Creating a Formidable Antagonist

As important to creating compelling stories as it is to focus on the protagonist, it’s equally (possibly even more important) to create formidable conflict for the hero. Without challenges to overcome–challenges worthy of our heroine’s mettle–an audience may quickly become disinterested. I mean, wouldn’t you?

After all, stories represent pivotal points in people’s lives, times of great personal change and/or accomplishment. Our attention tends to breeze by the moments of our lives spent washing dishes or putting gas in the car and, instead, we remember our first day at school or the day we stood up for ourselves when it really mattered. Why is this so? It’s likely because in those moments, when we faced great internal or external conflict, we were challenged to reach beyond ourselves or risk failure and came out on top.

In storytelling, the source of this type of life-changing conflict will often come from one person — one person who is an equal to the hero and who possesses a drive as strong as the protagonist’s only theirs is a goal that is at direct cross-purposes with the hero’s.

That person is the antagonist.

We often believe that great stories revolve around great heroes. While that’s often true, it is certainly not the rule. But great stories always revolve around great conflict. Conflict is what stands in the way of the protagonist getting what they want most in life.

Certainly, conflict can come from forces such as the weather or natural phenomena and it can come from inside one’s self but dramatizing these types of opposition seem to be best left for media that are not confined to a largely visual realm. Conflict can also come from several people but in the best stories, those people often have related purposes that lead back to a single, powerful source.

Which brings us back to the antagonist. Conflict in film is most often external to the hero and embodied in a single person whose own desires run contrary to the hero’s. It’s easiest to relate to the situation when we can see and feel the hero and antagonist struggle. When two people’s desires clash, we get glorious conflict. That’s the antagonist’s job: to keep the hero from succeeding. That may be an intentional pursuit or not.

When revising your rough drafts, look for where your hero is challenged and assess whether the conflict is:

  • directly related to the hero and his quest
  • clear and identifiable (even if your story requires that the clarity come only in hindsight)
  • is strongly related to the high stakes of the story rather than to inconveniences
  • causes the hero to extend beyond their norm in order to overcome it
  • is from an antagonist who is complete as a person in their own right, with desires, complexities, failures, and charms

These few points concerning conflict should help ensure that you’re on the right path towards crafting a strong antagonist and, in turn, a strong story.

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A note on villains. Villains are just plain bad eggs and usually a whole lot of fun. They are often drawn less fully than other types of antagonists and are most often out to destroy the world. Fantasy stories rely heavily upon the villain; one-dimensional evil has its terrific uses in storytelling.

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