Your antagonist’s motivations can make or break your story. If your antagonist’s motivations are weak, unconvincing, or over-complicated (which is usually symptomatic of the first two problems), then you will severely undermine your story in several key areas. Not only will you end up with a weak character to oppose your protagonist, but you may also find that your entire plot fails to work.
When we view storyform from a zoomed-out, macro level, the antagonistic force is the plot. It is the major obstacle standing between your protagonist and the main story goal. The antagonistic force is what creates conflict on the plot level and the scene level. If we can say “no conflict, no story,” then we can just as accurately say “no antagonist, no conflict.”
In some stories, and for some authors, strong antagonists and their formation of the plot conflict comes obviously and naturally. But for many authors, the antagonist is an afterthought, neglected in the story’s back rooms while we play with “more interesting” characters and their interrelational dynamics. The antagonist-as-character may turn out to be a mere face on a plot device—an almost anthropomorphic interpretation of Evil and/or a sound-byte stereotype to oppose a much more interesting protagonist.
There are many reasons this tends to happen, not least that many authors fail to identify with their antagonists (or at the other extreme, over-identify with them) and so fail to humanize them to the same degree as the protagonists. Or it may be that the story is primarily focused on the interrelational dynamics of the protagonist and his allies, while the overarching antagonist is a Big Bad pulling strings from faraway and rarely in the same conversational space as the protagonist. Particularly if you’ve chosen not to give the antagonist a POV, this can make it difficult for the author to really get to know this character, much less craft dimension within a limited amount of screen time.
And yet these difficulties aside, the antagonist is still the lynchpin in your plot. If the antagonist doesn’t work—and particularly if the antagonist’s motivations do not work—then the entire structural plot, the thematic argument, and more will limp along.
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.