Writers in the Storm

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December 13, 2023

Story in Trouble: 5 Signs You're Ignoring Your Antagonist

by Colleen M. Story

How is your story going? Is it on fire with lots of excitement and drama?

Or is it limping along at a lackluster pace with little emotional impact?

If it’s the latter, consider this: You may not be paying enough attention to your antagonist.

I was guilty of this in my early writing. I focused so much on my hero that I neglected the poor bad guy (or girl).

When your antagonist isn't getting enough of your attention, your entire story suffers. I’d go so far as to say your story will fail if you haven’t given just as much of your heart and soul to your bad guy as your good one.

If you’re unsure whether that’s happening in your story, look for these five signs of antagonist neglect.

5 Signs of Antagonist Neglect

1. You’re in the middle of the story and you’re stuck.

It’s easy to get stuck in the middle of a novel, and there are several reasons this may happen. One of the most common is that your antagonist isn’t doing enough to get in your hero’s way.

Go back and review your story so far. From the beginning to the end, your antagonist should fight for what she wants, which should be in direct contrast to what your hero wants. Make sure you know what your antagonist wants, what it means to her, and what she is going to do to get it. Then make sure that with every move she makes, she’s making it harder for your hero.

If you do that and build both stories as you go, you’ll have so much going on that you’ll be much less likely to get stuck.

2. Your pacing is slow. (A.k.a., "This is boring.")

I've grown to love antagonists because they are the ones that make the story fun to read and write. If your story is boring, or if you feel you have to drag yourself through chapter after chapter when you’re writing it, sit down and have a chat with your antagonist.

Imagine pulling up a chair across from this person and asking them a few questions. The first, of course, should be, "What do you want?" The second should be, "What do you think of the hero?"

After you ask, listen. Write what your character "says." As long as you're learning, keep the conversation going. Find out why your antagonist feels misunderstood or why he or she should be the hero of your story instead.

Once you can connect with your antagonist, go back and make sure that person gets equal emphasis in your story. Then things should get more exciting.

3. Your main character is too happy.

I recently saw the new “Hunger Games” movie (The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes). I had read the book beforehand and appreciated how closely the movie followed it. And I enjoyed the show, enough that I’d see it again.

But if you think about it, it’s one misery after the next. Our hero, Coriolanus (who later becomes the villain in the original Hunger Games trilogy), goes through heartache after heartache in a series of difficult events with the amazing Viola Davis as the antagonist behind it all.

If you’ve seen the movie, think about it—Coriolanus is never “happy.” He moves from misery to misery, all the while trying to reach the goal he’s set for himself.

Compare that to your hero. If he is too happy in your story, it may be because you haven’t paid enough attention to your antagonist. This person should put your main character through hell chapter after chapter, with things only getting worse as you go.

Yes, it’s hard to see our heroes suffer, but that’s the hallmark of a good story. Be honest as you’re assessing yours to see if your antagonist needs to be a little harder on your main character.

4. Your synopsis reads like “blah blah blah.”

Writing a synopsis is something most authors dread. It’s so difficult to summarize an 85,000 novel in 1,000 words or so.

If you haven’t done it yet, try it now. It’s a great exercise, and it can show you where you may have holes in your story structure. If you’ve done it right, you’ll have a very clear plotline with your hero and antagonist butting heads all the way, and only one clear winner in the end.

On the other hand, if your synopsis reads, “this happened, then this happened, then this happened” with no increase in stakes, drama, and dread, it’s time to go back and see if you need to further develop your antagonist. Often, giving this person more character and more action can force your hero into a situation where he or she must lay it all on the line to win.

5. You don’t love your antagonist…yet.

I’m so grateful to all of my antagonists. They make my stories come to life. I don’t agree with what they do, but I feel for them as people. I understand them.

If your antagonist is only the “bad guy” or “bad girl” so far, you haven’t gotten to know them well enough. This should feel like a real person who you’re rooting for initially, but who chooses the wrong path.

It’s this person’s actions that force your main character to adapt, shift, take action, suffer, get up, and try again. Without the antagonist, your main character stays the same. And as we all know, character change is the key to an excellent novel.

I loved the movie “Unbreakable” with Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson. It’s a great study of how critical the antagonist is to the hero's growth and change.

Samuel L. Jackson plays Elijah Price, the antagonist to Bruce Willis’ David Dunn, the hero. This quote comes at the end of the movie when Price—who is speaking to Dunn—finally reveals who he really is.

“Now that we know who you are, I know who I am. I'm not a mistake! It all makes sense! In a comic, you know how you can tell who the arch-villain's going to be? He's the exact opposite of the hero. And most times they're friends, like you and me!” (emphasis mine)

Colleen Story

Colleen M. Story is a novelist, freelance writer, writing coach, and speaker with over 20 years in the creative writing industry. In addition to writing several award-winning novels, Colleen's series of popular success guides, Your Writing MattersWriter Get Noticed! and Overwhelmed Writer Rescue, have all been recognized for their distinction.

Colleen offers personalized coaching plans tailored to meet your needs, and frequently serves as a workshop leader and motivational speaker, where she helps attendees remove mental and emotional blocks and tap into their unique creative powers. Connect with Colleen at the links below.
Free chapters | Writing and Wellness

Note: Colleen offers affordable, individualized coaching plans. Prices are going up in the new year, so if you’d like some help on your story, sign up now. Find more information here!

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7 comments on “Story in Trouble: 5 Signs You're Ignoring Your Antagonist”

  1. Excellent reminders, Colleen. I avoided conflict on the page for years before I understood that my antagonist had to make my protagonist miserable. Now figuring out the push and pull between the two is one of my favorite parts of writing. I love me a good antagonist like Price in Unbreakable and hope I've written a few of them.

  2. My bad guy, who sent three people on an expedition for his own nefarious purposes, is back at home while the others (each with a motivation that conflicts with the other two) carry on with the action. I will have to find a way to revisit the bad guy at intervals so he doesn't fade into the background. Building both (in this case, four) stories should help. Thanks, Colleen.

    1. Interesting, Anna. Yes, I've seen the "mastermind" plot done well but you're right--he can't fade into the background. Good luck putting him more in the thick of it!

  3. This, this, THIS! You nailed all the reasons why I will stop reading a book! I'm weary of reading pages of backstory before anything happens, and then not much happening along the way or where the main character is simply reacting to everything.

    I remember when writing my villains (poachers) killing a park ranger, I got goosebumps and chills. I should have seen that as a sign that I was in the wrong genre!. LOL Thanks for a great read.

    I'm putting this post on my website's Recommended Reading page. (There are many others from this website there, too.)

    1. Ha ha ha. I'm with you there, Diana! I have little tolerance for boring books these days! And the bad guy definitely creates the interest. Your poacher sounds like a fun one to write. Thanks for sharing! :O)

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