Developing Themes In Your Stories: Part 7 – The Antagonist-Protagonist Relationship

by Sara Letourneau
published in Writing

As much as we love our protagonists, we can’t help but feel a strange or “corrupt” affinity for our antagonists. After all, the antagonist’s main role is to make the protagonist’s life difficult. However, this unique character relationship – er, conflict – is more important than we might think it is. Not only does it propel the plot forward, but it also emphasizes some of the story’s literary themes.

Today, we’ll study the protagonist-antagonist relationship as part of our ongoing series Developing Themes In Your Stories. This post also features brainstorming and writing activities that can help you during any stage of the writing process.

Know Your Antagonist As Intimately As You Know Your Protagonist

Antagonists are no different from other characters in our stories. We should know them inside and out – even as well as we know our protagonists – so we can make them believable and (as crazy as it may sound) sympathetic. It’s sensible and fair, since both characters will oppose each other throughout the story.

Before you start writing your story, spend some quality time with your antagonist. What are his goals and desires? His strengths and weaknesses? His fears and vulnerabilities? How did his childhood or any traumatic experiences influence who he is now? The questions in this DIY MFA post by Becca Jordan and Activity #1 of Part 1 of Developing Themes in Your Stories (The Character Arc) can also help.

Activity #1: Free-write for 30 minutes about your WIP’s antagonist. Examine as much about this character as possible, from qualities and flaws to goals for the future and traumatic experiences from his/her past. If you’ve already explore your protagonist’s arc themes, use the questions you explored then for this exercise as well.

Pit the Antagonist’s Goals Against the Protagonist’s

If the protagonist and the antagonist are going to spend so much time at each other’s throats (both figuratively and literally), they should have conflicting goals. What those goals are will depend on which element acts as your story’s seed:

  • If you think of plot / external conflict first… Consider what needs to be resolved by the end of the story. What will the protagonist need to do to achieve this resolution? How would the antagonist’s role conflict with this? Why?
  • If you think of characters first… Consider what the protagonist needs or wants to accomplish. How could the antagonist prevent this from happening? Why?

In either case, remember to ask “why.” Why does the antagonist want what he wants? Why doesn’t he share the protagonist’s goal? Understanding the root of the antagonist’s desires will inform other aspects of the antagonist’s character, including the measures he’s willing to take to reach his goals and his potential reaction if his worst fears come true.

Don’t forget that different types of antagonists exist. Usually they come in the form of other characters. However, the environment, the government or an organization, or even the protagonist’s darker self can also play the role. In all cases, the antagonist’s goal or function should hinder the protagonist’s ability to reach her goal. Here are two examples:

  • William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: Romeo and Juliet (protagonists) want to be together, but they come from rival families (antagonists) who won’t approve of their relationship. (Antagonist = other characters)
  • Scott O’Dell’s Black Star, Bright Dawn: Bright Dawn (protagonist) takes her father’s place in the Iditarod sled race so she can win the prize money for her family. However, the wintry Alaskan wilderness and Bright Dawn’s fellow sledders (antagonists) stand in her way. (Antagonists = other characters, environment)

Activity #2: Using the antagonist from Activity #1, compare his goals with those of the protagonist from the same WIP. How and why do these goals conflict with one another? What is the antagonist willing to do in order to get what he wants? Once you have these answers, write an opposition statement for your WIP that’s similar to the sample statements above.

Ensure There’s a “Why” to Their Interactions

Romeo and Juliet coverNot only should the antagonist and the protagonist have opposing goals, but their conflict needs to play out on the page. These scenes should also have a reason for occurring. In other words, why these characters interact is just as important as how those interactions unfold.

Consider the “how” first. What kinds of scenes do the antagonist and the protagonist share? What do they talk about? How do they behave toward one another? Then, determine the “why.” What do these characters want from each other right now? Why do they act toward one another the way they do? It’s also possible to start with the “why” and then determine the best way of portraying it through a scene.

This can be tricky if the antagonist is abstract (environment, the self) instead of human (other characters, an organization). In this case, you may want to look from the protagonist’s perspective and understand why she’s struggling. Take a look at the Black Star, Bright Dawn example below. Even though nature doesn’t “choose” to make the Iditarod treacherous, it still forces Bright Dawn to make difficult decisions.

  • Romeo and Juliet: Romeo’s and Juliet’s relatives provoke each other to frequent public duels (action) because their families hate one another so strongly (reason).
  • Black Star, Bright Dawn: The other racers quickly become the least of Bright Dawn’s worries. She and her dogs must constantly fight for survival (action) thanks to the countless natural obstacles – sub-zero temperatures, blizzards, and wild animals, for starters – along the way (reason).

Activity #3: Review any scenes in your WIP that feature the antagonist and the protagonist. What happens in these scenes? What dialogue do the characters share? What actions do they take? How do they act and react toward one another? Most importantly, why do their interactions play out in this manner?

Get to the Heart of Their Conflict

Black Star Bright Dawn coverWhy should we know the reasons for the antagonist’s and protagonist’s interactions and conflicting goals? Believe it or not, those reasons represent your story’s themes.

Our working definition of “theme” reminds us that themes a) are high-level concepts that recur throughout a story, and b) tie in with the protagonist’s “driving forces” (goals, fears, and desires). Since the protagonist’s goals impact the antagonist’s and vice versa, it makes sense that the antagonist’s “driving forces” would also influence theme. After all, the protagonist-antagonist relationship is part of the blood that fuels a story’s heart.

Once you’ve examined how the protagonist and antagonist affect one another, see what themes rise out of their relationship. Review each character’s motivations and the reasons for their actions and reactions. What are they individually fighting for? Do their fundamental values differ? Or, are they more similar than the characters – and you – had originally thought?

Which themes emerge from our two examples’ protagonist-antagonist relationships? Maybe you’ve already guessed some of these based on our previous exercises:

  • Romeo and Juliet: Love, family, marriage, hate
  • Black Star, Bright Dawn: Man versus nature, competition, family, perseverance

Activity #4: Revisit your answers to Activities #2 and #3. What high-level ideas or concepts emerge from the protagonist-antagonist conflict? How do they reveal themselves through the characters’ competing goals and their interactions?

If you like to use the three-act story structure, then our next installment of Developing Themes In Your Stories should pique your interest. Come back in August, when we’ll discuss the plot point at the end of Act I.

What are some topics you’d like to see featured at Theme: A Story’s Soul? Share your thoughts by commenting below or tweeting me at @SaraL_Writer with the hashtag #AStorysSoul


Sara 2015Sara Letourneau is a Massachusetts-based writer who practices joy and versatility in her work. In addition to writing for DIY MFA, she’s revising a YA fantasy novel and reviewing tea for A Bibliophile’s Reverie. Her poetry has appeared in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two anthologies. Learn more about Sara at her personal blogFacebook, and Twitter.

  • sjhigbee

    As ever, a thorough examination of what constitutes conflict between the protagonist and antagonist. Bob Mayer, the best-selling novelist, reckons that the heart of the book should be about what the antagonist wants and doesn’t get. I think that is a strong description of many fantasy, thrillers, crime, sci fi, historical and romance novels. Who is your favourite antagonist?

    • Sara Letourneau

      Thanks, Sarah! I don’t know if I have a favorite antagonist, mostly because I don’t connect with them as well as I do with protagonists. No one comes to mind right away… so I might have to think about that a little more.

  • Great post, Sara! The conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist should make sense and also help along the story’s theme. ^ ^

    storitorigrace.blogspot.com

    • Sara Letourneau

      Thanks, Tori! 🙂

  • Exploring the relationship between antagonists and protagonists is something I enjoy, whatever book I’m reading or TV show I’m watching. In many ways, it is the heart of the story, as you said, and therefore is something every writer should keep in mind as they build their story. I like the Black Star, Bright Dawns examples you used; it’s very different in the way that environment plays the role of main antagonist.

    • Sara Letourneau

      Thanks, E.! And I’m glad you liked the Bright Dawn examples. I picked it as an example to remind us that not all antagonists (or, rather, antagonistic forces) are other characters.

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