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How the Antagonist Affects Character Arc

How the Antagonist Affects Character Arc

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Published by KM Weiland
Two ways the antagonist ties together plot and character arc.
Two ways the antagonist ties together plot and character arc.

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Published by: KM Weiland on Dec 15, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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We often think of the antagonist as an external obstacle to our protagonist’sforward motion. The antagonist is usually a physical entity, something standingin the way of our protagonists’ ability to achieve their physical goals andperhaps even threatening our protagonists’ lives or their physical well-being.Consequently, it can be easy to forget that antagonists are just as important indriving your character’s personal arc as they are the plot’s conflict.
The Two Halves of Story: Outer and Inner
Every story is made up of two integral halves:
 The protagonist’s pursuit of his outer goal, which is the physicalaspect of the story (i.e., the stuff we
The protagonist’s pursuit (willing or not) of his inner goal, which isthe emotional and spiritual aspect of the story (i.e., the stuff happening on an intangible plane).Some stories will emphasize one of these halves over the other, but the beststories balance them.
How the Antagonist Drives the Plot
On the external or physical plane, your antagonist is an obviously essentialplayer. He’s the obstacle that creates conflict. Your character makes a move;your antagonist makes a countermove. Bing bang boom.That one’s a no-brainer. Even if your antagonist is non-human, it will be a forceopposing your protagonist and forcing him to keep coming up with new ways toovercome the problems that lie between him and the ultimate conquest of hisstory goal.
How the Antagonist Drives the Character Arc 
Equally important is the antagonist’s affect on your protagonist’s inner journey.This, however, is often something we overlook. When we construct our
How the Antagonist Affects Character Arc
character’s arcs (
we consciously construct them), we’re too often inclined tocreate traumas and troubles that have no direct connection to the antagonist.Maybe George is trying to get a job in the circus and is opposed by the circusowner’s son, who happens to be courting the girl George is in love with. Soundslike a decent plot with a plausibly motivated antagonist. But if we’ve decidedthat George’s character arc is about proving his worth to his apathetic father(and thereby to himself), then we’ve created a character arc that has no directrelationship to the antagonist. Sure, the circus owner’s son will probably prodGeorge along in his discovery of his self-worth, but that’s only tangentiallyaffecting the character arc.
Two Ways the Antagonist Ties Together Plot and Character Arc
The best way to create an antagonist who is just as organic to the character’sinner arc as he is to the outer conflict is to do it on purpose, right from thestart. Before you ever begin writing, take a moment to consider your story’souter conflict and your character’s inner conflict. Does one grow from the other?If not, how can you craft the one to better reflect the other?In George’s case, we might want to consider either switching out the antagonistto better inform his character arc, or changing the character arc to better reflectthe antagonist’s mode of attack.
Choosing an Antagonist Integral to the Character Arc
If we’re sold on keeping the character arc as is, we might find a better catalystfor inspiring George to find his own self-worth by forcing him to do direct battlewith the father he’s trying to impress. Maybe his
is the owner of the circusand is the one bent on keeping George out of the family business, because hedoesn’t believe good ol’ George is up to the challenge.
Choosing a Character Arc Born of the Antagonist's Attack
If, however, we decide we like the outer conflict with the circus-owner’s-son-slash-rival-lover better than we do George’s current character arc, we might getrid of the judgmental father altogether and focus instead on a weakness that isdirectly challenged by the circus owner’s son. Perhaps George’s new arc is stillabout self-worth, but now that self-worth centers on his belief that he’s notworthy of the girl he loves.Sometimes we can employ more than one antagonist to create different forces of opposition (e.g., the dad drives the inner arc, while the circus owner’s son drivesthe outer conflict). But consolidating the power of your main antagonist into acatalyst for both halves of your story is a powerful way to bring cohesion to bothplot and theme.

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