had been in drink, he’d say to me that one day he’d break the space line, and he’d decide where he went, not somebody in a uniform.’

    He believes that by destroying the established system he really can make life better for everyone, even though we could be talking of casualty counts in billions.

    All that stands between him and success is a twenty year old woman, scared but determined. All he has to do is break her under interrogation. And that’s where it all goes wrong for him.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nice. A well thought out antagonistic world view can make all the difference in elevating a story.

  2. It’s something you wrote somewhere – but I cannot find it right now…

    Anyway, it was something like the antagonist being a mirror of the protagonist.
    I used it in the second pinch point, where the antagonist is telling my protagonist how similar they are, in order to get her on his side. She’s almost won over, but in the end she decides she can and want to make other choices than the antagonist. Later on, at her low point after plot point three, she wonders if he is right after all – and decides she did the right thing, although it seems she lost everything like her new friends and love interest.
    It made my antagonist also more human: I could understand him, understand why he did what he did, although I think he made the wrong choices. And it made the story better, stronger I think.

    (And now I really want to know where I read this. Was it in your character arcs book? An article on the website?)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It may have been in this post: 7 Ways to Write Thematically-Pertinent Antagonists.

      I love this when it happens in stories–when the antagonist can look the protag in the eye and say: “You’re just like me.” And the protag knows it’s true. 😉

    • Hi Marja,

      For more on the protagonist/antagonist mirror relationship, you might want to check out Katie’s 9/16/16 Ant-Man post.

      When I was struggling to figure out where I’d gone wrong in my story, reading the above post entitled “How to Choose the Right Antagonist for Your Story” illuminated the problem with laser clarity. (See point #3).

      I realized I had erroneously chosen my dark-as-night villain as the main antagonist, when the mirror and thematic antagonist was actually my protagonist’s own father, the man she had put up on a pedestal her entire life. Both father and daughter had suffered traumatic childhoods, but only the daughter chose to bravely face her past, growing into a strong, independent young woman as a result. The father…eh…not so much. Switching from the evil villain to the mirror antagonist brought my dying manuscript back to life. (Thanks, Katie!)

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Yay! That’s fabulous. This is one of the single greatest measures to achieve overall cohesion and resonance in a story.

  3. Great article. I see where I am going well in my writing and now I see how to tweak it into something better. I am in my first full rewrite. I know it needs to be cleaned up and tighten. If I can see this my readers would diffidently have found it I write fantasy, in my story the protagonists has been hidden away for his youth to protect him from the antagonist. His whole youth has been a lie. When he is brought out of hiding at 18 years old, he is expected to be a hero/savoir of the world. The world has been invaded by Belial a demon lord and he is suppose to defeat him. One by one he finds everyone he has trusted since his return is lying to him. They keep asking him about the gift his mother gave him and he is clueless about this. He wants to ask his mother but he was told she is dead. He discovers that was a lie at the end of book one. Belial remains mysterious not directly involved in book one his lackey Seth is chasing after Jack and is trying to manipulate folks close to him to bring Jack to him. All he wants is Jacks gift.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like Belial is the overarching series antagonist with Seth being the primary antagonist of this book.

  4. Louis Burklow says:

    I agree with making the antagonist strong enough that defeating him/her/it will be a great challenge. Sometimes, though, I think the writer can go too far and create such a monster that it’s just not believable that they can be defeated. Usually in those cases the way the antagonist is vanquished is not believable at all. While I want the hero to have to work hard I don’t want to feel he or she only won in the end because of luck or skills they never had until it was convenient for them to occur.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. The antagonist’s defeat needs to be sensible as a result of the protagonist’s growth. If he wins on luck that’s no better than deus ex machina.

  5. What about pulling a Chesterton:

    Somewhere near the end of the story, there is a revelation/change of perspective, and the antagonist turns out to be the protagonist (and possibly v.v.), and to have been the protagonist all the time.

    How does that fit in the whole (excellent!) book structure theory that you are teaching us?

    This goes deeper than the “Hustle” trick, where seeming defeat is, by a revelation, shown to have been victory. The policeman in the first Hustle episode was playing a rôle, whereas Innocent Smith (in Manalive) has always been himself.
    (I take those two examples, because I think with Hustle. the first episode comes closest to pulling a Chesterton, and Manalive comes closest to the Hustle trick, by having Smith depend on people not knowing his intentions.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Two things:

      1. It’s important to remember that the roles of “protagonist” and “antagonist” have nothing to do with moral alignment. The protagonist is simply the character who drives the story’s action; usually, the protagonist is also the main character. The antagonist is the character opposing the protagonist’s goals and creating the conflict. Both need to be present throughout the story, or the storyform falls apart. They can’t, strictly speaking, switch roles without knocking the whole storyform out of whack.

      2. It is possible to pull a switcheroo in which a seemingly side character takes center stage later on. But this is *extremely* hard to do well in a way that doesn’t destroy the story’s overall cohesion and resonance. As with any plot twist, the switch needs to be properly foreshadowed, integrally advance the plot, and, perhaps most importantly, provide readers with an experience they will appreciate *more* than if they hadn’t been fooled.

  6. First of all, I have to say I was a bit stunned at the end of “Infinity War”. I went “you do call this an ending?” … but of course it isn’t, it probably just is the end of act 2. I did like the movie, but felt a bit rushed/overwhelmed: There were so many scenes/plot events, that I could hardly enjoy one when the next “bit stage” was already being opened. To me it was more of a roller coaster ride than a story. But of course there was a lot they had to pack in.
    Regarding the antagonist (and yes, Loki is the best, and I am quite grumpy they killed him off so early in the movie): the antagonist in my WIP felt a bit fuzzy around the edges for a long time. I liked him and enjoyed writing scenes for him, but after a while I realised I did not know his background enough. I knew his goal, but not where it came from. So I looked back into is past and found it. And now I like him even more. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I was prepared for a cliffhanger ending, knowing it was a two-parter. I liked it, thought it was resonant and all that. My only minor qualm is that most of the deaths in the end weren’t deeply moving for me, since I knew many of them would inevitably be reversed.

  7. Fantastic article as always. I applaud the duo of Markus and McFeely for tying up many plotlines and character vines as best they could in 2 and a half hours. I read some reviewers and fans wanting Captain America to be the anchor of the film, but I think having Tony Stark as the audience anchor was the right call. This was the man with PTSD for the attack ordered by Thanos at the top and calling Thanos his own “curse” emphasized what this opponent means for Tony.

    And on another note, one of my friends introduced me to Korean cinema recently and I have been hooked. Have you seen some famous films from South Korea? They’re absolutely fantastic and rich with character arcs I wish Hollywood would be as consistent on. One particular filmmaker of note is Bong Joon-Ho. He made Snowpiercer with our Captain America Evans a few years back, which I was lukewarm on, but his 3 films prior to that are all sublime. I highly recommend ‘Memories of Murder’, ‘The Host’, and ‘Mother’.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I haven’t dived into Korean film yet, although I keep hearing really good things about it. Thanks the recommendations. I’ll check them out!

  8. Michael says:

    I think for me, really focussing on what and/or who the antagonistic force is is one of the reasons for a major re write. I think what i am confused about is the difference between the antagonist in the form of say an inner conflict and when that is just part of their character arc. Overcome the internal to overcome the external? Or would they both be, in a sense, antagonistic?

    I agree the antagonist doesn’t have to be less than human, like all of us they subjectively evaluate their world and come to conclusions. I like agent smith in the matrix who compares human behaviour to viruses, and to some extent he was right. The word antagonist doesn’t mean bad, it is an amoral word. In fact, the protagonist is the antagonist of your antagonist.

    I think kids movies use point 3 a lot, the antagonist sidekick. It also allows dialogue to occur to develop character and plot which would not be as interesting or natural to include otherwise.

    Sorry im waffling.

    • 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.

      • Michael says:

        Thanks. Im trying to get to the roots of my story. I think my theme is hope, which my protagonist is one of only a few who possesses any. Yet he also struggles with his own significance.

        So its likely that his own confidence in his ability, certainly in the first book. What im thinking is that in the first book he will realise his strength. The second book he will be growing and testing it, likely it will then fail at the end and in the third he will have to relearn the deeper meaning and application of it.

        So im think he will have a positive arc in the first book, a flat arc in the second until the end and another positive arc in the third showing an overall positive change. Thats the plan anyway!

        His wife will have her own arc of developing her own hope even in dire circumstances. So her tendency towards hopelessness due to her background will be the main thing she has to overcome, she relies on her husbands hope but cant when they get seperated.

        The external has historically caused the issues they face internally. But, the external also then forces them to overcome the internal, which then leads to help overcome the external.

  9. Thanks for the post!
    I’m trying to shape up my antagonist in my book, and this has already helped me tremendously!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s great! Antagonists have been a weak point for me in the past, but they’re really fun once you start developing them.

      • Yes! I agree-my antagonist’s personality and motives have gone all over the place for so long, but I finally feel like it’s (slowly) all coming together!

  10. First, I must thank you for all the amazing posts that have been teaching me so much over the last year or two.

    Second…help. I have been struggling to define an antagonist that is an abstract concept. So, to elaborate, he has a few antagonists, such as local lawmen; agents of an ancient shadow society; people from his own Order as he begins to bend rules to get to the truth; and even his lover as her ambition overwhelms her loyalties. Of course, there will have to be a master villain/antagonist to battle in the end, but as I am aiming for a warrior/mage/monk protagonist with Sherlock tendencies (and a little Batman when the pressure and paranoia builds), I will have to be super careful with the foreshadowing when he/she is revealed.

    Anyway, he has always been taught that his culture is morally superior and that demons and those that practice the dark arts are inherently evil, whereas the truth is far more ambiguous and convoluted. Does this mean his own culture becomes an antagonist? I assume so, and that it would create internal conflict.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Take a look at whatever antagonist the protagonist defeats (or is defeated by) in the Climactic Moment. That’s your main antagonist and the one who needs to be present, at least by implication, in all the major structural moments. It’s totally possible that the main antagonist is societal and represented by human proxies throughout.

      • Thanks for the insightful reply, I am now confident that my character’s culture fits in with The Lie The Character Believes, rather than as an antagonist.

        Regarding Thanos, as mentioned in other comments, his solution is a little ham-fisted, but I did enjoy that he is motivated by altruism. So many antagonist’s goals are driven by greed (Obadiah Stane, Justin Hammer), envy or jealousy (Loki), or revenge (Ronin, Baron Zemo). Thanos was well aware of the atrocity he was committing and tried to accomplish this as fairly as possible.

        In his defence, according to a famous quote, to a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Just ask Thor.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yes, it’s always refreshingly interesting to find antagonists motivated by virtues rather than vices, even if their actions are entirely misguided.

  11. Garrett says:

    Great stuff to chew on here, Katie! But Thanos the antagonist?! Whaaaaaa? ;-p

    I was surprised the article wasn’t titled, “Creating Protagonists who can be Villains,” especially after you backed that idea up with what you said: “… antagonist and “villain” are not always synonymous. The “antagonist” is an integral piece of the storyform, as an opposing force to the protagonist. In itself, the role demands no specific moral alignment…”

    I thought the protagonist was the one who is objectively, *for* the story goal, and the antagonist the one *against* the story goal. Considering their functional purpose within the story rather than their emotional status within the hearts of the audience (which you pointed at).
    In “Infinity War” this makes sense as Thanos is *pursuing* the stones and The Avengers are trying to *prevent* him. If I remember correctly (which I may not be), doesn’t Thanos’ purpose define the first scene of the film in which we learn what he’s after?

    Actually, this reminds me a lot of “How to Train your Dragon” if you’ve seen that. The objective story goal is to train a new generation of dragon killers. One person works for that goal, the other against it. Hiccup’s father Stoick, wants the kids to learn how to take down the dragons, while Hiccup works against that. The one character everyone naturally assumes is the protagonist–Hiccup–actually works as the *antagonist* of the main story when seen objectively. Which, I think, is why the film has a different “feel” than a most films. The goal is negative, similar to “Infinity War.”

    What are your thoughts on this, Katie?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yeah, you’re not wrong. You can definitely make an argument for Thanos as protagonist here (I think you and I talked about that elsewhere). One important clarification, however, is that antagonists always have goals and those goals always frame the conflict, since the antagonistic goals almost always exist before the protagonist’s (Hiccup vs. Stoick in How to Train Your Dragon is a perfect example of this).

      Because Thanos is the clear unifying throughline in Infinity War, we could make the argument that he’s the protagonist. But within the overall scope of the story (or even specifically just his story as ignited in the first Avengers), he’s clearly set up as the antagonist with the Avengers as ensemble protagonists.

      It will be interesting to see how this balance is addressed in the next movie. I fully anticipate that Thanos will have far less screentime in that story. That’s as it should be, which makes me all the happier that they really spent time developing him in this movie.

  12. Eric Troyer says:

    Nice post again, Katie. I generally liked “Infinity War,” but I didn’t think it was great. (For example, the pulling-the-gauntlet-off-Thanos scene had some nice moments, but did NONE of the Avengers think of trying to cut his arm off?).

    I have two problem with Thanos. I like that he has a greater goal that’s better than the Ruling-the-Universe cliche. But the universe is overpopulated? The Earth being overpopulated is easy for me to accept, but we believe the universe is pretty much infinite. It could be true that it is overpopulated, but I need more convincing. And Thanos’s only solution to this problem is to slaughter half the population? That seems more like the solution of an unthinking goon than a thoughtful character. I much prefer Bertrand Zobrist’s solution in Dan Brown’s “Inferno.”

    To me a good antagonist must make sense at all levels. Thanos doesn’t quite cut it for me in this regard.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yeah, the whole “slaughter the universe for the good of the universe” is becoming a trope for sure.

  13. Garrett says:

    This is interesting. Help me understand this part better: “… antagonists always have goals and those goals always frame the conflict, since the antagonistic goals almost always exist before the protagonist’s.”
    The antagonist’s goals exist before the protagonists goals?
    I’m probably misunderstanding you on this point, and I apologize for stringing this out, but can you give me an example to help illustrate what you mean?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Here’s a post I did on why plots start with the antagonist: How to Plot a Book: Start With the Antagonist.

      Basically, antagonists represent the conflict; therefore, they frame the conflict. The protagonist is “called” to the conflict (i.e., “the Call to the Adventure”), indicating the conflict’s preexistence in some form.

      Of course, sometimes the protag and antag will come to the conflict mutually. Romances are an obvious example of this, since the two leads are each other’s antagonists within the romantic conflict—and, of course, that conflict doesn’t exist until they meet. Although, as I think about it, I suppose you could also argue that in romances the overarching antagonist is loneliness, which, of course, *does* preexist either of the leads joining the specific relational conflict.

      • Garrett says:

        Thanks Katie, for taking the time to clarify.

        Yeah, I thought I might’ve been misunderstanding you. But yeah, I pretty much agree. The conclusion I’ve come to is that a story all begins with an initial event or decision that creates a problem. An abyss opens up and an effort begins to take shape–one with the sole purpose of resolving the initial inequity. One side will be for the successful resolution (Protagonist), one side will be against it (Antagonist). The Story Goal then becomes a concern to everyone in the story–not just a Protagonist’s goal or an individual goal of another character–but a focal point which all the characters orbit around. Not many, but some stories, start from the POV of a protagonist who’s leading the charge to the successful resolution of a problem who’s morally challenged (Karen, in “Michael Clayton” [and if you haven’t seen this film, I’d highly, highly, highly recommend it]); most other times, we start from the POV of a protagonist who’s the hero whom we connect with on all levels (most films in Western cinema).
        So yeah, I think the point is, seeing the objective functionality of what a protagonist and antagonist are, and using them effectively to guide the right approach towards telling a meaningful story.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I agree with this, but with the exception that the protagonist is not defined by a successful relationship to the goal. This is often true, but it’s not definitive. Negative Change Arcs often end with the protagonist failing to reach the goal.

          • Garrett says:

            You are definitely right.
            They may not achieve their goal, but achieve personal fulfillment (goal: failure / judgment: good); achieve their goal but not achieve personal fulfillment (goal: success / judgment: bad); achieve both their goal and personal fulfillment (goal: success / judgment: good); and finally, not achieve their goal or personal fulfillment (goal: failure / judgement: bad).
            I like your arc ‘specifications’ for these same ideas 😉

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Yep, nailed it! 🙂

  14. Katie!

    A quick disclaimer: Though this is my first comment, I have been lurking on this page for over a year now and find your essays immensely insightful. If this “writer” ever makes it to “author”, it will in no small part be thanks to you! 🙂

    I loved the movie – although I must admit that the possibility of time travel ruins any supposedly emotional moment for me… But how Thanos tied the huge cast of characters and various sub-plots together as the central antagonist worked amazingly well. And giving him a backstory full of hurt, as well as the important emotional connections you mentioned set him up as a truly great antagonist.

    However, there was one thing about him that made him completely fall apart for me, and that’s the irrationality and utter shortsightedness behind his master plan (sorry, this is going to be quite similar to Eric’s comment above which I read only after “drafting” this comment… ), and thus, his actions.

    I am not even referring to the point of “if he can kill 50% of populations with a snap of his finger, why doesn’t he simply create food and other resources in abundance?” which is oftne raised in this debate. Even if we accept that would be no viable alternative (for whatever in-universe explanation), Thanos’ plan – in my opinion – remains mindbogglingly stupid.

    The silliest thing about it to me is the one-size-fits-all approach of “50%” everywhere. EVERYWHERE. Situations are already radically different between countries and continents here on Earth alone, now extrapolate that to uncountable planets in vastly different stages of evolutionary and technological progress. The impact on different ecosystems will be insanely and unpredictably different.

    Also, population (re-)growth. Populations will more-or-less quickly recover from the one-time shock. Will Thanos set an alarm clock for when the next culling needs to happen? Or rather, numerous alarm clocks, as all the different populations will grow at wildly different speeds?

    Then there are completely unpredictable effects like critical members of societies suddenly missing (50% of the doctors in your hospital… 50% of nuclear power plant technicians… 50% of the pilots currently in the air…). All this would probably lead to mass panic and chaos (note: in the flashbacks to Gamora’s childhood, there seemed to be Thanos’ troops to keep the peace)

    Worst of all is Thanos’ blindness towards the psychological fallout. His very own experience with Gamora’s death should make clear to him the massive shock of survivor’s guilt and other psychological trauma he would likely inflict upon all societies in the Universe. “Your family just turned into dust in your arms, but hey, you got enough food. Oh you had enough anyway? My bad…”

    I understand that simple plans and solutions sound more powerful and compelling (and entertaining) than boring complex plans – this is true for films you just want to enjoy, as it is for any real-life demagogue today. But for me, this kind of irrational behaviour completely breaks a character. Yes, he IS the “Mad Titan”, but he seems incredibly calculated and cool about his plan.

    I’m not saying they should have a scene of Thanos putting on his reading glasses and brooding over a ginormous excel sheet to work out the optimal killing rates and culling schedules for all the different worlds. (Though I kind of like the idea of not having the super-powered Avengers stop Thanos, but rather a UN delegation of biologists and sociologists and whatnots, giving Thanos a powerpoint presentation on why his plan wouldn’t achieve very much…) Worst of all, is when I hear people in real life saying something like Thanos’ genocidal plan would actually be a neat solution to the world’s actual current problems……..

    Sorry for this incredibly rambling, massive comment. Characters behaving irrationally kind of is my pet peeve and I’d just love to hear your thoughts on this… How critical do you think rationality (I’m not at all excluding emotions from this! Brutally murdering someone in a frenzy of vengeance can be perfectly “rational” for certain characters in certain situations… perhaps “consistent” would be a better term) is for the believability of characters?

    Thanks again for your many amazing posts, IMO your page is the single best resource on the internet regarding storytelling 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Glad you’re enjoying the site! 🙂

      I think rationality is incredibly important. All stories are a dance of readers suspending disbelief and writers trying not to ask them to have to suspend *too* much. The line is different for different stories, and for different readers. I get what you’re saying about Thanos and completely agree with it, but it wasn’t something that bothered me personally. Mostly, this is because I (and most of us) have been trained by this point to just accept holes in bad-guy logic. It’s not optimal, but it is sometimes necessary to allow for enjoyable story experiences.

      Optimally, however, as authors, we should be striving to be as aware of our plot holes as possible.

  15. You always write such informative articles! Thanks!

  16. Great post! I recently listened to piece that considered antagonists that fall into two categories: Villains as the Outcast (think Maleficent is Sleeping Beauty), and Villains as Enforcers (think the Party in 1984). I thought about this while reading your post; in many ways, Thanos is both. While searching for the stones, he is somewhat of an outcast, but once he has them, he becomes an overlord. What do you think about this, and when it comes to antagonists, do you have a preference between the two?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think you’re right. Ultimately, I think most villains end up as enforcers, since when they join the conflict they’re trying to enforce their own goal–and the amount of force necessary increases in direct proportion to the protagonist’s pushback.

  17. Thanks for the awesome post, Miss Weiland!

    First off, I wanted to say (or type in this case) that I am a big fan of your books on story craft. So far I have read “Outlining Your Novel” and “Structuring Your Novel” and they have been very important in my growth as a writer. I also have to say, as a DC fan, Marvel’s Infinity War was my favorite of the year so far! Thanos had the gears in my head turning through all three viewings of the film I went through.

    On the topic of antagonists, I have a character I am super proud of in a story I am writing. He has a justifiable reason for why he is doing things, his actions against the protagonist are powerful, but I thought there could be a problem.

    My protagonist’s family line destroyed everything the antagonist loved, and the antagonist began to plot his revenge. He plans to destroy the entirety of the protagonist’s family line. He nearly succeeds in his plans and thinks he has completed his goal, however, the protagonist (unbeknownst to the antagonist) survived.

    The problem I face is with the antagonist thinking that his goal has been achieved. How can I have a compelling conflict between the two characters if the antagonist has seemingly accomplished his goal, and the protagonist is working in secret to defeat the antagonist? Neither really come into conflict until later on in the story.

    I hope that’s not too vague, but it has been a pothole in the road of ideas. I don’t want the story to be like early Marvel movies where the antagonist has no compelling connection with the protagonist (*cough* Ant-Man *cough*.)

    Looking forward to your next article! God bless!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I would take a look at why the protagonist is working against the antagonist. What is the antagonist doing that the protagonist has to stop? What goal of the antagonist’s is influencing that? The antagonist’s backstory relation to the protagonist may be important, but it’s not necessarily what’s driving the conflict. The exclusive nature of the two goals is what creates the conflict.

  18. Andrewiswriting says:

    I’ve never been more disappointed in a movie. For mine this was the worst Marvel movie yet, and I went into it busting like a kid in a candy store.

    So, turns out The Hulk is a cowardly bully. If he can easily smash smaller opponents, he’s gravy. Give him an actual challenge and he goes to water. Nice. Tip-top work there, Marvel.

    Oh, and Dr Strange is a moron who immediately forgets what he did in his first movie.

    Remember Batman Begins, where it took Christian Bale a whole movie to defeat the Scarecrow, and then in The Dark Knight he phones in beating the same dude in a Bond-like pre-credits opener, to show us how the hero’s grown and internalised the lessons of the first movie?

    Dr Strange not so much. Great defeat of Dormammu using the Time Stone, and then… duhh.

    It sure was pretty, I think this movie set a new bar technically, and there were plenty of great scenes and lines. But if the story doesn’t work without a major protagonist acting in an uncharacteristically dumb way, then your story doesn’t work.

    After 50 years an Avengers fan, Infinity War may be a franchise-killer for me. Such a crushing disappointment.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s very similar to how I felt after Ultron, for different reasons, but they pulled it up in subsequent movies. I’d say stick with it through the end. We’re so close! 😉

  19. I’m late to this party, but I’ve got to say *Infinity War* was a disappointment to me. Thanos was unconvincing to me in so many ways…here he’s got all the power in the universe to create anything he wants and he can ONLY imagine unraveling half of everyone. Like people don’t breed like bunnies. It showed how shallow, unimaginative, and underdeveloped he was as a character.

    And then on top of that he should have NEVER been able to get the soul stone. The only way to get the stone is to sacrifice someone you love…if you love someone you won’t sacrifice them for your personal agenda. It was a trick test. Therefore he didn’t love her and shouldn’t have been able to get the stone.

    Regardless of my personal views on the film you’ve made interesting suggestions for antagonist development. I look forward to trying to incorporate some of them in my WIP

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  1. […] Your characters lead your readers through your story, so it’s important to get them right. Stavros Halvatzis explores working with character traits, Mary Kole wants us to write emotional meaning, and K.M. Weiland shares 4 ways to write a better antagonist. […]

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