May 5, 2011

Make Your Antagonist a Force for Good

Sinister man


Well, we want to make our antagonist good for our story anyway.  *smile*

Kristen Lamb has been running a fantastic series on antagonists (Part One, Part Two, Villains, Balancing EvilInner and Outer Demons).  She shares more gems than I can capture here, so definitely check out her posts.

For what I want to talk about today, the important point to understand is that antagonists are not necessarily villains or evil, and even in “he’s his own worst enemy” stories, something has to drive the character arc.  As Kristen says:

[The] antagonist is who or what upsets the course of the protagonist’s life … if your protag is a self-destructive alcoholic, his [antagonist] is whoever takes away his booze.

The antagonist is what forces the plot forward.  Do you have that in your story?  If you do, great—but you’re not done yet.

Using Your Antagonist to Explore Themes

The conflict between the protagonist and antagonist can be deeper than just two characters butting heads.  That conflict can be used to reveal the theme of our story.  And I love exploring themes in my writing (most of which my muse sneaks in without my conscious effort).

Let’s take the common theme of “love will overcome.”  That’s been done a bazillion times and that phrase by its lonesome feels tired.  But whether or not a story based on that theme feels tired depends on how the conflict plays out.

A very flat—and yes, tired—way of expressing that theme would be a heroine winning the heart of the hero despite the machinations of a bitchy rival.  *yawn*  Been there, done that.

The conflict is just lying there.  It doesn’t add anything to the story beyond creating an obstacle for the hero and heroine.  The antagonist isn’t helping make the story deeper.

But what if the conflict tied into the theme?  The theme can be what differentiates the players, with the protagonist on one side of the divide and the antagonist on the other.  Their beliefs and attitudes toward the concept can be the cause of their conflict.  Then the conflict isn’t merely an obstacle, but a deeper examination of the validity of the theme with character motivations built right in.

For our example above, what if the antagonist wasn’t a femme fatale, but the heroine’s best friend?  Maybe the best friend had been badly burned by love before and thought she was looking out for the heroine by interfering.

That’s still not a great story, but at least it has the added layer of conflict.  Now the heroine has to overcome not only the antagonist’s sabotage, but also the emotional arc of the antagonist.  She has to help her best friend see beyond the hurt of her past and open up to the possibilities and power of love.

Now we have internal and external conflict, character arcs for everyone, and a deeper exploration of the theme.   Better, right?

As we’re developing stories, we can use the conflict(s) with the antagonist(s) to reveal aspects of the theme.  Stories about trust can have antagonists who bring trust issues to the forefront.  Stories about family can have conflicts that undermine or diminish families.  Stories about loyalty can have antagonists who force protagonists to question their loyalties.

I need to take my own advice here and make sure I’m interweaving antagonists, conflict, and theme.  My fully developed and/or already written stories have this attribute, but I think it might be lacking in some of my less-developed stories.  Which is quite possibly why I’m stuck on how the plot should go.  *smile*

What do you think of this method to add depth to our stories?  Do your stories follow this approach?  Could pantsers use this technique too?  Can you think of examples (from your own or published stories) to share?

Pin It

Comments — What do you think?

Click here to learn more about Lost Your Pants workshop
  Subscribe to emails for Comments/Replies on this post  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Laura Pauling

I love when an antagonist has his own storyline and could’ve been the protagonist. When it’s someone the protag knows. Those are the best villains.


I think the “protagonists” and “antagonists” of my novels are interchangeable, depending on who’s reading the story. They all have wildly different goals and methods of achieving (or not achieving) these goals, but there’s at least one theme that intimately connects the characters to each other. Kind of like “real life.”

Susan Kaye Quinn

I think pantsers and plotters alike ride on the thread of their themes (not always consciously, but it’s there). Using the conflict/antagonist to force the protagonist to go through their arc – that’s the most satifying way (to the reader) to do it, I think. Not easy, but then it never is!

Lisa Gail Green

I’m so glad you brought up the pantser thing because I was going to say I usually (but not always) discover the theme after the first draft. THEN I go back and adjust accordingly. I think it’s always there, just sometimes subconscious.


Hi Jami:

I love it when the conflict is tied into the theme because it forces the characters to look beyond their preconceived notions, beliefs, and ideas that came before. The stress from the conflict can force uncomfortable bits of reality into the forefront and make your characters see something – accept something, that they’d overlooked prior (either conscious or unconsciously) but now have to deal with in order to come to a realistic resolve.

Great post Jami!


Natalie Fay

I love posts that makes you challenge your own story. But this time I’m glad I passed the test: my antagonist rocks!

I really love the balance between the protagonist and the antagonist on my novel, and it is this balance that drives the story.

So I couldn’t agree more with you. It is exactly the way I think. And I believe that some people still underestimate the power of a well layered antagonist. Today, an *evil* antagonist that is evil because he is evil doesn’t do the trick anymore.

Greeeat Post!

Gene Lempp

Well, I think it’s a wonderful idea. It is exactly how I approach story design, but then theme’s tend to come to me first, spawn the story concept and then the characters begin to appear. Just how my muse rolls 🙂

Since I’m not a pantser I can’t only hope it would work for them, perhaps having the concept embedded in the mind is enough to see it through to a usable conclusion.

Excellent Post Jami! Love the way you found that perfect niche that will improve the way we approach our antagonists 🙂

Irene Vernardis
Irene Vernardis

Hi Jami 🙂

I agree, the antagonist is not necessary evil. He/she might be bad, but at the same time has good traits and could be redeemable. Evil and bad are two different things. I like bad characters :D.

Also it is a matter of balance, good can’t exist without bad and/or evil. So, a story could have two balances for the main characters (supposing the main character is good) > one bad counterbalance and one evil counterbalance, which eventually might become a counterbalance for the bad character too.

As for the self-antagonist, it should be clearly defined. It’s not enough to have inner conflicts to define a self-antagonist. It takes more than that. Otherwise, every character would have a self-antagonist due to his/her inner conflicts and then we wouldn’t have a resolution to the inner conflicts. The story would be flooded with self-antagonists, throwing off the balance and the antagonists, leading to readers’ confusion.
A very good example of a self-antagonist is provided in the book “Primal Fear” by William Diehl and the same named movie.

Thank you for the interesting post 🙂

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Great post!!!
I think that layering conflict is a fantastic way of writing. It gives a story life, and like you mentioned, keeps it from ho hummery.
Earlier today I watched a show that’s been in my DVR queue for weeks. Forgot all about it. Today I had some time to watch and AMC’s series, The Killing, has layers, and layers, and layers of conflict.
No ho hummery there!
The main character is a police detective, ready to move to San Diego and marry the man of her dreams. The dissaperance of a young girl keeps her from boarding the plain to meet him.
Just when she’s ready to turn the case over to her replacment, she finds the body…and it’s in the trunk of a mayoral hopeful’s campaign vehicle. Now she has her fiance waiting, her teenage son moping, the murdered girl’s parents to deal with, and a list of suspects a mile long!
Talk about layering conflict!
It’s an important skill to learn, and though the conflict in my first pubbed novel was much lighter than that in The Killing, I think I did a good job.
It’s my WIP I need to concentrate on now. Conflict, conflict, conflict. Must add conflict.
And theme. You mentioned theme too. I’ve been mulling over that word for the last week now, and really need to pin point the theme of my WIP.
Any suggestions on how to do that?
As always a fantastic post!
Have a nice evening:)

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Thanks so much!!!
I’ll check it out:)

PW Creighton

Great post. I love interweaving conflict and theme. You may never even need to see the antagonist just the results of their actions. Then again, your secondary protagonists can also be the antagonist in different portions of the narrative. It’s always fun interweaving the stresses and conflicts.

Mary Elizabeth

Another great post, Jami! I love your example. Giving the antagonist a story arc is a fantastic idea. I love turning the tables on my protagonist by having a friend or two turn out to be villains (always for a concrete reason, though) and perceived bad guys to turn out to be secretly working in the protagonist’s best interest. Makes for great twists. But what you’re saying in this post is even better–making the antagonist “bad” but still working toward a purpose that is actually sympathetic. I love love love complicated antagonists, even more than complicated protagonists and witty sidekicks.


[…] Make Your Antagonist a Force For Good by Jami Gold […]


[…] A long time ago, I wrote about how the conflicts we create with antagonists can work together with the theme to add layers: […]

Click to grab Pure Sacrifice now!