How to Use Antagonists in Your Story: The Right Way and the Wrong Way

How to use antagonists in your story is a critical skill that can either elevate or undermine your entire story. In many ways, antagonists are the true architects of unforgettable plots, and as you navigate the path between narrative brilliance and potential pitfalls, the art of utilizing your story’s antagonists becomes crucial to success.

When we think of antagonists and how they should be written, what often comes to mind are specific characteristics. We envision villains, or perhaps just complicated anti-heroes, who offer enough charisma and enigma to spark reader curiosity and, hopefully, create scintillating scenes with the protagonist. However, if we zoom back to look at storyform, we see the antagonist’s true function within story is that of creating plot.

As the person or thing standing between the protagonist and the story goal, the antagonist is what creates the conflict. This conflict is what creates the narrative throughline (aka plot), and that throughline is then what creates the opportunity for a cohesive thematic argument.

In short, the antagonist is so much more than just the “bad guy.” The antagonist (or “antagonistic force,” if not personified) is one of the most integral pieces to creating a story that works. Your protagonist may be the main attraction, but the antagonist is the one who provides the stage on which your protagonist gets to shine. Without a well-realized antagonist, the entire plot begins to sag. Understanding how the antagonist operates at the level of plot makes all the difference in helping you frame a solid plot and character arc for your protagonist.

How to Use Antagonists: Napoleon vs. Saving Private Ryan

Last fall, I had the opportunity to view two movies in the theater in the same week—Napoleon, Ridley Scott’s recent bi-epic (see what I did there?), and a 25th-anniversary (!!!) showing of Steven Spielberg’s WWII classic Saving Private Ryan. Other than the fact that both films focus on subjects of war, they don’t obviously have much in common. However, the contrast between how they manage their antagonistic forces—and thus their plots—provided striking examples of how to use antagonists the right way versus the wrong way.

Mostly, this post is inspired by Napoleon and why, in my opinion, it fell flat. To start, I will say that Ridley Scott has directed some of my all-time favorite films (Gladiator and Black Hawk Down), and when he’s hot, he’s hot. But when he’s not, well, he’s not. My experience of Napoleon was well iterated by “BurekAuFromage,” as featured on the movie-review site Letterboxd:

If the only things you knew going in were that Napoleon was good at military stuff, became the main guy in France, lost in Russia, came back and lost again, you will come away from this movie being sure of less than when you came in. No discernible cause and effect to anything, not the faintest political or contextual framework for a single action that he takes.…

Napoleon (2023), Columbia Pictures.

The film was a beautiful explosion of blood and thunder, sound and fury. But for me, this couldn’t overcome the fact that, aside from being a disappointing historical experience, it was also just a boring story. It fell into one of the main pitfalls of historical fiction, which is offering a rote recitation of the facts (or approximations thereof) without thoughtfully stringing them together into a narrative that offers thematic grist.

Contrast that with even a cursory examination of Saving Private Ryan and its intentional commentary on the thematic patterns available from within its own historical context. Now, I won’t say Saving Private Ryan, for all its merits, is the best movie ever. (I can never watch it without comparing it to Band of Brothers, which is, in my opinion, superior in all ways.) But even apart from its own significance as a groundbreaking cinematic experience, it is undeniably a story that works.

Saving Private Ryan Tom Hanks Matt Damon

Saving Private Ryan (1998), DreamWorks Pictures.

There are many contrasting examples and lessons that could be drawn between Saving Private Ryan and Napoleon, but perhaps the most significant reason the former works and the latter does not is their differing treatments of their antagonistic forces.

As epic war stories, both films largely feature abstract and systemic antagonistic forcesSaving Private Ryan offers up the Nazi Army as the primary antagonist, represented mostly by faceless troops and most significantly in the personification of “Steamboat Willie”—the German gunner who is captured, released, and then returns to kill again.

Saving Private Ryan (1998), DreamWorks Pictures.

In Napoleon, the protagonist confronts a series of oppositions, most of which boil down to either resistance from his own French government or the armies of opposing nations, such as Austria, Russia, and, climactically, England. Although various historical politicians and heads of state provide faces and names to represent these greater threats, they never emerge as dimensional characters in their own right, rendering them just as vague and general as the armies they front. The one exception is the Duke of Wellington, who famously hands the brilliant Napoleon a crushing defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.

Napoleon (2023), Columbia Pictures.

Significantly, this section pulls out of Napoleon’s POV to focus primarily on Wellington. It is Wellington’s goals, actions, and reactions that drive this section. In essence, Wellington becomes the protagonist in this section, with Napoleon functioning as the antagonist. Apart from the arguable British bias of this choice, it is interesting to note that (for my money, anyway) this Third Act sequence is the single most interesting section of the entire film.

Why is this? As I walked out of the theater afterward, what struck me was that Wellington’s segment was really the only one in the entire movie that offered a solid back-and-forth between equally characterized protagonist and antagonist. Unlike the rest of the film, the Battle of Waterloo offered a narrative throughline and the necessary characterization to create enough comparison and contrast for patterns of thematic exploration to emerge.

Contrast this with Saving Private Ryan. Although the film only rarely characterizes its antagonists, it does accomplish two vital tasks:

1. It utilizes a consistent antagonistic force to create a seamless narrative throughline from beginning to end.

2. It carefully dramatizes its mostly unseen antagonistic force (via the subtext of the antagonist’s effects upon the landscape and the characters in it) to oppose the protagonist and the other main characters in ways that require thematic consideration.

In Napoleon, opposing armies are mowed down one after the other without any consideration or discussion. As presented, Napoleon himself is not much affected by the opposition he faces. He merely swats away one enemy before moving on to the next one. One obstacle does not necessarily catalyze the confrontation with the next, which inevitably creates an episodic and scattered feel within the narrative. More than that, because the antagonist is never treated as much more than scenery, there is no opportunity to examine the landscape created by this context and what deeper meanings may emerge for both sides in pursuing the conflict.

Napoleon (2023), Columbia Pictures.

The difference here is striking. (I feel pretty safe in promising that Napoleon is not gonna get a 25th-anniversary showing at your local theater.) One of these films is a story; the other is just a string of scenes. This is not because one had better source material than the other (although Saving Private Ryan certainly benefitted from a much higher concept). It certainly isn’t because one had inherently more fascinating characters than the other (indeed, Saving Private Ryan‘s characters are arguably on-the-nose in comparison to the complexities available in so influential a personality as Napoleon Bonaparte). Rather, it all comes down to how the plot was affected by the antagonist—or lack thereof.

How to Use Antagonists the Right Way: 4 Necessities

How can you learn from these two films to make sure your story gets the kind of plot treatment that not only rivets audiences, but also creates the foundation for amazing character arcs and themes? Following are the four most important things to understand about how to use antagonists to create a functional storyform.

1. Goals Create Antagonists

We can argue which comes first in creating story: the protagonist or the antagonist. By their very integrality to plot, we can certainly take the approach that the context created by the antagonistic force is what allows the protagonist to emerge as such. However, it is equally true that the protagonist’s goal is what creates the antagonist.

First, let us define “goal” as the overarching story goal or desire that will lead the protagonist through the entire story. This goal is the scarlet thread that holds the narrative together. Without that goal, there is no antagonist. This is because, by its very nature, the story goal creates opposition between the protagonist and someone or something else. If the goal aligns the protagonist with someone/thing, then there can be no conflict. Therefore, to ensure your story features an antagonist strong enough to create the plot, you must first ensure your protagonist wants something badly enough to pursue it against all opposition to the very end of the story.

The Wrong Way: In Napoleon, although we understand Napoleon wants to conquer everybody’s armies and rule the world, this is generally presented as an incidental goal. It is not really his purpose to make war on everyone; but what’s he do when armies keep popping up all over the place and tempting him? Likewise, it isn’t really his goal to rule France. He wants the crown, but as shown in the movie, he more or less just stumbles into grasping it. As a result, a solid antagonistic opposition never emerges. There is plenty of conflict, but none of it is focused.

Napoleon (2023), Columbia Pictures.

The Right Way: In Saving Private Ryan, the characters’ goals are explicit throughout. Their mission is to trek through occupied France, looking for “a needle in a needlestack,” and return Private Ryan to his grieving mother, regardless of the cost to themselves. Like Napoleon, they face episodic opposition at every turn, but unlike Napoleon every one of their encounters is defined by their goal.

Saving Private Ryan (1998), DreamWorks Pictures.

2. Antagonists Create Conflict

When we get under the hood of story to look at how the different parts function, we can see that the whole point of the antagonist is to create obstacles to the protagonist’s goal. These obstacles are what create the conflict. Although the word “conflict” tends to evoke ideas of altercation, conflict within story is simply opposition. The protagonist has a goal—and that goal is met with opposition. This opposition is what deepens the story by generating complexity. The more obstacles a character encounters, the less straightforward it becomes to reach the goal. Scene after scene emerges, until suddenly you have a whole story!

The antagonistic force’s role is to create these obstacles. A consistent antagonistic force generates a seamless chain of obstacles, ensuring that each conflict the protagonist encounters is not random, but builds into the larger pattern leading to the final confrontation for the ultimate goal.

The Wrong Way: Aside from Wellington at the very end, Napoleon never faces a cohesive antagonistic force. He flails against his own countrymen as he seeks control of the army and then the state, meanwhile pursuing battles with one country’s army after another. Because the story is not framed around a specific protagonistic goal, it is unable to bring a sense of cohesion to its varied antagonistic forces, which dooms its narrative to feel unfocused and episodic.

Napoleon (2023), Columbia Pictures.

The Right Way: As Captain John Miller leads his squad deep behind enemy lines in occupied France, they encounter conflict after conflict as they confront the enemy over and over again. Not only are all of these encounters unified by a) a consistent antagonistic force and b) an unwavering overall plot goal, they avoid monotony by using the repetition to explore varying faces of the same antagonistic force, revealing its complexity.

Saving Private Ryan (1998), DreamWorks Pictures.

3. Conflict Creates Throughlines

While conflict is easy enough to create on the scene level, truly functional plot conflict arises from a well-chosen and consistently executed antagonistic force in opposition to the protagonist’s goals. With this foundation in place, the conflict that emerges in every scene becomes meaningful to the larger whole. When this happens, a solid narrative throughline begins to emerge.

The throughline is that scarlet thread we talked about. It is the unifying principle in every scene which creates the pleasing patterns of the larger whole. From those patterns, audiences derive meaning from the story. It ceases to be nothing more than a series of scenes strung together and becomes a story—a resonant and thought-provoking commentary on its own events.

The Wrong Way: If we had to sum up a throughline for Napoleon, it would simply be “Napoleon tries to conquer Europe.” Although that’s not an inherently bad throughline, it suffers from general vagueness. There is no meaning inherent in this emerging pattern. It is simply an observation of something that happened. More than that, as executed in the film, the episodic randomness that is created by its lack of antagonistic foundation fails to enforce this throughline. It lacks the urgency of a solid protagonistic goal met by solid antagonistic opposition, and thus fails to provide the story with the necessary momentum.

Napoleon (2023), Columbia Pictures.

The Right Way: Every scene in Saving Private Ryan is focused on one thing and one thing only, and that is the primary conflict between the titular goal and the steadily increasing opposition that continuously raises the stakes. Because the story narrows its focus to one goal and one antagonist, what emerges is the ability to go deeper and deeper into the tension between the two. As opposition increases in a story, the inevitable question a protagonist must ask is, “Is it worth it?” The answers to that question inform the story’s throughline.

Saving Private Ryan (1998), DreamWorks Pictures.

4. Throughlines Create Themes

Writing Your Story’s Theme (Amazon affiliate link)

The consistency of a solid throughline creates the context of pattern within a story. From within this pattern—with all its opportunities for comparison and contrast—arise the opportunities for deep and meaningful themes. The very idea of “theme” is something that shows up so often within a particular context that it defines it (e.g., if there are unicorns all over the place at a kid’s birthday party, then the theme must be unicorns). This kind of repetitive variation is only possible in a story that maintains a strict focus on its primary goal and conflict.

Within a story, theme emerges from plot and character. The antagonist frames the external conflict and forces the protagonist into the inner conflict that raises the chewy thematic questions. If the antagonist is not well chosen to oppose the protagonist’s goal or is not consistently presented as the primary opposition throughout the story, the entire thematic potential of the story will be undermined. When set up with consistency, however, the antagonist can ensure that the story not only works at the level of plot but also the deeper level of theme.

The Wrong Way: Although the complexity inherent in the history dangles all sorts of opportunities for Napoleon to explore interesting themes, the film itself never gets around to exploring much of anything. It comments upon this and that aspect of Napoleon’s life and motivations, but never circles back to raise the stakes by going deeper. Most of this is due simply to its general lack of focus in the external plot, in which a consistent antagonistic force is never developed.

Napoleon (2023), Columbia Pictures.

The Right Way: Twenty-five years later, Saving Private Ryan continues to deeply affect audiences. Some of this is due to its shocking spectacle and to its historical importance (both in the subject it treats and in its own right as a groundbreaking film). But, mostly, it’s because its careful plotting takes its central conflict beyond just its surface action to a deep thematic exploration. This is only possible thanks to its use of a unifying antagonistic force.

Saving Private Ryan (1998), DreamWorks Pictures.


Comparing Napoleon and Saving Private Ryan allows us to distinguish the right and wrong ways to use antagonists. While the former film succumbs to episodic randomness and a lack of thematic exploration, the latter meticulously crafts a narrative throughline, leveraging a consistent antagonist to elevate the story into a resonant commentary on the human condition.

Antagonists are not mere shadows cast by the protagonists but rather dynamic architects shaping the very essence of a compelling plot. They are the linchpins that either fortify or undermine the entire narrative structure. Once you understand how the antagonist is the key to unlocking not just conflict but also thematic richness, you can utilize antagonists as the cornerstone in creating stories that endure and captivate.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think is the most important thing to understand about how to use antagonists in a story? Tell me in the comments!

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Author: K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

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  • February 26, 2024