There are a ton of iconic antagonists in film and literature, but some of them are more compelling than others. In today's article, we're comparing 2 examples of antagonists who empower the protagonist (without meaning to).
We'll also look at the 4 reasons why both of these antagonists are so effective.
And I've put together a handy checklist worksheet for you to brainstorm your next story's antagonist and be sure you get the most out of your story's conflict. (You can download that for free below.)
What is an antagonist?
If you already know what an antagonist is, skip on down to the next section.
Still here? Great! Here's the technical definition of the literary term antagonist:
An antagonist is usually a character who opposes the protagonist (or main character) of a story, but the antagonist can also be a group of characters, institution, or force against which the protagonist must contend.
Antagonists, often thought of as villains, are usually seen as the "bad guys". The first characters that come to mind are the truly Big Bads like Darth Vader, Voldemort, Thanos, The Joker, and Hannibal Lecter.
If reading those names gives you chills or makes you feel a little uncomfortable, you're in good company. (Just the thought of killing children or eating another human... blech.)
But underneath the "bad guy" persona, the true purpose of the antagonist is to challenge the protagonist. Antagonists don't need to be evil to push a hero out of their comfort zone.
Antagonists don't need to be evil to push a hero out of their comfort zone.
In fact, characters we often perceive as "evil" usually think of themselves as being in the right, crusading for a worthy cause. (More on this later.)
And some antagonists aren't even sentient.
There are several different types of antagonists you can study more about later, but today we're only focusing on their role in a story, particularly how they challenge the hero to become a better person.
Timing matters! A story is a snapshot in a character's life, and different snapshots will explore different times and topics. Just like a hero's Core Values and GMCs should be specifically identified for a time frame, so should the story's antagonist role. What challenges your hero now may be moot later in their life. Or, in an earlier time frame, they might not be ready to face that particular challenge. More on this below as we talk about example antagonist #2.
Does my story need an antagonist?
The short answer is yes.
If you want to write a story that readers will remember, your hero characters must become transformed versions of themselves. And the intensity of the change they undergo is directly proportional to how tough their adversity is to overcome.
Antagonists provide that adversity, sometimes by simply existing, but usually by pursing a goal that would negate the hero's goal. The protagonist and antagonist cannot both achieve their goals at the same time.
So for the protagonist to get what they need—once they realize that what they Want is not what they Need—they have to deny the antagonist their own goal and vice versa.
This seems like a simple setup, right? Simply pit them against one another and, voila! Conflict!
But not every character's change arc needs a classic villain antagonist. Sometimes the primary antagonist isn't a person at all.
In the movie Cast Away, nature itself is the story-driving force.
In the movie Inside Out, Gloom (representing a mental disorder) is what the hero must overcome.
Both examples use abstract concepts and internal conflicts to propel the story forward. And example #2 today is this type of internal antagonist.
Why we love to hate some antagonists
Every character is the hero of their own story.
An antagonist is only the "villain" in a story where the main character has an opposing goal and the antagonist is aggressively and actively stopping them from achieving that goal.
Readers love to hate an antagonist that they understand but don't identify with.
But what if we flipped the script and made the antagonist the hero? Their story would only be compelling if their personal goals and motivations make sense.
Even if your readers disagree with what the antagonist is trying to do, they should understand why.
Even if your readers disagree with what the antagonist is trying to do, they should understand why.
Darth Vader might be an iconic villain, but I personally don't find him all that compelling. In the original films, his goals are nebulous and his motivation is sketchy. We really only find out his full story in the follow-up trilogy of Star Wars movies that explores his origin. And even then, it's hard to justify some of the paths he took along his fall arc.
The difference between Darth Vader and the antagonists we're studying today is that Vader is a shallow villain. I struggle to relate to him at all, even as a (annoying) child and (cocky) teenager. His motivation is difficult to understand, and he has practically no redeeming qualities that a viewer can identify with. (And fellow Star Wars fans everywhere are pinning my picture to a dart board right now.)
But the 2 examples of antagonists we're talking about today are well-developed and have a clear purpose in both their own story and their hero's. We might not like the antagonist's purpose, but we understand where it came from, and we can respect those origins.
But before we look at the two examples, let's talk about how exactly an antagonist can bring out the best in their story's counterpart, the hero character.
The 4 compelling ways an antagonist strengthens a hero
Now that we know what purpose the antagonist serves in a story and what makes them compelling to a reader, let's look at the 4 traits your antagonist needs if you want readers to feel conflicted about the character itself. (That's where that "love to hate 'em" feeling comes from.)
The antagonist should have a...
- Personal connection to the protagonist.
- Origin or motivation that readers can understand and relate to.
- Skill or strength that the hero is uniquely positioned to match (and eventually overcome).
- Goal that incites the hero to challenge their own beliefs and commit to a scary new path.
#2 above is rooted in backstory, so if your story feels shallow or you can't quite nail down the hero's main conflict, take a closer look at your antagonist's backstory. Take this quiz to find out what their backstory might be missing (even though they aren't the "hero").
Download a worksheet to help you design your antagonist. There's a chart with the four basic traits above and blanks for you to fill in how your character meets those guidelines.
2 examples of antagonists who make their heroes stronger
Killmonger from Marvel's The Black Panther
While there are several characters conspiring against T'Challa in The Black Panther movie, there's no doubt about who the primary antagonist is: the character Killmonger.
If you're not a Marvel fan or just need a refresher, here's an overview of the movie from IMDB:
After the events of Captain America: Civil War, Prince T'Challa returns home to the reclusive, technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda to serve as his country's new king. However, T'Challa soon finds that he is challenged for the throne from factions within his own country. When two foes conspire to destroy Wakanda, the hero known as Black Panther must team up with C.I.A. agent Everett K. Ross and members of the Dora Milaje, Wakandan special forces, to prevent Wakanda from being dragged into a world war.
Killmonger's backstory is a wrenching one of poverty, abandonment, and the primal struggle to survive against all odds. His aggressive political stance and his need for revenge are direct results of decisions T'Challa's father made as king. Wakanda created its own archenemy through its determination to remain isolated out of a fear of change.
How Killmonger meets the 4 antagonist guidelines
Personal connection: Erik "Killmonger" Stevens is King T'Challa's cousin (the son of his father's brother). The old king and Killmonger's father, Prince N'Jobu, had opposing viewpoints about Wakanda's political stance on non-interference. And both T'Challa and Killmonger inherited versions of their father's stances and have embraced them as their own personal missions.
Relatable to the audience: Killmonger's disadvantaged upbringing on the streets of Oakland is one many Americans can relate to. The dangers he faced and the loss he experienced forged a man who was willing to do whatever it took to not only survive, but to correct the wrongs that defined his life. Even for viewers who had a safe, sheltered childhood, young Erik's situation is relatable because racially focused neglect, disparity, and violence are common in our society. Many viewers may disagree with his choices, but it's easy to understand why and how Killmonger became the polar opposite of T'Challa.
Hero is uniquely qualified to defeat: In their standard (human) physical strength and martial abilities, T'Challa and Killmonger are evenly matched. Killmonger's experience as a ruthless mercenary even gives him an edge in pure physical combat. And when Killmonger takes the heart-shaped herb and gains the power of the black panther, T'Challa is the only person who can continue to match him in strength and tactics. AND, the conflict between them is personal, handed down from father to son, so T'Challa is the character who most needs to face and defeat Killmonger.
Incites the hero's personal growth: When Killmonger reveals his royal heritage and T'Challa realizes just how dangerous Wakanda's policy of non-interference can be at a personal, human level, T'Challa begins to doubt everything he was taught about leadership. He opens his mind to choices he wouldn't have considered before Killmonger's interference. And he ultimately chooses the harder path (bringing Wakanda's technological power onto the world stage) because he now realizes his ancestors' folly and selfishness in remaining hidden. T'Challa and Killmonger end up sharing some of the same beliefs, but they act on them in vastly different ways.
King George VI's stutter in the movie The King's Speech
If you haven't seen The King's Speech, it takes place just before and during the start of World War 2 and spotlights the debilitating speech impediment the new king struggled against.
Here's a quick recap from IMDB:
Britain's Prince Albert (Colin Firth) must ascend the throne as King George VI, but he has a speech impediment. Knowing that the country needs her husband to be able to communicate effectively, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) hires Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian actor and speech therapist, to help him overcome his stammer. An extraordinary friendship develops between the two men, as Logue uses unconventional means to teach the monarch how to speak with confidence.
Earlier, I mentioned how timeliness matters when identifying a story's antagonist. In The Black Panther, Killmonger is clearly the main antagonist. But in The King's Speech, that role isn't so obvious.
The antagonist in this story is the king's stutter. It's an abstract thing, a personal limitation that holds the hero back from doing what he needs to do. One of the king's responsibilities is giving speeches to encourage, inform, and inspire his people during difficult times.
But you might ask yourself...
- Doesn't that make the kingship itself the antagonist?
- What about the war? Why isn't that the antagonist?
- What about the family and officials pressuring the king to make his speeches?
All of these are important factors in the hero's story, but they are not the antagonist because...
- The kingship isn't something he is trying to avoid. He simply fears being unable to fulfill one of its core duties.
- During the time frame of this movie, the king is not trying to stop or change the trajectory of the war. He's trying to provide leadership for his people. And he needs to do that through giving public speeches.
- Same for his family and other government officials. They're not trying to stop the king from doing what he wants or needs. They're not challenging him to evolve his mindset for the better. They're merely doing their jobs by enabling him to do his job.
The antagonist in this story is the stutter because it is the thing stopping the king from doing what he knows he must do. It is the conflict he must overcome to become his best self.
Once the king learns to control his stutter, future stories featuring him as the hero would need a new antagonist. And those could be the war, the kingship itself, or a government official.
How the stutter fills the 4 compelling antagonist traits
Personal connection: By its very nature, the stutter is personal to Prince Albert. It exists in his mind and body and affects the way he interacts with other people.
Relatable to the audience: As humans who realize that we are flawed, the stutter reminds us of our own shortcomings and vulnerabilities. And if we know someone who suffers from a stutter (or do ourselves), this non-human antagonist deepens our connection to the story even more.
Hero is uniquely qualified to defeat: Literally no one but the hero can overcome this challenge for the king. No one can speak for him, out of his physical mouth. And he's qualified to defeat it because he already possesses the training and knowledge to be a leader; he simply needs to face his fear, embrace being brave, and commit to practicing this specific skill.
Incites the hero's personal growth: Overcoming his stutter empowers the king to refocus the energy he previously spent on fear and shame into becoming a better leader in other (external) ways. By negating an internal limitation he has struggled with since childhood, he proves to himself that he has the strength and determination to face and overcome terrifying challenges.
Comments & questions
Whew! This one was a little heavy, but hopefully these 4 guidelines for creating an antagonist that strengthens the hero make sense. (Did you grab your free worksheet? Download it here before you go.)
Leave a comment and let me know how you plan to use these 4 antagonist guidelines in your story.