Without an antagonist, there is no story. Antagonists are the true instigators of the plot; they are the ones standing in a protagonist’s way of getting what the they want and need, which means the antagonist becomes the motivation forcing the protagonist to act.
Without a protagonist, readers and viewers have no reason to care about the story. We identify with a protagonist’s vulnerabilities and their struggles. If we are not rooting for a protagonist, we’re putting the book down. Shutting the TV off. We’re not interested.
Before writing, filling in your COWs—Character Outline Worksheet Templates—will save your story from spiraling into a mess of dull, boring, and meaningless events. These worksheets mentor writers as they create a detailed character worksheet for their story’s:
To learn more about the COW key components–which I recommend you consider specifically for the antagonist and protagonist–study this post.
Character is Action, but Action Won’t Happen if Your Characters are Flat
Story Grid creator, Shawn Coyne, says that “character is action,” but if a protagonist doesn’t have an antagonist to rise up against, there is no need for action. Life is good—or at least, normal. Hitchcock would otherwise call this dull.
Without an antagonist, the protagonist is conditioned to go about his or her life without any external pressure calling them to change. They most certainly are not challenged to discover what they need, which means a protagonist’s Objects of Desire (their wants and needs) remain unknown—even to themselves. A story that lacks this falls short of anything entertaining, relatable, or motivating.
With an antagonist, however, the protagonist is motivated to rise up. There’s a Call to Action. The journey they take on is all a path towards a final showdown with their antagonist—created by a need to stop the antagonist from carrying out his or her own goals and/or plan.
This doesn’t mean that an antagonist needs to be a stereotypical “all bad” villain in order to “work.” (I actually argue that the best antagonists are sympathetic.) Rather, an antagonist is someone who works in conflict with the protagonist. Thus, the protagonist and antagonist oppose one another because of their conflicting wants and needs–and the actions that each performs is done in a way that complicates the other’s goals from coming to fruition.
Think about this:
- Frodo would not need to destroy the ring if Sauron wasn’t building an army to destroy everyone but his followers once he retrieves it.
- Harry spends much of his story learning how to become a wizard at Hogwarts, but Voldemort’s determination and plan to regain power and kill Harry is what drives the global story curating the series.
- Katniss wouldn’t have a reason to volunteer if President Snow didn’t force the districts to partake in the Hunger Games.
- Rose could leave Cal if he wasn’t obsessively controlling and egotistic, and her mother wasn’t so strung up on her own social standing instead of her daughter’s wants and needs.
- Aibileen would be able to go about her work and life without controversy if society wasn’t so embarrassingly racist, especially after Miss Hilly forwards a letter for the Home Sanitation Initiative.
- Hamlet would still have a father if it weren’t for his wicked, murderous uncle.
- Clarice wouldn’t need to gain Hannibal Lector’s trust if it weren’t for his relationship with Buffalo Bill.
- Scout would be left to live out her innocent and naïve childhood as she saw fit if it weren’t for the Old South’s racist and segregated mindset, which is brought even further to her attention by Bob Ewell’s false accusation of Tom Robinson raping his daughter.
A Closer Look at Antagonists in External Action Stories with Internal Genres like Worldview, Status, and Morality
In epic action stories, the antagonistic conflicts come from a treacherous villain who creates a large Power Divide between them and the Protagonist (and everyone else).
In all great stories, especially an Internal (plot is character-driven) story, the antagonist often represents a shadow of the protagonist—i.e. a character that represents everything the protagonist could be if they gave into the darker versions of themselves.
The Harry Potter series—an Internal Worldview Story and External Action Story— is a marvelous representation of a beloved protagonist fighting against his ultimate shadow, Voldemort. The combination of the two is what undoubtedly raises the internal and external stakes, which is part of the magic in the magic—Rowling created a relatable, authentic rites of passage transformation within an exhilarating, dangerous, and epic adventure.
The Antagonist in Harry Potter: The Power Divide
Large Power Divide is an essential convention in any Action story. This cannot be overlooked, since this raises the stakes between the protagonist’s desire to defeat the villain and save the victim—a dynamic that successfully triggers the emotions fans of Action Stories crave, excitement.
Ollivander in Sorcerer’s Stone emphasizes how Voldemort does the most “terrible” but “great things.” Only a fool would deny this, and Harry—though exceptionally courageous and a great wizard—is outmatched by Voldemort’s skill…BY A LOT.
The excitement factor for the epic adventure, thus, relies heavily on Harry’s ability to grow as a wizard by learning how to live as a noble, selfless person. He’s courageous, which absolutely helps, but Harry must also learn how to use Voldemort’s weaknesses against him in order to overpower and outwit Voldemort in the end (Harry needs to discover the special gifts he has that Voldemort does not, like his ability to love and make sacrifices for those he loves).
Ultimately Harry’s special gift is what allows him to self-actualize in a way that Voldemort never can, particularly because Voldemort has no concern for anybody’s health and well-being other than his own. This makes it clear that the climactic moment in every Harry Potter story is when Harry successfully self-actualizes by releasing his special gift to the world. In the finale of the series, Harry goes so far to value the lives of his friends above his own to do this (causing him to self-transcend by making a sacrifice that has no guarantee of benefiting him–an action that ranks a level above self-actualization, what Harry does in the previous six books); he walks freely into the Forbidden Forest: “I am prepared to die.”
In a way, this is unfathomable to Voldemort. Voldemort is so entitled and arrogant that he doesn’t even consider the possibility that killing Harry will actually destroy a piece of his own soul. While Voldemort looks out for nobody but himself, Harry does everything for the safety of those he loves. The juxtaposition of the two is what unveils the difference within their similarities—their choices—and concludes evidence that Harry can change and grow whereas Voldemort cannot.
It is Harry’s acceptance of his whole self within the conflict that gives him the courage he needs to self-actualize time and again (and eventually self transcend), and this release of his special gift is what empowers Harry with what he needs to destroy Voldemort once and for all.
Harry’s Internal Story and How it Plays into His Antagonist
Looking at the internal viewpoint of Voldemort as the main antagonist, we can also see how Voldemort is the shadow of Harry—so much so that Voldemort actually chose Harry “as his equal” (the prophecy in Order of the Phoenix).
The greatest antagonists in every story are nothing more than the most horrific fears of what we could be buried deep within a protagonist. Villains are who we hope never to become—and yet, we struggle to turn our heads from what we consider the greatest villains. They’re interesting! How did they get to be so wicked? Why do they act the way they do?
This is likely because antagonists illustrate external representations of what our protagonist could be if they made different choices, were raised in different circumstances, or suppressed their less socially accepted feelings. We all have darkness within ourselves, and denying this piece of our being sets the trap for eventually letting that innate, yet restricted emotion bubble over and explode.
We, as readers and viewers, fear the “darkness within”—and when we identify with a character that is much like that darkness, we’re interested. It’s familiar and horrifying all in one.
Side Note: Don’t mistake the term villain as the only “antagonist” in a story. At the scene level, antagonists can actually be friends and supporting characters of protagonists because what they do is complicate the protagonist’s goal/want for each scene.
They can also do this on a global spectrum–i.e. an antagonist doesn’t have to be a ranging, murderous villain to work as a character that complicates a protagonist’s goals and life.
Therefore, an antagonist forces a protagonist to change because they call them to action. An antagonist DRIVES the external actions structuring a plot.
No person is completely evil or completely good, and truly great antagonists allow us, as readers and viewers, to see the worst in ourselves, our society, and our existence without actually acting in the same way. We are allowed to let the madness within run wild in a story, and then recap our sanity and clarity at the end. Fun Fact: Shakespeare was famous for doing this in many of his plays: flipping roles in society and then restoring order once the story ended, especially in comedies like in The Taming of the Shrew.
The Protagonist: How the Antagonist and Protagonist are Different
The protagonist is the character who undergoes the largest growth and change in a story. This also means that the protagonist has the most to learn from beginning to end; thus, they expose all their vulnerabilities and scars to readers, which makes them remarkably sympathetic and relatable, and gives us a big reason to root for them to win!
Reminder: Supporting characters can also grow and change from beginning to end, but there are far and few antagonists who grow or change at all.
Since stories are about change/transformation, and a protagonist is the character who undergoes the largest change/transformation, it’s crucial to drive your plot with an exceptional protagonist. As mentioned above, the protagonist doesn’t exist without an antagonist because a protagonist lacks motivation to change/transform without one. This also means it is essential to make your protagonist’s wants and needs directly conflict with those of your antagonist. In character driven stories, the conflicts between the protagonist and antagonist generate the global story—or 15 spinal scenes—of a plot. The obstacles and complications the protagonist faces along the way, often created by their antagonist, will make it all the more difficult to survive (physically, psychologically, and/or professionally) your story’s spinal core.
The Shadow of the Protagonist Does Not Change
It’s also important to remember that your antagonist—a shadow of your protagonist—will not experience a shift in perspective and/or their life value spectrum. They DO have strong motivations and desires, but it’s their inability to change that make them the antagonist of the protagonist.
Think about this with Harry and Voldemort. In Chamber of Secrets, Dumbledore reminds Harry that ultimately it is our choices that define who we really are, which makes Harry very different than Voldemort. They might both exist in an External Action Story, but their internal desires and motivations are different, with Harry (specifically in Chambers) seeking sophistication in an imperfect and paradoxical world, and Voldemort—appearing as a Horcrux in the form of Tom Riddle’s diary—inevitably falling because of his refusal to shift his worldview.
Thus, Harry’s curiosity and willingness to change allows him to grow and move towards the positive end of a worldview life value spectrum in a Worldview Story, whereas Voldemort flat-out rejects any need to change, leading to his destruction.
How to Develop Your Antagonist and Protagonist
To think about how you can develop a memorable antagonist who also works as a shadow to your protagonist, tackle the Antagonist and Protagonist with these COW components in mind.
When developing your own characters, I strongly recommend you start with the antagonist (I really recommend this! See why in my Story Grid post!) and then move one to your protagonist. If you’re really ambitious, draft sheets for your Antagonist’s Supporters, Protagonist Supporter’s, and Hero’s Journey Character Archetypes.
Character Outline Worksheet (COW Key Components)
Note: It’s important to remember…
- Characters should comply with genre expectations. Familiarize yourself with the genre (Internal AND External) of your story by reviewing my post on loglines.
- Take breaks when you actually tackle your templates—characters take time to come to life. Do a little work and then go for a walk. Come back and then listen to some music. Identify the difference between when you’re avoiding these templates and when you need space to refresh, rethink, and revise.
- Continually focus on the WHY of characters. Too often, writers build flat characters because behaviors and characteristics are conveniences instead of purposeful intentions. Learn more on how to identify the WHY for your characters by reviewing my post “On Meaningful Characters”—i.e. discover your character’s Objects of Desire and understand HOW and WHY they want and need these.
- Remember that it’s ok to change things as you go. You’ll learn a lot about your characters when you start writing. However, you are the writer. It’s ok to learn along the process. In fact, I’d be a little disappointed if you didn’t. We are all learning in life! Each time you write, I hope your life is blessed with a snippet of continued learning.
When developing the Antagonist and Protagonist for your story, it helps to consider key components for a character. I elaborate on each components with essential questions in my COW Templates. For this post, however, I describe in detail the components and their importance. These include:
1. External Want
Every character wants something in a story, and these are externally driven. External wants can be identified by the global life value shift aligned with the story’s External Genre, which can be found on the Story Grid’s Genre 5 Leaf Clover.
Refer to Story Grid’s Gas Gauge of Needs to Know What Your Protagonist WANTS depending on what genre you’re writing–and remember, a character’s WANT aligns with their EXTERNAL GENRE GOAL. Whereas their NEED is determined by their INTERNAL GENRE ARC.
2. Internal Need
A crucial component in a character’s Objects of Desire, which provides the entire purpose for the story, is a character’s need. This is something deep-rooted in the character and more commonly internal, although the character will not know what this is until the final stages of the plot. Until a character learns what they need, and accepts and adapts this need, they cannot get what they want—we see characters get or not get (if they refuse to accept and adapt their internal need) in the final showdown, or climax, of a story.
Ultimately, the character’s need reigns supreme to all their accomplishments. Without their need, they cannot acquire a greater understanding and purpose beyond their external wants—i.e. they will never be satisfied (see Angelica and Hamilton in Hamilton). Also, it’s best to place this need in conflict with their external goal/want (what they think would make them satisfied with their life).
Internal needs are aligned with the life value driving the Internal Genre of the story. While I argue the best stories have a global Internal AND External Story, some stories only have an External Story. (In rare cases, the External Want assimilates with the External Need, and the story is driven by plot more than character transformation and internal growth. Like James Bond.)
3. Origin Story
Like every person, every character has an origin story. Much of the time, especially for antagonists, we, as the readers and audience, get to see an origin scene in some way, either through dialogue or an actual scene—sometimes a whole movie about it!
Knowing the origin story allows us to identify and sympathize with characters because we understand where characters come from—and only by knowing the background of a character can we truly understand WHY they behave, speak, and think in their own unique ways.
Origin stories should directly relate to the character’s internal need—characters need this because they’ve lacked something since their origin story. When the character realizes their internal need, true growth can happen, which (for protagonists) is absolutely necessary for taking out the bad guy at the end.
4. Harmful Idea
What did the character come to believe because of their origin story or any events that molded them into the character they are at the story’s beginning? Often, this idea can be the opposite of the controlling idea driving the story’s internal and external genres (i.e. the message that protagonist’s understands at the end of the story, after they’ve succeeded (or failed) in their finale). Since characters need to learn the story’s controlling idea by the end, find a sentence that works against the global genre’s controlling idea at the beginning.
For a shortcut, pick either your Story Grid External Genre or Internal Genre to do this, and make a note that this choice between the external or internal genre will also be what drives your plot’s spinal scenes. Also keep in mind that each Story Grid genre has a separate controlling idea for a cautionary or prescriptive tale—i.e. are you writing a story with a negative or positive ending?
[Shawn Coyne informs Story Grid followers that a…cautionary tale is a story that teaches readers what not to do in case something happens to us. A prescriptive tale is a story that teaches readers what to do in case something happens to us.]
When writing out the Harmful Idea your character believes, make your sentence suggest the opposite (positive for negative controlling ideas and vice versa) of the global genre. (Internal Story or External Story, probably not both–if you had to pick one as your main genre, what is it?)
5. Consequences and Stakes
The doom here lies in the potential of failure. If you don’t establish a clear threat(s) of what will happen if the character fails to get what they want and need, we, as readers and viewers, will probably get bored somewhere in the plot. Conflict is what makes a story worthwhile—and how your character’s want conflicts with your character’s need is a tremendous way to plot complications that build towards a climax. Ask yourself, what are the consequences threatening your character from attaining their wants and needs?
Consequences for your character failing are tied to the obligatory scene in every genre—the CORE EVENT of your story. To identify the consequences, figure out your story’s CORE EVENT/SCENE—your climatic moment, or “the point in the story where the Core Value shift intersects with the Core Emotion at its height.” (Read more about the Core Event in Story Grid editor Anne Hawley and Leslie Watt’s post on Story Grid.)
Once you identify this event–i.e. the REASON you’re writing THIS story–ask yourself: What will happen if they fail? What happens next? What are the professional, physical, and/or psychological death stakes because of this?
Once you understand this, you can begin escalating complications to build towards these death stakes. Your readers will be on the edge of their seats to see if the protagonist makes it out alive (professional, physically, and/opr psychologically) or not.
6. The HOOK (and irony in the hook)
The hook is what makes your character ironic within the context of their story. I talk about this more in my post on loglines. Essentially, think about the circumstances of your story and then ask yourself, what could be ironic about my character’s personality and attributes in a way that makes what they want and need all the more difficult to get? What makes them stand out from the crowd? How do they become a go-to character for this situation, and why does it also make it difficult to understand how they can value this internal mindset in their external world? Why is your story about YOUR PROTAGONIST(S) instead of one or more of the supporting characters?
For example: are they a PATHOLOGICAL LIAR in a job that requires HONESTY? Are they ANXIOUSLY struggling with OCD but externally appear as the most COMPOSED and POSITIVE student in their class?
The HOOK is an extremely meaningful way of defining the unique selling point (USP) for your story, and it’s often what will create never-ending conflict for your plot.
If nothing else, it will establish a major draw for your audience/readers, agents, publishers, and producers looking to invest.
7. Character’s Secret
In a Writer’s Digest webinar on first chapters, P.S. Literary Agent, Maria Vicente, talks about the need for a SECRET or MYSTERY in chapter one of your novel. Sometimes this secret is revealed to other characters and concealed from others, sometimes we spend the whole story trying to figure out what the secret is.
Regardless, your character will be a lot more interesting if they have a secret. This could range anywhere from a secret fear to secret mistake to secret lie to secret fantasy to secret…see what I’m getting at?
Secrets don’t always have to be life-threatening; they have to be real and crucial to your character’s need to grow and change. Secrets can strengthen and weaken characters, and secrets always flesh out escalating conflicts that build towards bigger moments (and reveals) in a story.
***P.S. Secrets can also play into your story’s hook. They do not mean that you have to write a mystery novel.***
The Big Takeaway
Knowing the key components in COWs before writing your story will make it easier to braid conflict and complications into the plot while driving your structure with interesting, memorable, and sympathetic characters. I always recommend developing your antagonist first for reasons discussed in this Story Grid post, but writers like to work in different ways, so to each his/her own!
One last thing! If you recall from my Outline Spectrum post, all writers range from plotter to panster, and knowing where you fall on this spectrum can help you understand how intensely you want to tackle these character worksheets. At the very least, I recommend completing the Antagonist and Protagonist COW components. But if you’re a planter or plotter like me, I’d push you one step further and encourage you to draft one for every character archetype in The Hero’s Journey. (Wonderful descriptions of these can be found in Christopher Volger’s book, The Writer’s Journey.)
Hey Writer! Did you know that you get free COW templates by signing up for my STORY EFFECT newsletter? Sign up today to flesh our your characters with templates that guide you through the seven questions mentioned in this post.