Weekend Workout: The Antagonist (Character – Action part 4 of 6)

Most of my weekend writing workouts have been around the Protagonist. That’s mainly because if your reader doesn’t sympathize with your protagonist, you’ve pretty much lost a reader. But as Jack Remick reminded us in his fabulous guest post a few weeks ago:  Make every character strong enough to be the protagonist of your next novel.

To tell you the truth, I’ve come across a few fictional antagonists that I’ve appreciated more than the protagonists of the stories. And I’ve heard some writers say that sometimes they’ve got antagonists they prefer to write about, which I think is saying something.

When we were in high school, we were often told that the “antagonist” is equivalent to the “villain.” This is not always the case. In fact, in contemporary literature, I think it’s the exception. The villain is a bad guy. The monster. The evil one. He’s out to harm the protagonist, possibly kill him.

The ANTAGONIST is the one whose opposition helps test/shape/change the protagonist. Sometimes the antagonist even does this because she thinks she’s doing right by the protagonist (even if the protagonist doesn’t see it).

I just finished Melina Marchetta’s Finnikin of the Rock (which I highly recommend for people who enjoy more traditional fantasy). My favourite character is not actually Finnikin; it’s his antagonist Evanjalin. She is complex, manipulative, secretive, fearless, and sometimes it’s difficult for Finnikin to figure out whose side she’s on ~ even while falling in love with her. But she is not the villain. If there is one, he only appears in name as the King who wants to invade Finnikin’s homeland.

Evanjalin has her own wants, desires, and needs and if these did not come clear to the reader, the story would have failed.

Every once in a while, I’ll find a main character who is actually the antagonist of the story. This character doesn’t change, but rather changes everyone around him or her. Get Shorty and Cold Comfort Farm fall into this category. Chili Palmer and Flora Poste are the same people throughout the story, and the stories are definitely about them. But their influences are what make others take action, and truly become better, stronger, and more free.

Who is your antagonist? Who is it whose opposition tests and helps change your protagonist? How and why does the antagonist oppose (or try to change) the protagonist? And how does this call your protagonist to action?


Set your timer for 5 minutes.
Start at the top of the page with the following startline:

1) My Antagonist enters the story when …

Write, don’t stop, don’t edit, don’t cross out.

When the timer stops, Set your timer for 7 more minutes.
Start with the following line: 

2) My Antagonist’s exterior goal is . . .

Write, don’t stop, don’t edit, don’t cross out.

When the timer stops, Set your timer for 10 more minutes.
Start with the following line: 

3) My antagonist’s agenda conflicts with my protagonist’s exterior goal when …

Write, don’t stop, don’t edit, don’t cross out.

Read your exercises, make notes, highlight what makes sense.


Happy Weekend!


  1. tracikenworth
    Apr 14, 2012

    The antagonist is vital to the plot, but you’re right doesn’t have to be the bad guy.

  2. 4amWriter
    Apr 16, 2012

    Very helpful post. Yes, I grew up having learned the antagonist is the evil guy, and only very recently did I come to understand the antagonist is so much deeper than that.

    I have two protags (brother and sister) who are a team at first, until one of them “falls off the deep end”. The betrayal is enough to turn their relationship so that I believe they become each other’s antagonists.

    When I first thought of the story idea, I had a villain who would do a bang-up job ruining the protags’ lives. The idea of developing a separate antagonist (in the way you describe) never actually occurred to me, but I think it happened on its own…

    Is it possible to have a protag also be the antag?

    • Kathryn ~ Personally, I believe the protag can be the antag in the GET SHORTY / COLD COMFORT FARM way I have mentioned in the post. But generally they are different characters because the protag has the change and the antag instigates this change.

      That said, the antag can be a major character. I mentioned Finnikin of the Rock in the example above. Evanjalin comes in early on in the story, is with Finnikin almost the entire journey, and plays a major role. The story would not be the story without her; she is central to it. But, it’s still Finnikin’s story. He’s the one who goes through SPLAT to become a changed person. (not saying that antags can’t change, but you know what I mean)

      Think about your brother and sister characters. You may think they are dual protags, but are they really? Take Thelma and Louise for example. I think many people mistake them as dual protags. I always argue that Louise is the protag, even though Thelma has just as much screen time. Louise is the one who has the dark secret. She’s the one who has to go through SPLAT (and avoid Texas, lol), and come out the other side redeemed, or not. Thelma is a side-kick and comic relief. I think the cop, Harvey Keitel is the antag. But I suppose Thelma is a bit of one too. This stuff isn’t always black and white.

      You may very well have dual protags who change each other. I think this is entirely possible and if I think of another example I’ll let you know. Possibly Han Alister and princess Raisa in Cinda Williams Chimma’s Seven Relams series.

  3. 4amWriter
    Apr 16, 2012

    I hadn’t considered Thelma & Louise, but that’s a perfect example. I will have to revisit my brother-sister duo and see exactly what is up with them. They both change, although they do it for different reasons, at a different pace, and one even reverts back to the old way for a while, then changes again…perhaps the antagonist isn’t as clear in the book as I thought it was.
    You’ve given me (as usual) more to think about.


  4. Kim Aippersbach
    Apr 17, 2012

    Very helpful recap of what we’ve all probably learned at one point or another, but it’s not always easy to apply what you’ve learned to your own writing. You made me rethink the story I’m just now trying to plot: I’ve been trying to come up with a bad guy, but I think the antagonist might actually be the protag’s best friend. Interesting!

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