Antagonists–The Alpha and the Omega of the Story

Law Abiding Citizen 2009

For the past month or so, we have been discussing the antagonist, and how vital he/she/it is to the story. I’ve run critique groups for seven years. I also have edited literally hundreds of manuscripts, and one thing that most new writers do not accurately understand is the antagonist.

I have to admit that I didn’t understand the antag the way I needed to until a couple years ago, and this pivot-point in my education would not have happened without the fabulous Bob Mayer. Not only is he a NY Times and USA Today Best-Selling mega-author, but he is a great writing teacher as well. A couple years ago, Bob actually taught me a technique that changed everything about the way I wrote. Bob advised that I start thinking of the antagonist FIRST. Initially, I was resistant. I mean, I wanted to construct my heroine. She was far more fun. But, as I would soon learn…that was backwards thinking.

Construct your antagonist first. Trust me. You will thank me (and Bob ) later.

As I have said in previous lessons, there is no story without the antagonist. Period. The story IS the antagonist’s agenda.  No Buffalo Bill, no Silence of the Lambs. No Darth Vader, and Skywalker doesn’t have a Death Star to destroy. If Joker was a choir boy, Batman’s life would have no meaning.

Antagonists are the Alpha AND the Omega—the beginning AND the end.

Once we understand the antagonist, narrative structure falls into place with far less effort. The antagonist is responsible for the inciting incident (beginning) and the Big Boss Battle (the end).

When we know our antagonist, it is easier to find a beginning point.

Too  many authors have awkward prologues that serve no real purpose. They are just stuck on the front because the new writer wants to “hook” the reader because she intends on spending 50 pages to get going (normally with a lot of back story about the protag’s childhood). Hey, I made the same mistakes when I was new, too. We are here to learn😉.

So there is this awkward prologue slapped on the front to hook the reader. Yeah, um no. Prologues are bad juju. Read why here.

Back to antagonists and structure…

When we understand what the antagonist WANTS, then it is easier to pinpoint where and how his life intersects with our protagonist—also known as the inciting incident.

Normal World—Shows us the protag’s life as it would have remained had the antag never come along to disrupt the protagonist’s life. Normal World grounds us and gives us a chance to become vested in the protag. We need to connect if we are going to spend the next 80-100,000 words caring for this character. Normal World hints that all is not well. It doesn’t hang us over a cliff or a tank of sharks or have us in a hospital weeping over a lost loved one. That is melodrama.

Inciting Incident—Is that event that offers the possibility of change. The protagonist still has to MAKE a choice before we make it to the first major plot point. The inciting incident is that point where the agenda of the antagonist intersects the life of the protagonist.

Normal World–>Inciting Incident–> (Choice) Turning Point into Act One

In screenplays there are three acts, always. In novels, there are four acts. Normal World, Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3.Screenplays generally condense that Normal World so much that it is just part of Act One. In novels, we need time to be vested in the character. Hooking the reader is less about fast action or heart wrenching melodrama and more about presenting a character we like, and who we care about. We connect and we sense trouble, so we worry, and that’s why we stick around.

When we understand the antagonist and his agenda, it is far easier to write great endings.

In Star Wars, we knew Darth’s plan involved the Death Star. Thus, the ending logically would involve the Death Star getting all blowed up, right? In Romancing the Stone, the bad guys kidnapped Joan Wilder’s sister in order to get the jewel. Thus, even if we had never seen the movie, it would be easy to extrapolate that the ending likely involves rescuing a sister and making sure bad guys go to jail and don’t end up with the jewel.

Our beginnings will change a dozen times or more before we make it to the final draft. If you are beginning a book, my advice is that you write out your antagonist’s history. What does he want? Why does he want it? How does he plan on getting what he wants?

Also, remember that the antagonist, in his mind, is not the bad guy. This will help give your antagonist dimension. Antagonists are not always villains. Vilains are merely ONE FLAVOR of antagonist.

Remember that the antagonist is the hero in his own story.

Great villains do not believe they are the bad guy. Hannibal Lecter felt he was doing society a service by eating the less desirable members of the species. It is his warped justification for his actions that makes him even more fascinating.

Antagonists are not always wrong; their goals just conflict with the protagonist and disrupt her life and force change.

For instance, the antagonist in Steele Magnolias is the daughter, Shelby. What is her agenda? Have a baby despite having severe, life-threatening diabetes. That is a noble goal that isn’t necessarily wrong. Why does this make Shelby the antagonist? Because, if Shelby had been happy to adopt, then M’Lynn’s (mom-protagonist) life would have remained the same. When we understand Shelby’s plan—have a baby despite life-threatening diabetes—then plotting becomes far easier. At the end, there must be a baby. Whether that baby lives or dies is up to the creator.

Your protagonist will be reacting to the antagonist’s agenda for roughly 75% of your story. It is only in the final act that your protagonist will transition into a hero and will start gaining ground.This is why, when we begin a novel, it makes sense to figure out out ending first. Then, plotting becomes MUCH easier in that we know how and where the story ends. Then plotting is just a matter of getting the protag from point A to point Z.

Some outstanding references to help you guys:

Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering.

James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure.

Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Bob Mayer’s Novel Writer’s Toolkit

What are some of your favorite movie endings? Some really well-layered antagonists that had you on the edge of your seat? I vote for Law Abiding Citizen.  I had a hard time rooting for the protag, and found myself hoping the “bad guy” would win. It was very surreal, but proof-positive that this was a BRILLIANT antagonist that made for a spectacular ending…because his PLAN was just that darn great.

What about you guys?

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of April, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of April I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

Happy writing!

Until next time…

In the meantime, if you don’t already own a copy, my best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books.

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  1. #1 by Peter Saint-Clair on April 18, 2011 - 1:10 pm

    Sigh, I know I still have a lot of work to do on my characters, but that’s ok because these posts are really helping me out. Thanks, Kristen!

  2. #2 by Jess Witkins on April 18, 2011 - 1:15 pm

    I so wish I’d attended the conference I just went and read this post way back in November when I was version 1 of my story. Preparing for version 4! I feel much better equipped. Thank you for the advice, I might have made the same mistakes outlining as last time had you not posted this today. Thanks, Kristen!

  3. #3 by Terrell Mims on April 18, 2011 - 1:44 pm

    Great post. One of my favorite endings was from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. When Nurse Ratched got her voice box crushed, her power was gone. She could no longer verbally terrorize her wards.

  4. #4 by Stacy on April 18, 2011 - 2:22 pm

    This is a great post. This is something I learned the hard way as I worked through my first act. I loved writing my antagonist, but it took me a while to understand that he was really the driving force behind the novel.

    One question tho: I’ve also read experts that say there are just 3 parts to a novel, and since I’m writing a suspense novel, my novel opens with the heroine in the inciting incident, but it also gives a sense of her character. I’m not sure creating her normal world first would be the right call. Should I start with the antagonist and HIS normal world?

    Thanks for giving us so much info!

    • #5 by Author Kristen Lamb on April 18, 2011 - 3:04 pm

      In mystery and suspense, finding a body is the protag’s normal world. Many crime thrillers begin with the murder, but if your protag is a cop, then that IS is normal world. Even the 4-part structure is still an Aristotelian model. But novels need a to give the reader a bit of time to get grounded and connected. Experts that propose a three-act model are just bundling normal world into Act One, but I prefer the 4-act model. I think it makes more sense. The hero’s journey doesn’t begin until the protag agrees to accept the trial.

      • #6 by Stacy on April 18, 2011 - 3:09 pm

        My protag isn’t a cop, she’s actually the intended victim and the story begins with her crisis situation – the inciting incident. She’s trapped and we’re in her head as she’s assessing the situation. It’s definitely suspenseful and action packed, and I thought it would work with suspense. Is that not a good idea?

        Thanks!

        • #7 by Author Kristen Lamb on April 18, 2011 - 3:17 pm

          Bad idea. We need to see her life as it is before the inciting incident or you will end up with melodrama. We don’t have time to care about her. It is the difference between seeing a four-car fatality accident, versus seeing a four-car fatality accident and one of the cars we recognize. We have to get vested or the only one who will care about her situation is you…because you know her. We don’t. I highly, highly recommend you get Story Engineering. It is a great book and a quick read and it will be the best investment you could make in your writing career.

      • #8 by Stacy on April 18, 2011 - 3:20 pm

        For some reason I can’t reply to your last post. Anyway, dang. I’ve been told by several critiques that it’s a great hook. I’d chosen to go that way so the story would start off with a bang, but I see what you’re saying. I will definitely pick up the book you mentioned. Thanks!

        • #9 by Author Kristen Lamb on April 18, 2011 - 3:32 pm

          As an editor, I would put something down that immediately started off with the protag in a bad situation and thinking. That is a HUGE red flag that the author doesn’t understand narrative structure. It is a common new writer error. So the first question in my head would be, “If she started out with a narrative no-no, what more problems am I going to find?” We don’t have to hang out too long in normal world, but it is beneficial. It is like getting to see the stained glass mural before the rock gets tossed through it. Now we are more vesteds because we see what has been disrupted. In normal world we see the protag’s regular life, but we feel the ominous threat.

      • #10 by Stacy on April 18, 2011 - 3:35 pm

        OK, that makes complete sense. It is frustrating given the amount of times I revised the first act, but I know I have to continue working on it. I’m picking up Story Engineering today. Thanks so much for the responses.

  5. #11 by John deVere-Loots on April 18, 2011 - 2:25 pm

    Dear Kristen
    Start with the antagonist when structuring a novel- hmm… this makes a lot of sense and I am now stopping my writing and going back to square one. What are your thoughts on having the anatagonist win out in the end. Let’s face it, this is what happens most times in real life. Crime often does pay, but perhaps readers want to close the book with a warm feeling.
    rgds John (South Africa)

    • #12 by Author Kristen Lamb on April 18, 2011 - 2:59 pm

      If we wanted real life we would watch the news. I think it is a good way to get hate mail, but that’s just my opinion.

  6. #13 by tracikenworth on April 18, 2011 - 2:37 pm

    What a unique way of looking at things!! Will have to try it.

  7. #14 by Tiffany A White on April 18, 2011 - 3:01 pm

    I’m a little brain dead this Monday morning, not enough coffee yet. But, your post made me think of my beloved Boyd Crowder. I’m choosing a TV character as my favorite antagonist – Boyd Crowder from Justified. The protag is haunted by his former friend’s bad side yet I can’t help myself from rooting for a bit more bad from Boyd. I think he’s by far one of the most fun antags on TV!

  8. #15 by Susan Bischoff on April 18, 2011 - 3:07 pm

    One movie that feels like perfection every time I watch it is Fire with Fire. (And I just had a total spaz finding out it’s on Netflix now and I can make everyone watch it b/c I don’t lend out the VHS I spent $80 on b/c I❤ it that much.) A star-crossed Catholic boarding school girl and prison camp reform school boy chance to cross paths and fall for each other.The antagonist is essentially a world that would never let these kids be together, but the main role of the antagonist is embodied in the person of the evil prison guard. Every scene in this movie works and works hard until we get to the logical conclusion that the kids have to escape the adults that run their lives in order to live happily ever after. The question is whether or not they'll survive–will this be a true Romeo and Juliet deal?

    /gushing

    • #16 by Piper Bayard on April 18, 2011 - 3:31 pm

      Ok, Susan. I’m convinced. I have to see that movie now.

  9. #17 by Piper Bayard on April 18, 2011 - 3:29 pm

    Before you taught me to start with my antagonist, I was just having a party with myself and my imaginary friends. It’s just that simple.

    As for the bad boys, I LOVE Ben Wade from 3:10 to Yuma. I know he’s this awful character who’s done unspeakable acts to countless decent people, but he’s so incredibly charming and vulnerable in a way that he has me rooting for him through the whole movie. I know that, somewhere deep down, he’s redeemable, and he’s far more interesting that the protag, who’s a decent man just trying to feed his family by doing a dangerous job. And sure enough, in the end, Ben does the right thing without losing his bad guy status. What could be more satisfying than the redeemable rogue who’s still a rogue? Let’s just face it. Those men are sexy.

    • #18 by Ted Henkle on April 19, 2011 - 12:05 am

      Piper: I enjoyed reading your blog and am now a subscriber.

    • #19 by Les Howard on April 21, 2011 - 7:01 pm

      The 2007 movie with Christian Bale and Russel Crowe was a very good action movie. There was a previous movie version (1957 I think) with Van Heflin as Dan Evans and Glen Ford as Ben Wade. The 1957 one was more character driven. 3:10 To Yuma was originally a short story by Elmore Leonard, one of my favorite authors. You might like to compare the original story with the two movie versions. You can find it in a copy of ‘The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard’ which many libraries carry.

      Ben Wade also occurred to me but then I thought of JR Ewing in Dallas.

  10. #20 by christopherdavidpetersen on April 18, 2011 - 3:47 pm

    Great advice… thanks.

    One of my favorite villians is Tyler Deirdan(Brad Pit) of “Fit Club”. It was ironic that the antag was also the protag. That was very clever, I thought.

    -Chris

    http://christopherdavidpetersen.wordpress.com/

  11. #21 by JA Murphy on April 18, 2011 - 6:05 pm

    Thank you for one of those head-slap “duh” moments! I’ve been struggling with the last third of my manuscript. It seemed so blah, meandering without purpose and now I know why. My antag needs some serious work to prove it still has most, if not all, of its teeth after my protag clears the first hurdle.

    I guess it’s back to the drawing board, but with good reason and renewed purpose. I just can’t believe I didn’t see it in the first place.

  12. #22 by jabelfield on April 18, 2011 - 6:06 pm

    Great post. I will definitely be giving this (un-backward) method a go in my next project. Thanks for sharing your wisdom🙂

  13. #23 by M.E. Anders on April 18, 2011 - 8:12 pm

    Kristen – this post coincided perfectly with my novel-planning stage. Instead of focusing primarily on my protagonist, I’m switching my sights to the antagonist. Time to get those brain juices stewing.🙂

  14. #24 by Marc Johnson on April 18, 2011 - 8:47 pm

    I’ve been following your posts on antagonists, and you keep mentioning Darth Vader as a good example. Sorry, if someone’s already brought this up, but he’s not much of an antagonist in Episode IV. He’s not in charge, people make fun of his religion like they don’t respect him, he flies a ship that could be easily shot down, and him and Luke never even meet. Which makes me wonder why the Prequels were even about him, but I digress.

    I don’t think antagonists are that important in coming-of-age stories like Star Wars especially if they’re shown primarily from one character’s POV. And I still don’t think LotR has an antagonist, except for Saruman who gets displaced in Book 2? It’s been awhile since I read it.

    • #25 by Author Kristen Lamb on April 18, 2011 - 10:44 pm

      You must have strong antagonist or the story will be weak. Even in the coming of age stories, there is some force that drives change. I can’t really speak for the newer Star Wars movies. I couldn’t get into them. I think they got crazy with the CGI. As far as LOTR, Sauron is the antagonist manifested through numerous proxies–the Uruk-Hai, Saruman, the Sauron respectively. Sauron is an example of a non-corporeal antag; he uses others for his purposes.

      Usually if you run into a movie or a book that falls flat, one main problem is a weak or nebulous antagonist😉. You might be on to why a lot of people didn’t care for Episode IV.

  15. #26 by Ted Henkle on April 19, 2011 - 12:04 am

    Thanks for cluing us in on the importance of the antagonist. Like everyone else, my story opens with the protagonist. However, I’m in the early stages of my story and can insert the antagonist in the beginning as you suggest. Thanks again!

  16. #27 by Amy on April 19, 2011 - 12:43 am

    Wow. This is so very timely for me. The latest story I am working on is stalled partially because I haven’t fleshed out the antagonist yet. Time to drop everything and get working on that guy.
    Thank you!

  17. #28 by Jenyfer Matthews on April 19, 2011 - 2:44 am

    Why is this all so clear when you explain it in your blogs and yet so slippery a concept when I try to apply it in my own writing? Sigh…

  18. #29 by Sean May on April 19, 2011 - 2:15 pm

    More great advice.

    In science fiction, fantasy and horror, however (the middle of which, being my favourite), the ultimate bad guy is usually somewhat unknowable, being either an alien/machine (Alien, Terminator), an evil god or godlike being (Sauron, Shai’tan in The Wheel of Time), or a monster. In fantasy in particular these antagonists work through proxies, but it’s not always the case.

    What do you say about an antagonist that is evil because its job is to be evil? (Which is arguably a flaw in such stories. I like the idea of all or many of the protagonists being each others’ antagonists – such as in Stephen R Donaldson’s magnificent Gap series.)

  19. #30 by Gene Lempp on April 19, 2011 - 7:47 pm

    Pandorum is a great movie with such a setup, well worth the watch. I’d say more but if you haven’t viewed the movie it would be a major spoiler.

    Another book I would recommend is Scene & Structure by Jack M. Bickham. While Brooks and JSBell focus more on the super-structure, Bickham gets down to micro structure within a scene.

    Another great post Kristen, RT’d this (at least once).

  20. #31 by A.E. Tyree on April 20, 2011 - 5:57 am

    Kristen,

    Great article. I completely agree. It was only when I started understanding and fleshing out my antagonist that my WIP started to come together. It’s so easy to make them shallow and cliche. But much more compelling to take them deeper.

    a.e. Tyree

  21. #32 by Marilag Lubag on April 20, 2011 - 6:01 am

    As antagonist, I definitely love Erik (a.k.a. the Phantom) in The Phantom of the Opera. I mean, nobody showed him love, which is the reason why he’s bitter. Then, he fell in love with Christine and she loves someone else. How sad is that?

  22. #33 by Laura Russell on April 21, 2011 - 12:23 am

    Kristen,
    Thank you! I feel like you just gave me a gift- my WIP starts with the antagonist attacking the heroine. But I am writing a romance and I was worried that I was taking too long to introduce my hero. Now I am thinking about the plot in a new way.

  23. #34 by Gina Mosley Lamm on April 21, 2011 - 1:43 pm

    Thank you so much for this series on antagonists!
    I’m currently facing a major rewrite for my novel, and I’m applying these lessons to help me rethink my plot. I haven’t written a word of the revision yet, but I’ve got more insight into my BBT than I ever had before. I’m really excited to write my bad guy now!

    Gina

  24. #35 by Darlene Cohn on April 21, 2011 - 3:19 pm

    This is a wonderful idea, and definitely worth a try. Several people have mentioned various genres here, and I’m wondering how genre might change the details, if not the spirit, of this advice. For example, romance doesn’t always have a traditional antagonist, nor literary fiction. Certainly conflict is essential in most any work of fiction, but how might you modify this advice if a work doesn’t have a villain, per se, but internal conflict or environmental conflict? Would the advice stand that we should still consider those factors in detail first so we can think through the protagonist’s reactions?

    • #36 by Author Kristen Lamb on April 21, 2011 - 3:41 pm

      All antagonists have a proxy. In “Steele Magnolias” diabetes/death is the antagonist manifested by the daughter Shelby. All good fiction has an antagonist. A story is only as strong as its antagonist. Those genres do have antagonists, but maybe not villains. In “Footloose” the antagonist is religious fundamentalism that forbids dancing, represented by the town’s preacher. Internal conflict must manifest externally or it is therapy. It isn’t commercial fiction.

      Internal conflict will still have an external representative who is the antagonist. In the movie “28 Days” Sandra Bullock’s character is up against her own addiction to alcohol. BUT her partying boyfriend represents that demon she must conquer. There is an external story driving her change. She doesn’t just wake up one day and decide to get sober. She is arrested for DUI. So the external antagonist (BBT) is the judge with the powert to send her to jail if she doesn’t get clean, and the councelor who is trying to help her get sober even though she is fighting him every step of the way.

      I keep having people throw out the idea of weather being an antagonist, but how many books are on the best-seller list where the hero is conquering a storm? Yeah, I want to read a book about someone taking on a hail storm….or not. Weather is usually not the antagonist. Even in books that revolve around a storm, there is another character who is the antagonist. In “The Perfect Storm” the crew split dpown the middle…those who wanted to brave the storm and salvage the catch and those who didn’t feel it was worth it. The crux of the story revolves around which side will win. Oh and everyone dies. Crappy book and crappy movie.

      We must understand what real conflict is, and genuine conflict is characer-generated. A bad situation is not conflict. I recommend reading this post and that might help clear things up. Hooking the Reader and Never Letting Go.

  25. #37 by Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter on April 21, 2011 - 10:37 pm

    Normal World hints that all is not well. It doesn’t hang us over a cliff or a tank of sharks or have us in a hospital weeping over a lost loved one. That is melodrama.

    Impossible to do, since the main point of my trilogy is that we have a young man who is lost in a world he doesn’t understand. He has amnesia. It isn’t until most of the way into the third book that we find out why he has amnesia, and who the actual antagonist that he’s been fighting, through proxies, is.

    So I started things off with him staggering along, with a terrible headache, and a goose egg on the side of his head. Hopefully I can keep everyone interested in who and what he is.

    Wayne

  26. #38 by Anna Silvernail Sweat on April 21, 2011 - 11:35 pm

    These are such excellent points to make! I love my antagonists as much or more than my protagonists. They usually have a more fascinating history and are psychologically more complex. I think having an antagonist the reader can identify with is as important as a protagonist the reader can identify with. One of my favorite examples of an empathy-evoking antagonist is the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera. I boo hoo for him at the end of every stage or screen version I’ve seen (and subjected my poor husband to). I love his tragic past, ugly mug and music noir. And I always think Christine is such a blithering idiot for going after oh-so-typical Count Popular. Those are the best antagonists! The ones you can’t stop thinking about, talking about and sympathizing with long after the story has ended.

  27. #39 by Mardee Calkins on April 21, 2011 - 11:53 pm

    Kristen! Thanks for being so smart, you short-cutted me right into being social media savvy. Laurie McLean mentioned your blog and book at a writer’s conference in Austin last weekend and all I’ve done since is read your book, your tweets, and your blog….you’ve opened a new world for me, not only for my writing (my love), but also for my gym (my second love :O)). As a long time writer (and spin, Pilates and yoga studio owner), I feel some control of my writing career for the first time. I’m working on my pen name, website and still reading We Are Not Alone, and then I’ll get my blog on. I got Bob Mayer’s book, as well, next on my list of “Kristen Recommendations”. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!
    Mardee Calkins

  28. #40 by Irene Vernardis on April 29, 2011 - 7:50 pm

    Great article and so true🙂 I have found myself too, when viewing movies, wanting the bad guy to win or make it at the end.

    Bad guys are not necessarily evil. There is a difference between evil and bad.

    Thank you for a very interesting article🙂

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