7 Rules for Double-Checking Your Antagonist’s Motivations
Honestly, antagonists drive me nuts. They are, perhaps rather poetically, the great nemeses of my writing life. I still struggle with them, for all the reasons mentioned above, in every book I write. In fact, I’ve come to realize that much of the reason I’ve been blocked for years on my current book is because… I got the antagonist wrong.
No matter how I wrangled the plot, the theme, or the protagonists, it just didn’t work. Whenever I’d run through the calculations of a complete structure for the series, the climactic equations never rang true. Finally, I threw out the originally intended antagonist and started over—and everything began clicking back into place.
Here are seven things this process has taught me so far about crafting my antagonist’s motivations.
1. Watch Out for Master Plans
When an antagonist starts out as a plot device (which is not uncommon in the early conception stages of a story), it can be easy to arbitrarily decide that his motive is the standard evil desire for “world domination” or some such. From the hands of many a master plotter we have read and viewed delicious stories about genius antagonists who have wrought incredibly intricate plots—which the protagonists must uncover and then against all odds overcome.
Sometimes, with some characters, and in some stories, this is the right choice. But too often a “mysterious master plan” is just a filler phrase the author uses to cover up the fact that she really has no idea what the antagonist wants, why he wants it, or what his plan is for getting it. The author is just as clueless as the protagonist.
Too often, master plans created by mastermind antagonists just don’t make any sense. Or they’re way more complicated than is actually smart. Or they turn out to be anticlimactic when all the mysterious hype you’ve built up over the course of the story turns out to be unjustified.
It’s useful to remember that even so-called master plans are created by fallible humans, however powerful, and that fallibility is usually where the most interesting bits of characterization and plot will be found.
2. Be Careful About Copping to “He’s Just Plain Crazy!”
An antagonist won’t necessarily be a villain (in fact, the antagonist can be the most moral person in the story). But when your antagonist is a “bad guy,” it can sometimes be difficult for authors to truly understand why he would do such terrible things.
The easiest solution in these situations is to simply label the bad guy as “crazy.” Sociopaths and psychopaths are beyond explanation, so this approach would seem to save us a lot of trouble.
Or maybe you’ve raised the stakes so high that, like me, you’re facing world-ending consequences. If you’re personifying your antagonistic force, then you may struggle to come up with convincing reasons why someone who isn’t out of their mind would choose to obliterate existence itself.
“Crazy,” however, is not an easy cop-out. If it’s to be written with nuance and dimension, it requires just as much, if not more, understanding and identification from the author to pull off a realistic and humanized presentation. The trick, whatever your antagonist’s mental state, is to inhabit this character just as fully as you do the protagonist, to the point that you understand and empathize with his motivations. If you can’t do that at some level (and note, this does not mean condoning or promoting the antagonist’s actions), then you probably don’t know your antagonist well enough to craft a plot around his motivations.
3. Choose Carefully Between Archetypal Evil and Deep Humanizing
Deeply humanized antagonists can be stunningly compelling and shatteringly provocative. Indeed, exploring the shadow side of humanity is an important function of storytelling. However, this is not to say that straight-up archetypal Evil can’t also be an effective and powerful antagonist.
What’s important is understanding which is the right choice for certain types of stories. Obviously archetypal stories, such as Lord of the Rings, No Country for Old Men, or Moby Dick, can utilize a relatively simplistic antagonistic force to unforgettable effect. By contrast, the more hyper-realistic your story, the more nuanced and non-dualistic the antagonistic character should be.
An archetypally evil character or force requires little (if anything) in the way of causal motivation. It enacts evil because it is Evil. But human characters are the way they are and make the choices they do for a reason. There must be something catalytic in their personal history that prompts their current plot choices.
4. Keep the Antagonist’s Goals Sweet and Simple
Somewhat counter-intuitively when you’re hazy about your antagonist’s motivations, you may well end up over-complicating the character’s goals and motives. This is all the more likely when the antagonist’s goals are large-scale. It’s easy enough to imagine understandable reasons for why someone might cheat on a spouse, or even why someone might murder another person. But it can be much harder to identify realistic reasons for why someone would enact a large-scale atrocity.
The antidote is to focus on keeping your antagonist’s motives, goals, and methods as simple as possible. “Simple” usually means “smart.” When you start wrangling an antagonist’s plot progression to fit what you want to see your protagonist doing, rather than allowing them to dance together, the result is usually a ridiculous antagonist who doesn’t live up to her hype.
If you ever find yourself having to dream up huge and elaborate backstories for why your antagonist is doing what she’s doing—or even if you simply find yourself needing explanations longer than short sentences and paragraphs—you would almost certainly do well to scale things back. What is the simplest and most obvious reason a person would want what the antagonist wants and do what she’s doing to get it? Chances are that reason is also the most powerful.
5. Make the Antagonist’s Reasoning Super Tempting to the Protagonist
Within the storyform, the antagonist exists not only to create the conflict and thus the plot, he also exists to create a thematic counterpoint to the protagonist. Even when an antagonist doesn’t share much screen time with the protagonist, he is still the single most important Impact Character within the story. He is the thematic catalyst, either directly through his own ideologies and/or indirectly through the pressure he puts on the protagonist’s methods via the plot obstacles.
The most powerful antagonists are those who offer the protagonist a compelling argument against whatever the protagonist’s climactic choice will be (whether she chooses in favor of the thematic Truth or a Lie). This means the reasons behind the antagonist’s motives and goals need to be legit. You need to play devil’s advocate so well that the readers themselves are almost convinced the protagonist would do well to listen to the antagonist’s arguments.
The protagonist’s temptation is one of the most important thematic moments within a story. But if the antagonist’s argument is obviously bogus, then the depth of the protagonist’s temptation will either be limited or will seem unrealistic. Again, it’s best to keep things simple. A super-elaborate explanation for the antagonist’s approach will usually fail to convince anyone.
6. Decide How You’ll Represent Your Antagonist’s Side of the Story
As mentioned, one of the great limiting factors of presenting dimensional antagonists is their often minimal screen time. This can be remedied by giving your antagonist a POV, and sometimes this is the right choice—but only if the antagonist is every bit as interesting a human being as the protagonist. If she is not—and/or if she is not acting in scenes and performing plot actions that are also every bit as interesting as those in which the protagonist is engaged—then her POV scenes are likely to function only as plot devices and thus slow the story.
If you choose not to give your antagonist a POV, then you must determine how else you can bring this character and her motivations into dimension. In some stories, the antagonist will be an important relationship character for the protagonist, and in this case you can characterize the antagonist through the protagonist’s viewpoint.
In other stories, the antagonist will be off-screen most of the time. If this is so, you will have to carefully plan how best to dramatize the antagonist’s reasons and actions—that is, you must show them, rather than tell them. You must make full use of those limited moments when the protagonist does interact with the antagonist.
7. Keep the Antagonist Central in the Story Structure
When you consider that your antagonist is the framework for your protagonist’s advancement through the plot, it’s obvious the antagonist should be central to your story structure. Even if your antagonist is off-screen most of the time, he should either be present orhis presence should be felt at every major structural turning point in the story:
- The Inciting Event (halfway through the First Act)
- The First Plot Point (end of the First Act)
- The First Pinch Point (quarter of the way through the Second Act)
- The Midpoint or Second Plot Point (halfway through the book)
- The Second Pinch Point (three-quarters of the way through the Second Act)
- The Third Plot Point (end of the Second Act)
- The Climax (second half of the Third Act)
Most obviously, the antagonist should be found in a direct and decisive confrontation with the protagonist at the Climactic Moment, which ends the story’s conflict one way or another. What is less obvious is that the Climactic Moment bookends the Inciting Event. Even if the antagonist is not physically present in the Inciting Event, which initially engages your protagonist with the main conflict in a Call to Adventure, the Inciting Event will still set up who or what will be the story’s antagonistic force.
The Inciting Event asks a question the Climactic Moment should answer. For the story to maintain coherence, the two must be joined, and the antagonistic force is the glue. If your story’s Climactic Moment deals with an antagonistic force that was not set up in the Inciting Event, then you can be pretty sure your plot’s throughline has gone off the rails somewhere along the line.
If you find yourself struggling with your plot, take a look at your antagonist. If he’s not quite measuring up to any of the above considerations, then he may be the reason your story as a whole isn’t working. Strengthen your antagonist’s motivations, and you will strengthen your entire story.