How to Choose the Right Antagonist for Your Story
Part 12 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel
What’s the secret of how to choose the right antagonist for your story? If you’re thinking it’s probably a little more complicated than simply making him a “bad” guy who’s out to get your protagonist, you’re definitely on the right track.
In fact, how to choose the right antagonist will influence everythingabout your story—from the coherency of its plot to the quality of its conflict to the focus of its theme.
In short, who will fill the role of your story’s antagonist is never a decision to be taken likely. Make the wrong decision and it could derail your story. Make the right decision, and it could be the key to making your entire book just click.
Today, let’s examine the qualifications of how to choose the right antagonist for your story.
Ant-Man: The Little-Big Addition to the Marvel Universe
Welcome to the twelfth installment in our serial exploration of the good and the bad in the Marvel movies. In light of that exploration, I find Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man a singularly interesting addition to the Marvel movies. For me, it’s a middle-of-the-road movie within the series, not so much because it’s a mediocre film as because my every reaction to it has an equal and opposite reaction to balance it.
- It’s a unique film within the comic book genre: more heist than superhero.
- And yet… it also packs very few surprises, hitting the beats of its various storylines (heist, redemption, protege vs. mentor, superhero origin) mechanically and without much irony or subtext.
- It’s big, bold new addition to the series, bringing in the first of an entirely new set of heroes—charmingly funny and earnest antihero Scott Lang.
- And yet, it somehow feels small in comparison to the previous heroic entries of Tony Stark, Thor, and Steve Rogers. Scott’s an add-on to the team, not a founding member—and it feels that way.
- It throws in the unique twist of sidelining original Ant-Man Hank Pym as the mentor character, which gives audiences, in essence, two Ant-Mans for the price of one.
- And yet, in doing so, it misaligns the conflict with its main antagonist, Darren Cross—Hank’s one-time protege and the rogue leader of his company.
And this is why Ant-Man offers a unique opportunity to study how to choose the right antagonist for your story. Objectively, Cross is the wrong antagonist for this story—and yet the story still makes it work.
Let’s take a look.
The 4 Qualifications of How to Choose the Right Antagonist
Want an antagonist who will help you take advantage of every aspect of your story? All you have to do is double-check him against the following four-part checklist.
1. The Antagonist Directly Opposes the Protagonist in the Plot
Let’s do a quick refresher on what an antagonist actually is. Boiled down to the lowest common denominator, an antagonist is nothing more or less than the obstacle between your protagonist and his goal.
As such, the right antagonist will always be directly opposed to your protagonist. He won’t stand off to the side of the road, taunting the protagonist or throwing rocks at him. Nope, he’ll be the guy right smack in the middle of the road, pointing a gun straight at your protagonist’s head and telling him to stand down or it’s curtains.
If he’s not in the middle of the road, then he’s not the main antagonist (and/or whatever is at the end of that road is the wrong goal for your protagonist to be pursuing in the main conflict).
HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT ANTAGONIST TO OPPOSE YOUR PROTAGONIST
- What is your protagonist’s main plot goal?
- What is the Thing Your Character Wants?
- What character (or thing) is best suited to get in his way?
- How can this character (or thing) directly oppose your protagonist’s scene goals along the way?
- What character (or thing) will your protagonist have to confront in the Climax?
DOES ANT-MAN‘S ANTAGONIST OPPOSE ITS PROTAGONIST?
Ultimately, Cross is the wrong antagonist for Ant-Man simply because Scott Lang is the wrong protagonist. Granted, it’s kind of a chicken-and-egg problem. But the bottom line is that if Scott Lang is your protagonist, you must choose an antagonist directly opposed to his goals—and not Hank Pym’s.
In short, the choice of Cross as the main antagonist tells us this is really Hank Pym’s story, even though Scott is clearly set up as the protagonist.
Assuming, we want Scott as protagonist (which we obviously do), then a more appropriate antagonistic choice for him would be one that directly opposes his goal of staying clean, earning money, and regaining visitation rights with his daughter. Cross ends up opposing these goals, but only incidentally through Scott’s relationship with Hank.
2. The Antagonist Directly Opposes the Protagonist Thematically
The antagonist is a central cog in the wheel of your theme. Because he drives the external conflict—which is a visual metaphor for the protagonist’s inner conflict—he and the conflict he creates must be directly pertinent to the theme.
Now, granted, every character within your story should reflect upon some aspect of your theme in one way or another. But the main antagonist must be a direct commentary on your thematic premise. If he’s off chasing some other Lie or Truth—or even just a thematic blank—a crucial part of the thematic equation will be missing from your protagonist’s arc.
Alternatively, if the antagonist is not directly opposed to your protagonist in the conflict, then it doesn’t matter how thematically pertinent he is. His impact on the story simply won’t be as vital, because the protagonist’s personal discoveries won’t be directly connected to overcoming this external antagonist.
HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT ANTAGONIST TO THEMATICALLY OPPOSE YOUR PROTAGONIST
- Does this character start out either
- believing basically the same Lie as the protagonist?
- believing a Truth contrary to the protagonist’s Lie?
- Is this character painfully similar to the protagonist in some ways?
- Is this character an example of either
- someone the protagonist would desperately like to be?
- someone the protagonist desperately wants to avoid being (or perhaps already is)?
- Will this character be able to offer convincing thematic arguments with the potential to seduce the protagonist away from the story’s Truth—and, as a result, away from his story goal?
DOES ANT-MAN‘S ANTAGONIST THEMATICALLY OPPOSE ITS PROTAGONIST?
There isn’t a ton of thematic depth in this movie, but what there is all revolves around parent/child relationships. Scott’s relationship with his loving, trusting daughter is one example. In this, he is following a similar path to Hank’s: except Scott succeeds in fulfilling his daughter’s trust, whereas Hank failed long ago with Hope after his wife’s death.
So far so good. Except… the antagonist Cross isn’t in a parental role. He’s in the child role, as resentful toward his former mentor Hank as is Hank’s daughter Hope. Cross certainly contributes to the theme, but his contributions relate more directly to Hank’s journey than to Scott’s. If Scott gets anything at all out of Cross’s insistence that Hank was a lousy father figure, it affects his own evolution only incidentally and subtextually.
3. The Antagonist Is a Mirror for the Protagonist
As part and parcel of the antagonist’s thematic role, he needs to offer a jarring funhouse reflection of the protagonist. He is a representation of the protagonist’s dark side—of his Lie. Perhaps he is an omen of the protagonist’s future fate, or a consequence of the protagonist’s past choices, or a revelation of who the protagonist might have been in a different life.
The antagonist is almost always a “negative impact character,” one who influences the protagonist’s journey toward the light by forcing him to face the power of the Lie’s darkness. The more striking the similarities between these vastly different characters, the more opportunities you’ll have to explore and develop your theme.
HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT ANTAGONIST TO MIRROR YOUR PROTAGONIST
- What character best represents where the protagonist will end up if he takes the wrong path?
- What character best represents where the protagonist wants to end up externally?
- What character shares a similar backstory journey with your protagonist?
- What character represents or shares similarities with your protagonist’s greatest failures to date?
Note that it’s not vital for your antagonist to represent the answer to all of these questions, but he should ideally be able to fulfill at least one of them.
IS ANT-MAN‘S ANTAGONIST A MIRROR FOR ITS PROTAGONIST?
This is probably the one qualification Cross best fulfills for Scott, in that both are proteges of Hank Pym. Cross represents the dark potential of Scott’s relationship with Hank (and, also, much less directly, of the dark potential within Scott’s own relationship with his daughter if he fails her).
However, Cross is, by far, a better reflection of Hank than he is of Scott. Both are brilliant scientists. Both are ambitious and consumed with their discoveries. Both have invented shrinking suits, designed for warfare. Cross, in short, is Hank’s darkest self realized—made all the more poignant for Hank by the fact that he essentially created Cross.
4. The Antagonist Creates Obstacles for the Protagonist From the Start
In order to create and maintain a cohesive overarching narrative within your story, you must first have a cohesive and overarching conflict. That only happens when you have a main antagonist who is in position to oppose your protagonist’s main goals from page one (even if he doesn’t immediately reveal himself).
Even if your protagonist maintains a consistent plot goal throughout, if he is opposed by first one antagonist and then another, the consistency of both conflict and theme will suffer from the jerkiness.
It’s very possible both your protagonist and your antagonist will begin your story knowing nothing about each other. But they will still be obstructing each other, from the very beginning, in ways they won’t understand until a little later in the story. When the characters (and the readers) look back on your story, they should be able to see the main antagonist was in play from the very beginning, in one way or another.
HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT ANTAGONIST FROM THE START
- What antagonist will be present in the Climax’s final confrontation?
- How can this antagonist be the major opposing force against the protagonist at all of the major structural beats?
- How can this antagonist be set up as an obstacle (or the inevitable potential for an obstacle) from the very first scene?
- How will the protagonist “brush” against this antagonist’s power in the Inciting Event?
- How will this antagonist drag your character into the main conflict at the First Plot Point?
DOES ANT-MAN‘S ANTAGONIST OPPOSE ITS PROTAGONIST FROM THE START?
The short answer is: no. Protagonist Scott gets out of prison with the big story goal of reuniting with his daughter, for which he must earn money and stay out of trouble. His obstacles have everything to do with his criminal past and nothing whatsoever to do with Cross’s determination to create a functional Yellowjacket suit.
Scott’s conflict finally touches Cross’s when Hank recruits Scott to help him steal the Yellowjacket suit. But even then, Cross remains only a vague obstacle to Scott’s personal goals. Scott has no personal investment in opposing Cross—which robs their final showdown in his daughter’s bedroom of much of the personal power it might otherwise have wielded.
Once again, it is Hank who is directly opposed by Cross—on every possible level: professional, personal, practical, and thematic.
Why We Like Ant-Man Anyway
Did Ant-Man choose the wrong antagonist and/or protagonist? Without question.
Would it have been a better movie had it chosen an antagonist more suited to directly oppose Scott Lang? Definitely.
But, happily for us, it’s also an example of how, even when a story bombs on such an important element, it can still salvage itself through overall charm. This may not be a super-strong movie, but it’s still an utterly likable movie, driven by an utterly likable hero with an utterly relatable motive.
At the end of the day, those things are almost always more important than the finer points of antagonism and conflict. But just think how much more awesome your story can be if it gets all of that right, including finding the perfect antagonist for its specific conflict!