Antagonist April: Week #1 – What is an Antagonist? – Part Two

It’s Antagonist April, and all this month, I’ll be doing a deep dive into those characters that give our heroes and main characters opposition to their goals.    This week, we’ll explore the characteristics of an antagonist.

Let’s continue!

There Can Only Be One

A story is filled with many characters and connections, but “the most important is the relationship between the hero and main opponent” (Truby 88).    Notice opponent is singular, and that’s essential to remember as you develop this particular character.    Even if the antagonist has others assisting them, it’s important to know that one person is the driving force causing all the chaos.  

Since “the main opponent is the one person in the world best able to attack the great weakness of the hero,” they may employ a variety of helpers to assist them in their quest for destruction (Truby 89).    Even if you have several oppositional figures in the story, you have to know who is in charge and who’s running the show.

Let’s look at two films where who this primary antagonist is can be up for debate.

Batman Returns

While we’re made to think that Catwoman or The Penguin are the film’s primary villains, I would argue that Max Shreck is the main antagonist.    He “creates” both of Batman’s adversaries – one on accident, one intentionally – all to further his own corruption and political schemes.    He even has interactions with Bruce Wayne where it’s clear they are at odds about Shreck’s involvement with The Penguin and his gang.

Since we can’t have three main villains running around, I vote for Max Shreck.    Thoughts?  

The World is Not Enough

I encountered another intriguing debate on Calvin Dyson’s James Bond channel.    In this Bond film, you have two intertwined villains, but which one is in control?    Check out the video to see Calvin’s analysis:

I believe Elektra King is the main villain of the film.    She may have initially been a victim of Renard’s, but she seems to be calling the shots and out for vengeance against her father, M, and others who get in her way.   Elektra uses Renard and his connections as a terrorist to get the resources she needs to complete her plans.   

Plus, if the antagonist’s goal is exploiting the hero’s weaknesses, King does an excellent job manipulating Bond and making him believe she is a femme fatale while messing with him throughout the story.

Since “both hero and opponent believe that they have chosen the correct path, and both have reasons for believing so,” having a singular character in opposition is vital for a story to work effectively (Truby 90).    Obviously, they can have others working for them, but ultimately the buck stops with them.  

Things Aren’t Always Black and White

An antagonist isn’t always bad; likewise, a protagonist isn’t always good.    In fact, “most [antagonists] do not think of themselves as villains or enemies” (Vogler 74).    The antagonist is the hero of their own story; those who attempt to stop them are in the wrong.   

We want the antagonist to “challenge the hero and give [them] a worthy opponent in the struggle,” but if the protagonist’s goals are ill-advised or problematic, does that make the antagonist the good person in the situation (Vogler 72)?

It’s important to note that this binary relationship isn’t predicated on the concept of good vs. evil.    Characters can have ambiguity and grey areas that can show a darker side of the protagonist and a lighter side of the antagonist.    Neither character should be one-dimensional, which allows you to create an antagonist with “some charming or thoughtful qualities” (Edson 58).  

Humanizing the Antagonist?

Should we have sympathy for the opposition?    Empathy?    Should we be able to relate to their frustrations with the world and why they want to stop the hero?    Often these characters are given pretty out-of-touch plans that make it hard for audiences to relate to them.    Often, we may be amused by their plots, but ultimately, we know that good will triumph over bad and the world will be righted again.

But what if the antagonist is a father who experienced the loss of one child in his past and is opposed to his daughter going down a similar path?    Or is the antagonist a best friend who warns the main character about dating someone they are suspicious of?    Both situations can lead to audiences finding sympathy or empathy with the antagonist and wanting them to succeed or be right in their concerns. 

Once again, we covered a lot, but there’s more to come!    Antagonist April continues on Friday.    See you then!


Edson, Eric. The Story Solution. Michael Wiese Productions, 2011.

Truby, John. The Anatomy of Story. Faber and Faber, 2007.

Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Michael Wiese Productions, 1998.

Writing Tip of the Week: Purposeful characters

No matter what type of fiction you’re writing, characters are essential to the story.  They engage the reader, generating empathy, sympathy, and connection.  Your characters must serve a purpose within the framework of your story’s world.

As writers, it takes time to craft, shape, and mold our protagonist, antagonist, and other characters into the overall story arc that we have created.  We shouldn’t be wasting creative energy creating superfluous characters who have no reason to be in the story.  

Here are some tips to help you eliminate aimless and purposeless characters from your story.

Take Inventory

Who’s who, and why are they there?  If you are in the beginning stages of writing your story, take time to establish your main characters, secondary characters, and background characters on a spreadsheet or piece of paper.  Do they serve an essential function in the story?

If you have already written your story, take inventory of your characters as you read through.  Do they all serve a purpose?  Is there anyone that doesn’t belong or isn’t really essential to the story?

By creating a spreadsheet, you can list who the characters are, their role, and how they tie into the story.  If you find characters that serve no critical function or role, you may want to cut them because…

More Characters = More Problems

Taking on an ambitious fiction project can be exciting.  Still, you also have to make sure that everyone you introduce has a reason for existing and serves an essential role in your story.  The more characters you bring into the mix, the harder it can be to keep track and keep things focused.

Limiting the number of characters can help keep the story and its conflict focused, so you don’t get lost in the weeds, which reminds me…

Where’s the Focus?

Your story has a main storyline with a protagonist working toward a goal amidst numerous obstacles.  That should be your primary focus as you write.  Find yourself deviating too much into subplots and side quests with other characters?  It may be time to either rethink the protagonist or move those other characters into their own story.

If the subplots tie directly back to the main character and their story, that’s fine.  But if you do notice that what they’re doing has zero impact on the main narrative, it’s time to cut it.

Superfluous Characters

Are there characters you’ve created that don’t really go anywhere or serve any real purpose within the story?  Maybe you wrote an elaborate backstory for a Starbucks barista that the main character encounters on their journey.  But, if they are in one chapter and never seen or mentioned again, you may want to trim out how they saved their grandma and her cat from a space heater fire in the fifth grade. 

However, if the barista’s backstory serves a key role in the story later on, and the character comes back to help save the day, they serve a purpose.  Just make sure that if you put in the time to provide lots of detail on a specific character, the reader has a reason to be given that information.

Elevate or Eliminate?

If your creative mind has crafted a complex side character who initially has no real purpose in the overall story, you have a few options:  

  • You can cut them out of this story and move them to one where they can play a more significant role.  
  • You can elevate them and combine their character and attributes with a less-than-stellar secondary character who may need some extra life.  
  • Or you can see how this character’s current role can be elevated through further interactions with the protagonist and the main story.

There are ways to make it work, but the character can’t detract or deviate from the main story.

Should My Protagonist Have a Pet?

I’ve seen this brought up before, and it’s an interesting question.  The answer is simple: only if you are willing to have the main character’s dog or cat be a part of the story.  You can’t just introduce the reader to the protagonist’s dog in one chapter and never mention them again.  Once you commit to your main character being a pet owner, you have chosen to keep that pet as a part of the story.

So, if your main character travels the world on quests, it’s probably best to keep the pets out of things. Otherwise, readers may wonder, “Who’s watching Rex?  Is the dog okay?  I know cats are independent, but she’s been gone for three weeks!”  

Read, Read, Read

Skim through novels and see how different authors set up and establish their various characters.  Some will be more detailed than others, but the key to this research is to identify how main characters, secondary characters, and others are described throughout the story.  

Whether you’re writing a short story or short film, a novel or a screenplay, knowing who your characters are and their purpose is essential to keeping the story moving and the reader or viewer engaged.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you in two weeks!

Using Empathy & Sympathy in Your Writing

What’s the difference between Empathy and Sympathy?  When it comes to writing, should we use one over the other?  Should we use both?  Do they even matter? 

The short answer is yes.  They do matter.  And both can help your reader connect with the problems and conflicts faced by your main character over the course of the story.  So, let’s define each word.

Empathy – the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.


Empathy allows the reader to jump into your main characters shoes and experience what they are experiencing even if they never have.  It helps create an emotional bond between the reader and character.  A way to connect them on a deeper level that in turn keeps the reader caring about the main character and their situation.

Sympathy – an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other.


Sympathy allows the reader to feel bad for the plight or situation of a character even if they can’t directly identify with the experience.  This is much more surface level emotion, while empathy digs deeper into the feelings and emotions of the reader.

If you want your reader to have a full immersive experience in your story, ensuring that they can either empathize or sympathize with your main character is key.  Whether the reader has gone through a similar situation as your main character or not, making them invest their emotions and feelings into the struggles and conflicts your main character is going through will keep the reader engaged and invested.

It all comes down to the concept of caring.  Does the reader care about the characters?  Do they have a level of compassion for them?  Do they hope they succeed and want to be there with them when they achieve their goals?

If you as the author don’t care about your characters, the reader won’t either.  Take the time to give your characters emotional weight and put them in situations that will create a sense of empathy or sympathy for them with the reader.  Readers need someone to root for and identify with in a story, and adding these levels of emotional connectivity can ensure that your readers and characters will connect over the course of the story.

Do you utilize Empathy and Sympathy in your writing?  Is one more important to you than the other?  Is it important for the reader to empathize or sympathize with your main character?  Leave a comment and let me know.