Why Your Antagonist Should Fight for the Same Goal as Your Protagonist
Conflict is the key to creating narrative drive in a story.
A story can be boiled down to a character desperately wanting something (like winning his estranged wife back) and taking actions toward getting what he wants while facing opposition, both internal and external, along the way (i.e., his own insensitivity and the man who also wants to win the woman’s heart).
The person who represents the primary opposition to the protagonist in your story is the antagonist. But when you think antagonist, don’t just think “bad guy.”
Antagonists, without careful thought, can easily become cliche. The antagonist of a story isn’t merely a bad guy. In fact, the antagonist may not be a bad guy at all. Watch a romantic comedy and you’ll see that the antagonist (usually the man or woman the main character is pursuing) isn’t evil; he or she just stands in opposition for much of the story to the main character getting what he or she wants.
Creating a Compelling Antagonist to Oppose Your Protagonist
Your main character needs to be complex and compelling. The reader or viewer of your story is going to spend a significant amount of time following this character’s journey.
But if you want your story to be more engaging, you have to give more depth to the primary conflict of the story, which means giving more consideration than you often would to the antagonist’s journey.
Your story’s antagonist often believes he is the protagonist of his own story. Antagonists don’t always believe that what they’re doing is evil or in opposition to what the main character is doing.
You want to spend some extra time on your antagonist and make sure he or she doesn’t end up being a stock character you throw in simply to give your characters conflict.
What is the Antagonist’s Motivation?
I love John Truby’s book on screenwriting/storytelling Anatomy of Story, and there’s a place in that book where he mentions that the antagonist wants the same thing as the main character. This is their deep struggle. They both want the same thing, and they are in competition to get it.
I’ve loved this idea of the protagonist and the antagonist sharing the same motivation ever since I read Truby’s book.
But what does it look like, and does it work?
Protagonist and Antagonist Fighting for the Same Goal
One of my favorite movies of all time is Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. I’ve always been a fan of Batman, but what makes The Dark Knight go above and beyond many other superhero stories is the depth of complexity in each of its characters.
The Dark Knight has two primary villains. The Joker, excellently performed by the late Heath Ledger, and Two Face, played by Aaron Eckhart. For our purposes, however, we’re going to focus only on the Joker.
To see if this really works, we have to determine what the protagonist wants first. Batman is fighting to free Gotham City from corruption. That’s his primary goal, and everything he does is driven by that.
Interestingly, the Joker is the main character of his own story. He is also fighting for something, and it drives every action he takes. And what is he fighting for?
A Gotham City free of corruption.
Batman and the Joker are fighting for the same thing.
Same Goal, Different Perspectives
Now, an important thing to realize is that the protagonist and the antagonist may struggle for the same thing, but they’re coming at the goal from opposite perspectives. They’ll have different approaches.
Batman and the Joker both want an uncorrupted Gotham City, but the difference between the two is that Batman believes that being a symbol for justice and fighting crime will change Gotham while the Joker believes that there is no hope for change and the only way to end the corruption in Gotham is to destroy the city altogether.
Putting It Into Practice
If you want to make an antagonist that helps generate the narrative drive of your story, think about your protagonist’s main goal. How can you give the antagonist the same goal but from an opposing perspective?
When you’re crafting your antagonist’s backstory, think about why they fight for the goal that they do. Remember that the antagonist often believes he is the protagonist of his own story.
Tom Farr is a writer, teacher, and storyteller who believes in crafting lies to tell the truth. When he’s not enjoying the good life with his beautiful wife Lindsey and their three much-adored children, he’s striving to create stories that thrill and inspire and preparing for the day Disney calls him to write a Star Wars movie. His work has also appeared on Panel & Frame, Wordhaus, Curiosity Never Killed the Writer, The Write Practice, and The Unsplash Book. Check out his fiction writing portfolio on Medium.