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4 Ways to Write a Better Antagonist

4 Ways to Write a Better Antagonist

Part 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:

Not so favorite things included:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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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