The Antagonist's Point of View

Analyzing literary antagonists is a first step to creating memorable characters in student writing.

By Erin Bailey

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silhouette of a man in a trenchcoat

When children begin writing fictional stories, they typically include one or two characters who embark on some sort of journey during which they encounter a few obstacles. These obstacles string along the story until the characters finally reach their goal or destination. This is a fine start, but for story development to advance, an analysis of the roles that various characters play in pushing the action forward is helpful.

The antagonist is sometimes called the villain, and in some cases, that is very fitting. Great antiheroes are often darker versions of the hero—the flip side of the coin if you will. However, the antagonist does not have to be evil. Rather, he must only have goals counter to the goals of the protagonist.

Conflict is what drives a plot, and the antagonist must be up to the burden of providing that conflict throughout the story. A villain that is too perfect, too evil, or too mysterious, will also be too boring. Readers need to relate to the antagonist in order to root against him, just as they must relate to the heroine in order to root for her. In other words, the antagonist cannot win every battle if a reader’s interest is to be maintained.

Finding Everyday Antagonists

Analyzing well-known antagonists will help your writers see the story value in pitting one character against another. To begin, have your writers think about their parents. Through the teen years, parents are often antagonists to their children; but they don’t start that way, and they often don’t end that way. Ta da! This is one arc that a literary antagonist can follow.

Take it another step and ask your students to think of a time when they were someone else’s antagonist—perhaps to their parents, siblings, a teacher, or a younger child in the neighborhood. Would they describe themselves as a VILLAIN? Probably not. Just someone with contrasting goals. An antagonist is simply the hero of his own story, like Elphaba in Wicked.

Next, have students break into pairs and brainstorm a list of antagonists from books they’ve read. In some novels, this might be nature, grief, racism, poverty, etc. Because these existential antagonists are more difficult for young writers to develop, instruct them to focus on characters.

I offer up three well-known antagonists to open the discussion on three ideas that should be developed in order to create a worthy antagonist. As students study literature, have them find the answers to these points for the protagonist and antagonist to see how they clash.

A Good Antagonist Has a Back Story

An interesting back story is how the reader relates to a character. An audience doesn’t have to be sympathetic to the antagonist, but readers must understand him or her. Miss Havisham from Great Expectations is a good example of why back story is so important. Until you know why she wears a rotting wedding dress every day, and why the mansion is allowed to decay beneath cobwebs and dust, it’s impossible to understand her. She’s just creepy. You may recall that Miss Havisham was left standing at the altar without a groom at twenty minutes to nine. She then uses her adopted daughter, Estella, to exact vicarious revenge upon men.

Knowing all of this, the reader might feel sorry for the old gal. This is effective because it creates conflict not only on the page, but also within us.

An Interesting Antagonist Has Understandable Motivations

Identifying a character’s motivation is another important piece to developing an antagonist. In the Chronicles of Narnia, the White Witch is obviously villainous. However, for this piece, I’d like to consider Edmund Pevensie from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as an antagonist.

Edmund is a typical younger brother, one who has been belittled and humiliated at the hands of his older siblings and who struggles to step out of his older brother’s shadow. Enter the White Witch who is something of a master manipulator. With her encouragement, Edmund sees himself as ruling the kingdom with enough power to put his siblings in their place. His acts of betrayal are motivated by his need to feel important and appear more clever than he is ever given credit for. The audience can relate to—we have all been criticized at one time or another and wanted to redeem ourselves. Writing a relatable motivation into the story is essential.

Have your students  think of a time when they responded to a situation in less-than-noble ways—a tantrum because they were denied a new video game, or perhaps a weep-fest because they got a bad grade on a test they didn’t study for. Ignore the actions for now. Concentrate on the motivation for the actions: fear of being shunned for not having the latest and greatest? Self-hatred because they know they created their own failure?

A Remarkable Antagonist Has Relatable Flaws

Everyone has flaws and if the antagonist doesn’t have any, then the audience will not be able to relate to him or her. Robert Cohn from The Sun Also Rises is an example of an antagonist that is NOT a villain. In fact, his insecurity, shyness, and outdated value system make him an easy target for the rest of the characters. Yet he and Hemingway’s protagonist, Jake Barnes, both vie for the affection of the same woman, which puts them in opposite corners of the ring.

Young writers should carefully consider a character’s flaws. In the case of Robert Cohn and Jake Barnes, they share a big one—insecurity. A shared flaw is often the case with heroes and antagonists. Other common flaws include impatience, greed, and selfishness.

Again, ask students to identify the flaws that hold them back—too self-assured, too laid-back, or too generous? Once identified, have them think of someone they know that has this same flaw. Do they describe this person as a friend or antagonist?

Other Writing Ideas from Lesson Planet: 

Character Analysis Chart

This chart works on both sides—reading and writing. First, readers can use the chart to analyze a literary character. When they are ready to write their own stories, this chart can guide them through the character development process.

"Three Shots": Ernest Hemingway's Nick Adams

This comprehensive set of lessons is an excellent resource for secondary teachers. The activities guide readers through an in-depth character analysis. The lessons conclude with writing exercises that allow secondary pupils to practice what they’ve learned.

The Nature of the Antagonist

Appropriate for grades through twelve, these lessons compare and contrast protagonists and antagonists in literature and film. They also explore the importance of conflict in a story. Writers create their own antagonist.

Character in a Bag

Young writers pair up in a character analysis exercise. Partners receive a bag of random items that belong to a mystery character. Using the items, they write a character sketch and explain how each item in the bag is important.