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Monday, October 23, 2023

The True Purpose of Antagonists

Hear the word "antagonist," and it will likely conjure up images of "bad guys," like Darth Vader, the Joker, or Mother Gothel; and even a simple search online will reveal that "antagonist" is often defined as a person, group, or even specifically, a character.

None of these things are completely accurate, though. An antagonist is not always a "bad guy." In Death Note, the antagonist is actually the true hero. The antagonist also doesn't have to be a person or a group. In The Martian, the antagonist is the Martian landscape.

Truthfully, any well-written story will be loaded with antagonists. Sure, there may be what we think of as the "main" antagonist. But in order to be a good story, there will be lots and lots and lots of antagonists.

The problem is, so many of us have a narrow view of what an antagonist is.

Yeah, it can be a "bad guy," or another character, or a group.

But it can also be a storm, a computer, a rock, a substance, or even one's own sleepiness.

When we broaden our understanding of the antagonist and comprehend its true purpose, we can write better stories.

Because we can write better plots.

And if you've been with me for a while, you may know I consider "antagonist" to be the second element of plot, with "goal" being the first.

At the most basic level, there are just three types of goals (this will be a review for some of you, but it's better to have a review than leave newcomers in the dark).

Obtain something.

Avoid something.

Maintain something.

The last type often gets a bad rap, because when handled poorly, it can make the protagonist appear passive and the story feel plotless.

In reality, though, it's only a problem if it doesn't have an antagonist.

Just as the other two are problems if they don't have antagonists.

If I want to obtain a trophy, and all I have to do is show up somewhere (i.e. "a participation trophy"), the story doesn't have much of a plot.

If I want to avoid zombies, and nothing is making me go near zombies, the story doesn't have much of a plot.

And if I want to maintain my perfect lifestyle day after day after day, and I don't have thoughts of death, burned breakfast, and suddenly flat feet upsetting my paradise in Barbieland . . . the story doesn't have much of a plot either.

(*It should be quickly noted, though, that some goal types may overlap, depending on the story. For example, Barbie wants to avoid flat feet in order to maintain her lifestyle. So don't get too nitpicky with categorizations 😉.)

At the most basic level, the antagonist opposes the goal.

It is what is blocking, resisting, or pushing the protagonist away from the goal.

You want a trophy? Well, you have to beat the other football team (antagonist).

You want to avoid zombies? Well, your sadistic neighbor is planning to lower you into a pit of them (antagonist).

You want to maintain a perfect lifestyle? Well, let's give you some terrible cellulite (antagonist).

Essentially, the antagonist's role is to create (or be the) problems and obstacles in the protagonist's journey. It creates (or is) the resistance to the goal.

This means that something that is mildly annoying the protagonist probably isn't going to cut it.

Sure, you may argue that it is something the character wants to "avoid," but for the story to be great, the goal needs to be significant, which means the antagonist needs to be significant as well. (And by "significant," I mean it carries meaningful consequences.)

The antagonist may be a direct opponent. The sadistic neighbor wants to lower you into a pit of zombies. You don't want to be lowered into a pit of zombies. You and your neighbor's goals are contradictory.

Or it may be a step out from that. The protagonist and antagonist have the same goal, but they can't both succeed. Each football team wants the trophy, but there can only be one victorious team.

Or it may be more indirect. Gloria isn't trying to ruin Barbie's life. She just has her own goals, and her path--her journey--happens to be ruining Barbie's perfect life.

Sometimes the antagonist isn't intentionally targeting the protagonist.

Regardless, what remains the same is that the antagonist is opposing the protagonist's goal. And for it to be most effective, there isn't an easy, foreseeable way for them to each get what they want (because what one wants somehow opposes what the other one wants.)

This is necessary to create proper conflict within the plot.

Now, as I mentioned above, any solid story will have more than the "main" antagonist. And some stories don't seem to even have one "main" antagonist (such as Hamilton). But whatever the case, there should be regular antagonistic forces.

As I've talked about previously, most stories have big goals that can be broken up into little goals. These often make up scenes (or even acts) in a story. In order for it to be a strong scene (or act) though, it almost always still needs an antagonist. It needs a goal and antagonist to create conflict.

When we think of Star Wars, we often think of the Empire, or Darth Vader, as the antagonists, but if we look at the story by acts or scenes, we see that, while these may be the "main bad guys," they may not always be the current antagonistic force. And they certainly aren't the only antagonistic forces.

For example, initially, Luke's goal is to get off the farm and go to academy--but it's not the Empire that is preventing him from doing that. It's his uncle. In the beginning, Luke's uncle is his antagonist.

And when Luke is trying to get back to the Millennium Falcon, and he falls in a garbage compactor, the garbage compactor and the creature (the Dianoga) become his antagonists.

Likewise, almost none of us would point to Gloria as the main antagonistic force of Barbie, but she is certainly an antagonistic force within scenes (and arguably, for Act I, though we don't yet know her).

This is why it is so important to broaden our perception of antagonists while also refining our understanding of them.

If Luke just easily left the farm and encountered zero problems whatsoever, or Barbie just continued maintaining her perfect life, it would be boring.

Maybe not right away.

But it would hit all too soon.

We need an antagonist for almost every scene, even if it's temporary.

It's the protagonist encountering the antagonist that creates the rising action of conflict in the scene.

And the antagonist does not need to have ill intentions. The antagonist could be a friend or ally who has good intentions.

For example, say Character A needs to get information from Character B (goal), but Character B doesn't want to give it (antagonist), because it will deeply hurt Character A. Even if both characters want what (they think) is best, they still have opposing goals, so there is still conflict. At the end of the scene, either Character A succeeds, or Character B succeeds. They can't both get what they want.

Similarly, the protagonist and her ally may both want to go to London to defeat a villain, but within a scene, they may have opposing ideas of how to get there. The protagonist wants to take a plane, and the ally wants to take a boat. Within a scene, the ally may be the antagonist for the protagonist.

And worth mentioning is that the antagonist may not even be aware it is the antagonist. Character A may need information from Character B, but Character B may be so distracted with his toddler, that Character A is struggling to get it from him. Character B may be oblivious to Character A's distress. Character B is still the antagonist (well, and arguably so is the toddler, who may also be unaware).

Likewise, a flood will not be aware it is the antagonist. But if it's blocking or creating problems for the protagonist on the way to his goal, it's the antagonist.

Consider a character who needs to stay awake to keep watch over camp . . . but his sleepiness is getting to him. Guess what? His sleepiness is the antagonist. He is his own antagonist.

In short, antagonists can show up in a lot of different ways, and there should be lots and lots of them. Whenever an entity is blocking, opposing, or pushing the protagonist away from the goal, it is acting as an antagonist--even if it's not the big baddie.

Make sure your story is full with them.


  1. I love your posts so much! They are so inspiring and helpful.
    As far as antagonists go, does the plot need them at the beginning when you are setting up the "normal"?

    1. Hey thanks! I'm glad to hear. That is an excellent question. I would personally recommend having them in the story from the very first scene, for *most* stories--even if it's simply a scene-level antagonist. It's usually a better, more effective, and more engaging opening than not having them. Sometimes what happens is there will be "ordinary world"/"normal world" antagonists, such as a school bully or a boss, and those antagonists may be left behind after the "adventure" or "journey" starts (Harry Potter vs. The Dursleys come to mind; Luke vs. his uncle).

      With that said, I have seen stories open without antagonists, in which case, you need something else that's really going to hook the audience. The Hunger Games opens without much present antagonism, but there is still the looming presence and vibe of antagonism through District 12, with how the Capitol has impacted everyone's lives there, and not to mention we get a countdown to the reaping, which we know will be life-altering. Worth noting though, is that the "normal" phase is very short in the book--only one chapter.

      In contrast, and to follow up with an example I used earlier, there is very little antagonism during the "normal" phase of Barbie (other than maybe what happens with Ken on the beach, which I think does help, because it brings in a little conflict), but the out-of-the-ordinary "normal" satisfies and holds the audience until the disruption/inciting incident.

      Hope that helps!


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