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

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 get started!

What is an Antagonist?

Whether they’re called an antagonist, a villain, the opposition, the enemy, or an adversary, this character in your story is against whatever goal your protagonist or main character wishes to achieve.  The antagonist “holds back the ruthlessly onrushing protagonist,” making their lives and plans more difficult throughout the story (Egri 116).

This particular character is an essential narrative component, helping to drive the conflict and the story forward.  In fact, “[s]tructurally the opponent always holds the key, because your hero learns through his opponent.  It is only because the opponent is attacking the hero’s greatest weakness that the hero is forced to deal with it and grow” (Truby 88).  

If things go smoothly and without any problems, then you don’t have a story that will grab a reader’s attention.  There has to be something present that pushes back on the main character, and that opposing force helps them reassess, reevaluate, and develop as a character throughout the story.  Essentially, this happens because “the values of the opponent come into conflict with the values of the hero” (Truby 90).  This clash in values creates the conflict that results in drama, and that dramatic engine helps drive the story forward. 

Think about your favorite movie.  Who is the main character?  What is their goal?  Who in the story opposes that goal and wants to prevent them from reaching it?  That is your antagonist.  They can be overtly oppositional or covertly oppose the hero.  Still, their presence is needed to keep the story moving and the main character in a constant uphill battle to reach their intended goal.

A story’s antagonist is a force to be dealt with, and “by ‘forces of antagonism’ we mean the sum total of all forces that oppose the character’s will and desire” (McKee 317-318).  It cannot be avoided; it must be faced by the hero and defeated by the end of the story.  This is why an antagonist has to be presented as a formidable foe since “a strong enemy forces a hero to rise to the challenge” (Vogler 72).  If the antagonist has no power or control over the main character’s world, situation, or goals, then they are not a viable opposing force.

This is why “[t]he Adversary must appear to be the most powerful character in the story” (Edson 57).  They have to have a clear edge and advantage over the hero for there to be stakes for the hero to traverse and overcome.  Classic Disney villains possess this quality and have all the power, control, and abilities that the hero of the story lacks.  

Now that we know who they are, let’s discuss the various types of antagonists that exist.

Types of Antagonists

“The Principle of Antagonism: A protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them” (McKee 317).  Not all stories require a Marvel-style villain or a James Bond-level threat.  Some stories have a human opposition that’s real and not out to take over the world.


These are the antagonists in comic book movies, action movies, or Bond films.  They are oppositional forces that are clear-cut and easy to see for the adversaries that they are.  In these cases, “[i]f the antagonist is evil, or capable of cruel and criminal actions, he or she is called the villain” (Abrams 225).

Sports films like The Rocky movies and other sports stories also utilize this type of antagonist structure.  The opposing team or person may not be a villain, but their actions could be seen as unethical or tainted by negative qualities in the eyes of the hero.

Environmental, Social, Governmental

The antagonist is an oppositional force that is part of a larger system.  However, it should be noted that “like every other type of story, man-against-nature movies work best when there’s also a human Adversary present” (Edson 60).  So, even if the main driver of the story is a volcano, the hero has to have a human antagonist present to oppose them.  

In the 1997 film Volcano, while the L.A.-based disaster is at the forefront, our main character – OEM Director Mike Roark – still has to deal with the oppositional opinions and ideas of seismologist Dr. Amy Barnes as the disaster unfolds.

When it’s a story dealing with a natural disaster, I feel that the opposing forces can disagree on how to deal with the situation, which could result in the antagonist’s demise in some disaster-related way.  This is evident in the 1996 film Twister, where the storm-chasing opposition, led by Dr. Jonas Miller, is “in it for the money, not the science,” a sentiment that ultimately gets him killed thanks to his arrogance.

Societal antagonism can rear its ugly head in the form of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other society-based ills.  While these can be overarching backdrops for a story, these need to have a singular adversary for the hero to confront.  In the 2007 film, Hairspray, Tracy Turnblad fights against a whitewashed system that refuses to allow integration on a local TV show.  Her opposition is Velma Von Tussle, who represents the bigoted and racist views of 1962 society in human form in the story.

It’s the same with government systems.  The main character may be fighting the system, but the system needs a representative antagonist for the hero to confront and fight against.  In the 1994 film, The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne’s antagonist is Warden Norton, the human face of the prison system that Andy must fight against – and ultimately escape – in the story.

In the societal and governmental areas, you want “one single, powerful character who’s every bit as committed to preventing the Hero from reaching her goal as the Hero is to accomplishing it” (Edson 56).  


While antagonists can often be bigger than life, imposing forces of evil and destruction, some antagonists are more realistic in their scope.  Sometimes “[a]ntagonists may not be quite so hostile – they may be Allies who are after the same goal but who disagree with the hero’s tactics” (Vogler 71).  A father who wants his son to forget about rockets and focus on his future in the coal mines, like in the 1999 film October Sky.  The father wants what’s best for his son and wants him to have a realistic outlook on his future.  This is in opposition to what the son wants, which in turn creates a realistic conflict.

This is why it’s good to remember that “[a]n Adversary is the main opposing force, but [they are] not necessarily a bad or evil person” (Edson 61).  They might strongly disagree with the main character’s goals.  They may want the main character to pursue something else, not do something they feel is problematic or even have had a tragedy in their past that influences their opposition.  

Whew, that was a lot to cover!  But we’re only getting started.  I’ll be back on Wednesday as we continue to explore antagonists all month!  See you then!


Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms.  Harcourt Brace, 1999.

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

Egri, Lajos. The Art of Dramatic Writing. Simon & Schuster, 2004.

McKee, Robert. Story. Harper Collins, 1997.

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: Story Structure – The End

In today’s post, we’ve made it to that all-important piece of the puzzle that helps tie everything up in a nice, neat bow: The End of the story.

The Final Test

Your hero has been dealt a decisive blow as they enter the arena of the End.  As they come out of the big Turning Point that jettisons them from the Middle, they may be ready to give up, give in, or just walk away. 

But that can’t happen.  If you’ve created an active protagonist, they aren’t going to go down without a fight.  They’re going to give everything they have left to get to their goal, even if it kills them.

And that’s why…

Cop-Outs are NOT an Option

The main character may feel a sense of impending doom at this point.  They may feel they have no options or choices left.  They may feel they are all alone.  But they can’t give up. They can’t just decide, “You know what?  You were right, Joker.  Gotham is yours.”  

It’s not in a protagonist’s nature to stop while there’s still hope of winning and reaching their intended goal.  This is still their fight, and even if they come out of it bruised, bloodied, and worse for wear, they will still have evolved as a character by the story’s end.

Win, Lose, or Draw

Ultimately, you get to decide what your hero’s fate is.  They have three viable options:

  • They can fight and win;
  • They can fight and lose; or
  • They can fight and decide along with the antagonist to settle their differences in a civilized manner.

This is the Climax of the story; the final battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil.  Or the forces of “I want to be a writer” and the forces of “no, you’re gonna work on the family farm.”

Most superhero and action movies choose the Win (The AvengersThe Dark KnightHobbs & Shaw).  Many dramas may opt for the hero to Lose, but still win in some respect (GladiatorDallas Buyers ClubAmerican Beauty).  But what about rom-coms or comedies?

These usually end in a Draw; where the hero wins, but their antagonist now supports them and wants them to succeed.  Maybe they end up with the antagonist by the end of the story (You’ve Got Mail).  Maybe their father decides that they shouldn’t be a coal miner and should design rockets instead (October Sky).

Often, we think in terms of “the antagonist must be destroyed,” but if you are writing something about real people, a family, a team, this probably won’t work.  Think about how the hero’s actions can persuade the antagonist to their side plausibly and positively. 

Bringing Everyone to the New Normal

Once the antagonist has been defeated and the hero has reached their goal, a New Normal has been achieved.  They have what they were seeking – a job, a significant other, an education, the Holy Grail, etc. – and their life will never be the same.

Take the time to acknowledge this new status, even if for a brief moment.  This is the point in the story when things are starting to wrap up.  The adventure is over.  Don’t drag your feet and make the audience stick around once their investment has paid off.  Make sure they know what happened after the final showdown and how the characters are doing after, but make it brief.

The technical term for this moment of the story is Denouement

The End of Legally Blonde

As we discussed two weeks ago, Elle found herself in a bad place with her professor sexually harassing her and her new friend Vivian witnessing the harassment.  But, instead of being on Elle’s side, Vivian accuses her of sleeping with the professor to get the internship.

Now, Elle is ready to quit law school, give up on her goal, and hide.  But, after a pep talk from one of her female professors (played by Holland Taylor), she decides that quitting is not an option.

Check out the clip here:

Elle returns to the trial, regains her confidence, and its through her cross-examination of the accused that the prosecution wins the case.  

Check out the clip here:

As she goes to leave, her ex, Warner, tries to get back with her.  She rebuffs him with a similar line he used to break up with her, and walks away.

Check out the clip here:

The final scene is of Elle giving an uplifting speech on graduation day.

Check out the clip here:

She did it!  She proved to herself and to others that she was capable of becoming a lawyer.  

Notice that the Climax in this film is a verbal exchange between the hero and villain.  No epic battle that destroys half of Harvard.  It’s simple yet effective.  Elle has evolved as a person who has realized her own value and self-worth.  And her final line to Warner and her graduation speech sum up how she has evolved throughout the film.

It’s been quite a journey over the past five posts.  We’ve explored all aspects of the Beginning, Middle, and End of a story.  We’ve looked at Legally Blonde and seen how that story is crafted with these story elements in mind.  And next time, I’ll share some final thoughts about story structure to wrap up this series.

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

Writing Tip of the Week – Story Structure: The Beginning, Part Two

Last week, we talked about some of the elements that go into the Beginning of a story.  Whether a novel, a short story, a screenplay, or a play, there are important items to consider from the start as you develop your story.  In this post, we’ll talk about a few more things to consider as you work on creating the beginning of your story. 

A Basic Formula

One of my screenwriting professors once wrote a basic formula on the board that holds true for pretty much all commercial stories:

Hero + Goal + Opposition = Conflict = Drama

Think about most movies or novels of today, and this formula rings true.  We are presented with a Hero.  That hero has a Goal they wish to achieve.  There’s some Opposition in the way of the Hero achieving the stated goal.  That Opposition leads to Conflict.  And that Conflict translates to Dramatic tension. 

As you develop your story, make sure that the three main ingredients are clear.  Then you can find ways to create conflict that increases the dramatic tension of the story.

What is an Antagonist?

When we think about the concept of an Antagonist, we are usually drawn to the big guns: The Joker (The Dark Knight), Thanos (Avengers: Infinity War), Cruella DeVil (101 Dalmatians), Loki (Avengers), Ursula (The Little Mermaid), Dr. No (Dr. No), Hades (Hercules), Dr. Evil (Austin Powers), Scar (The Lion King), or the Evil Queen in Snow White.  These are clear-cut antagonistic characters that oppose the goals of the hero in their respective stories.

However, an Antagonist doesn’t have to be a maniacal super-villain or an evil entity bent on world domination.  Anyone in your story who opposes your main character’s goals and is a constant block to them achieving that goal is an antagonist.

In Legally Blonde, Elle Woods’s antagonist is her ex-boyfriend, Warner.

In Hairspray, Tracy Turnblad’s antagonist is Velma Von Tussle and her daughter.

In October Sky, Homer Hickam’s antagonist is his father.

Even if the antagonist wants what’s best for the main character, they can still be an antagonizing force getting in the way of their goal if what they want for the main character is in conflict with what the antagonist wants.

And that conflict leads to dramatic tension.  

I think that because mainstream cinema is saturated with big-time antagonists because of all the superhero movies, it’s easy to forget that romantic comedies function on the formula of starting the partners off in an oppositional relationship.  You’ve Got Mail.  Crazy, Stupid, LoveTwo Weeks NoticeThe Proposal10 Things I Hate About You. All begin with oppositional relationships between the main couple.

How Do You Like Your Stakes?

Your protagonist wants something.  Something big.  If they get it, that’s great.  But what if they don’t get it?  What if all their attempts to achieve their goal fail?  What will happen to them?  Their best friend?  Their family?  Their home?

In other words: What are the Story’s Stakes?

Stakes keep things interesting.  They keep the protagonist motivated to achieve their goal.  They also keep the viewer/reader along for the ride.  What should the stakes feel like?

Life or death.  That’s what things should feel like to your hero if things don’t work out.  I’m not talking literal life or death (unless your story is about that), but the odds have to be pretty steep against the main character once the inciting incident happens that we’re unsure how they’ll reach their intended goal.

If you have a basic idea of what your story is about, who your main character is, what their goal is, and where the story is going, you should start to brainstorm obstacles that the hero might face throughout the story.  Each one should be unique, escalate the stakes, and help move the story and the hero’s character arc along.  

The higher the stakes, the better the dramatic tension.  Most sitcoms have low-stakes situations (Oh, no, the poker game and the dinner party are planned for the same night!).  Dramas tend to have higher stakes (If we don’t find the killer soon, he’ll start killing a new victim at the top of every hour!).  

Think of your favorite movie, or a movie you recently saw.  What were the stakes for the main character?  Were they high or low?  I can tell you that in the new Angelina Jolie movie, Those Who Wish Me Dead, the stakes are very high.  If a movie you watched has low stakes for the main character, did you lose interest?  

Can I Help You?

All protagonists are on a journey.  It may not be away from their uncle’s moisture farm on Tatooine to learn the ways of the Force, but they do have to move from point A to point Z by the end of the story.

Is anyone with them? 

Best friends.  Romantic partners.  Sidekicks.  Co-workers.  Family. Neighbors.  Are they people close to the main character that can assist them on their journey?  Every character in a story needs to serve the hero and the story in some important way.  Much like the protagonist and antagonist have a function in the story, the Secondary and Tertiary characters need to as well.  

These characters also help in giving us insight into the main character, they help dimensionalize them, and make them more relatable to the audience.  Who populates the world of the hero? Of the antagonist? What functions do those characters serve throughout the story?

The Big Moment

So, you’ve shown us a glimpse of the protagonist in their natural habitat.  All is good in the world.  And then…BOOM…something unexpected happens that throws their world into a tailspin.  Now, they have to regroup and figure out how to fix, stop, or change whatever has just happened.  The stakes are high.  The Opposition is great.  The way to achieving the goal seems impossible.  But they have a few folks to help them along the way.  

After a few missteps, things start to feel like they’re going the hero’s way.  Maybe getting to that goal will be easier than they thought.  All they have to do is…


Something HUGE comes out of nowhere and knocks the wind out of them.  What they thought was the way forward is no longer the way forward.  Everything they thought they knew, every decision they were sure was working, is suddenly turned upside-down.

Welcome to Turning Point 1.

It’s a big moment in the story.  It’s something that shakes things up and takes the hero and the audience in a new direction.  Here’s an example from Legally Blonde (get used to it, I’m gonna use it a lot in this series):

Hero: Elle Woods

Antagonist: Warner

Inciting Incident: Warner dumps Elle as he heads to law school instead of proposing to her.

Hero Goal:  Get into and graduate from Harvard Law School (and reconnect with Warner).

Turning Point 1: At the first party of the semester, Warner tells Elle she’s not smart enough to get a prestigious internship with their law professor.  

Notice how Elle is initially crushed by Warner’s words but then actively pushes through and uses his Opposition to her goal as motivation to keep going.

In the film, this is the start of Act 2.  It’s the end of the Beginning, and the beginning of the Middle.


Watch some movies and determine what the initial stakes are for the hero and when Turning Point 1 happens. For most two-hour movies, it’s around the 25-30 minute mark.

We’ll talk about the Middle (of a story, not the series starring Patricia Heaton) in two weeks!