I have been writing about the four main characters and why they are literary devices. Last week I started with the protagonist. Today, I’m going to write about the antagonist and his or her role in our stories.
“He that struggles with us strengthens our nerves, and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper.” ~Edmund Burke
As A Literary Device: The antagonist exists to put obstacles in your protagonist’s path. He or she is there to create conflict. Without conflict, there is no plot.
Story Goal: The antagonist’s goal is to try to prevent the protagonist from reaching his or her story goal.
Five Important Things To Remember About Antagonists
- Everybody is the hero of his or her own story. Readers call these characters villains or opposition characters, but they need not be evil or even bad people. If the roles were reversed, the protagonist could become the antagonist. Their story goals are in direct opposition with the protagonist’s story goal. This leads to direct conflict with the hero.
- Give him or her a face. The word, antagonist, comes from the Greek word ‘antagonistēs’, which means opponent, competitor, or rival. He or she should be a person, rather than a force of nature (earthquake, flood), a group (gang, big company), an illness, or a general life condition (poverty, corruption). When a hero is fighting a system, the representative of that system or company becomes your antagonist. (Example: Neo fought Mr Smith in The Matrix.) In a good disaster story, one of the characters will become the human antagonist who tries to stop the hero.
- Your protagonist is shaped by your antagonist. He or she should be equal in strength to, if not stronger than, your hero. This character must have the resources and resilience to fight a good fight. Create a character whose reason for opposing the protagonist’s story goal is as strong and logical as the protagonist’s is for wanting to achieve it. [Read 7 Essential Things To Remember About Very Important Characters]
- The stranger beside you. The best antagonist is someone who already plays a part in your character’s life, for example, a spouse, a boss, or a business colleague. They should also have another connection to the protagonist. They may have known each other in the past, they may have a mutual acquaintance, or they could have shared an important event in the past. [Read 10 Ways To Create Dangerously Nuanced Antagonists]
- Motivations matter. The antagonist believes that his or her motivations are valid and his or her actions are justified. The antagonist does not have to work from a negative motivation. Never create an antagonist who exists merely to obstruct the protagonist. This will lead to a shallow stereotypical character. [Read 15 Questions Authors Should Ask Characters]
How Do You Find Your Antagonist?
Which character would not want your protagonist to achieve his or her story goal? List three characters who would have a strong motivation to oppose your protagonist.
The character with the most suitable role who has the most ‘yes’ answers would be the best choice.
The one with the greatest potential for direct conflict with the protagonist is:
The one I find most interesting is:
The one I would most enjoy writing about is:
The one who would be the greatest obstacle is:
One of your characters will dominate these answers. This is the character you should consider using as your antagonist. If the second character differs from the character you chose in the lists, you may be giving this crucial opposition role to the wrong character.
In my next post, I will write about the confidant as a literary device.