Hand holding white queen knocks over black king on a chessboard
Photo by GR Stocks on Unsplash

I think a lot about antagonists.

Depending on the protagonist’s goals, it can be difficult to find believable or relatable reasons why someone would be working against them, without resorting to mustache-twirling levels of villainy. It’s also true that not every story needs an explicit antagonist, but it’s often helpful to create a character or two or ten who represent the antagonistic forces in a story.

And so, in the interests of making writing easier and making antagonists better, I offer some thoughts on possible avenues of interrogation that might lead to useful options.

  • Who would be harmed by the protagonist’s success and how?
  • Who would be helped by the protagonist’s failure and how?
  • Whose enemy would be helped by the protagonist’s success?
  • Whose ally would be helped by the protagonist’s failure?
  • Who would benefit from the protagonist failing in a specific way?
  • How would failing in a specific way prevent a larger potential harm caused by the protagonist’s success, or by a different form of failure?
  • Who would believe the protagonist’s failure would serve the greater good, or be the lesser of two evils?
  • Who would believe the protagonist’s immediate failure would be beneficial in the long run, even if it caused a short-term harm?
  • Who would believe failure is in the protagonist’s best interests?
  • Who has a compelling reason to defeat the protagonist at any cost?
  • Who has the same underlying motivation as the protagonist and how are their goals mutually exclusive?
  • Who might be opposing the protagonist based on incomplete information or outright lies?

All of these questions can work in reverse if you have a better idea of who your villain is and need to hone your protagonist instead. You can also expand them to cover potential allies and enemies more broadly, and to build factions as well as individuals. And, as with any list like this, feel free to only ponder the ones that help you, and ignore the rest!

Are there any variations on these kinds of questions that you use to figure out who your story’s antagonists are?

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