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Monday, November 26, 2018

Brainstorm Your Antagonist's Plotline Earlier

Over the last few weeks I have actually started brainstorming and even outlining my next novel. I still have a lot to figure out but recently, I was reminded again how effective it can be to consider your antagonist's plotline early in the process.

Most of us have a rough idea of what our antagonist is or does by the time we really sit down to brainstorm. At minimum, we at least have a notion. After all, we need an antagonistic force to have conflict for a story.

But it's very easy and very tempting to put all our focus on the protagonist. It's absolutely necessary to spend plenty of time discovering and nailing down our protagonist, but it can be extremely effective to really consider your antagonist quite early in the process.

This is because (obviously) the antagonist will be what your protagonist is up against.

Often we might focus only on the protagonist's view of the plot, thinking about what sorts of obstacles, conflicts, and resistance they will meet and need to overcome and what will be interesting.

However, the antagonist has a very different view of what's going on, even if it doesn't all make it on the page. He or she or it will be "fighting" against the protagonist. The protagonist reacts and battles the antagonist, but so does the antagonist react to and battle the protagonist.

If your antagonist is a person or society (as opposed to nature or self) you should consider how their plot would play out. What would they do next? How would they respond to the protagonist's efforts? What is the cleverest way they would handle this situation?

When you take the time to consider the antagonist's story early, you will be able to brainstorm and map out a more powerful story for your protagonist.

Beyond the protagonist and main antagonist, it's also helpful to take some time to consider what the situation looks like through other characters' perspectives (as long as you don't get too carried away). How does the love interest view what is playing out between the antagonist and protagonist? What about a close family member or friend? Like the main antagonist, it can also be very effective to look at the plot, conflict, or issues from any other antagonistic forces.

For example, in the project I'm working on, the protagonist has to team up with a gray character who is an antagonist-sympathizer. Though he's not the main villain, I have found that I can brainstorm a better story when I take time to think about his view, actions, and reactions, early in the creative process. What this does is give my protagonist more powerful or significant conflicts. I have better quality ideas, and my protagonist needs to deal with them in clever ways. In other words, it produces a better story quicker. I have better ideas in brainstorming.

This sort of approach is also a great way to help you create strong side characters, because it ensures you are creating a plot where the side characters don't only exist for the sake of the protagonist.

When we are learning to plot for the very first time, we are often asked to consider what try/fail cycles and obstacles are keeping the protagonist from reaching his goals, and then trying to brainstorm what those are and how he overcomes them. Then we might go back and see how the antagonist can make those obstacles happen, or what kind of antagonist we need. Then, we might start fleshing out and filling in the side characters to populate the story.

When it comes down to it, I don't really believe there is a "wrong" approach to coming up with your story--you have to find what works for you. But when you are next brainstorming, try taking time to consider your antagonist and supporting cast earlier and see if that helps you actually develop a better plotline for your protagonist.

We talk about the antagonist as a character a lot, but perhaps not enough about his or her or its own actions and reactions when brainstorming.

Here are some benefits to doing this:

- Your story will feel more authentic
- It will be "bigger" than what's on the page
- You'll see elements you can play with that you may not have noticed otherwise
- It helps the plot itself from feeling flat; it adds dimension
- You'll come up with ideas you haven't thought of and would not have come up with otherwise
- Your protagonist will have to work harder to deal with his or her conflicts
- The antagonist and side characters will become more rounded

And that's the tip for the week.


  1. Awesome post as always! And ( as always) I have questions. :)
    I've been recently trying to fix one of my books, and I realized I'm not quite sure how well the antagonist character works, or if he even is technically the antagonist as far as the plotline goes.
    In the eyes of the main character, and the majority of the people in that world, he's the villain, but one of the reasons he's seen that way, is because he's going against the true villains, who everyone else either sees as the good guys or at least as neutral. Towards the end of the book, the MC realizes the truth, and winds up working with him, but up until that point, he still kind of exemplifies the antagonistic force.
    The problem is, I'm not sure if that makes him qualify as a villain or an influence character. Villains can obviously be influence characters, for better or worse, but I'm not quite sure how to deal with the actual villains then.
    The true villains (an order of mages) are largely absent from the book, since I was planning on tackling them in a sequel, but one of them makes a brief appearance near the middle, while another is one of the MC's companions. The latter is hiding his identity though, and the MC doesn't find out the truth about him (at least in the current draft) until close to the end.
    So, I guess my question is: what would be the best way to deal with this kind of situation? Or rather, what's the best way to deal with a hidden antagonist? Should I save the actual villains for the next book, or try to hit all the usual beats (pinch points, etc) with them in this one?
    Thanks again for all the amazing articles and answers!

    1. Hey,

      Thanks. I will admit that since writing this article, I have widened my definition and understanding of what an antagonist is. Essentially, simplistically speaking, I would say it's the obstacle or resistance in the way of the protagonist's goal (even if the goal is to simply stop the antagonistic force--that force is in the way). Whether it's a person or something else.

      It sounds like you have a big twist, or at least a big reveal, in your story. So I can see how questions would come up--especially for a twist or reveal that plays off basic storytelling mechanics/structure (like the antagonistic force itself). You are basically setting up "villain 1" as the antagonist for most of the story, but then twisting it so this person isn't a villain after all, but perhaps a hero (if I'm following).

      If he's still seen as the obstacle or resistance in the way of the protagonist's goal for most of the story, then I would say he is still structured to be the main antagonistic force, though he's not necessarily, ultimately a "villain."

      It's a little atypical to have the main conflict be resolved by having the protagonist join the antagonist's side, but not unheard of. As long as the main conflict is resolved in a satisfying or appropriate way, it should all be fine.

      Once they are teamed up, and the conflict between themselves resolved, you will now need a new antagonist (i.e. a force that opposes their (or at least the protagonist's) current (or new) goal.) This sounds like the order of mages.

      I obviously haven't read the MS, but from what you say, I would recommend structuring the story as if the (seeming) "villain" is the main antagonist. Assuming the protagonist comes to see his view at the climax of the book (and therefore the main conflict is resolved), then you should be fine leaving the mages for the next book.

      At the most basic level, the antagonistic force is in conflict with the protagonist because of opposing the protagonist's goal--either directly, or being in the way.

      At the most basic level, the Influence Character is typically a thematic opponent to the protagonist, and is directly or indirectly challenging the protagonist's worldview, often throughout the story. It sounds like your "villain" could be the/a Influence Character, if he ultimately gets the protagonist to convert to his worldview. But it may be that another character is fulfilling this role better and more obviously. Which is fine--sometimes there is more than one Influence Character, and sometimes one seems to be primary while another seems to be secondary.

      Based on your description, I would suggest having the seeming "villain" fulfill the usual beats (pinch points, etc.) as long as he is what is complicating, slowing, blocking, or thwarting the MC's goal(s). If that function is being fulfilled, you theoretically don't need to worry much about the mages until the next book.

    2. Thank you so much for the in-depth reply! You seem to have picked up the general gist of things well. I started this book before I really had any notion of story structure and such like, and have been trying to prod it into some form of order ever since. Hopefully this go through will help, and it's different pieces will start working together better. I hope to be able to make use of your editing services someday when it's been improved! Thank you again!

    3. oh yes, one of those kinds of projects--I have one as well. Honestly, kinda harder than writing something new, but my heart is still in it. Hope yours just gets better and better! Best wishes.


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