To wrap up our series on the 6 keys to a successful story, is the infamous Antagonist.  And in case you missed the first 5 keys, here’s a rundown:

There are six at the core:

1)   Theme

2)   Plot

3)   Title

4)   Beginning, Middle and End

5)   Protagonist

6)   Antagonist


The most important thing to realize about your antagonist/villain/bad guy/opposing force-of-whatever-nature is, that they are the dark of your protagonist’s light.  They are (or need to be) equal in strength, fatal flaw strength and to an extent, sympathy.

I found complete validation of this in this study from some smart peeps:

A Harvard study proved that people who did good deeds or even visualized themselves doing good deeds had increased physical endurance and willpower.  So Protagonists helping fellow humans can literally enhance their strength.  More interestingly for us story folk (more unfortunately for us everyday folk), the study showed that those who harbor nefarious intentions are also able to draw on extra fortitude. In other words, you can boost your energy by either being compassionate or evil… This research suggests that physical strength may be an effect, not a cause, of moral acts.

This is the fuel that makes good climaxes so great! The hero and villain equally matched in every way but in the end karma wins out (unless you’re writing a tragedy – and that’s okay – it just means the opposing force found balance between dark and light before your hero – see below)

I also love this quote from King Lear ‘wisdom and goodness to the vile seems vile’.

Every villain is a hero and vice versa – a good story’s character arcs — both protag. and antag. — need to come into balance of dark and light to fully arc.

In the case of crafting the antagonist I like to think of this way:

All happy families are alike – but each of us is unhappy in our own way and the extent of your antagonist’s unhappiness will determine the extent of your stories/ story’s success.

Even in the case of forces of nature such as JAWS, TWISTER or ALIEN (remember we’re discussing good stories in this series) the opposing antagonistic force was made almost human (in nature). Quinn was the human embodiment of the shark and Brody (the main her0) had a hard time dealing with him, but once he learned to come around to his way of thinking like the shark, he overcame it. Twister, the chasers lived, ate and slept these funnel clouds, they made them who they were and in Alien, the villain’s offspring gestates inside our hero! In other case of huge natural disasters, the disaster is not really the main bad guy, he’s the plot device and in these stories (usually ensemble characters) the bad guy is what divides the gang.

Now, as far as your 1st 10 pages are concerned, it could be debated forever, whether or not your antagonist needs to be introduced within the 1st 10.  Certainly there are very successful stories where the villain is not revealed all the way up until the climax… however, the antagonistic force that is driven by the villain and opposing the hero, is indeed there very early on (I promise) and keeps the hero on mission, think about most episodic television shows – not necessarily sitcoms, there is an evil, but his reveal happens after the very last commercial break.  Personally, I like to put my bad guys up front and center, sometimes even revealing the antagonist BEFORE the protagonist, because they are after all, equal opposites.  Plus it helps set the tone of the piece, which must be done early on in the 1st 10 pages.

In closing this series; Obviously there are a number of supplemental things that go into a good story – here’s a lot of terms you’ll hear bantered about – note within each which of our 6 keys it actually pertains to.

-Universal: a universally understood theme is key 1.  You cannot write about something that nobody has any point of reference to, AVATAR got a lot of guff for ripping off POCAHONTAS AND FERN GULLY storylines (and though I belong in the minority that doesn’t think it deserves the incredible accolades – and cash) fact is it is a universal theme of saving the planet – even if it is full of blue things.

-Ignition: momentum, hook whatever it is that moves your story so the audience doesn’t have a choice but to be engaged and that takes you to a landing place with a surprise, this is key 2 plot (and overlaps with key 4) and I’ve typed about that surprise landing before in regards to LOST.

-Pacing (this is your appropriate timing of key 2, plot) – Good old Aristotle said it best; ‘all stories take time’.

-Sympathy for the devil (Antagonist! No link because you’re here!)

-A souvenir (every truly great story has a take away) this could fall into the plot but more likely it is #1 theme and also

-A treat for the audience/reader – give ‘em an inside joke they think is just for them this is fun for you and them, no key involved, it’s a perk when you’ve mastered the keys.

-Primal (not the same as universal) universal points more toward theme and primal can be character (protagonist or antagonist, as well as plot) To use a well known example, let’s look at Harry Potter, any in the series, the primal factor is survival – ‘the boy who lived – his parents died and he lived’ it doesn’t get more primal than that.  (And not get off track but look at the guy that killed his parents, that is an antagonist that is literally the dark half of our hero) Here, I like to equate sports fanaticism with stories (movies or books) everytime a favorite team walks onto the field you don’t know the ending. Which points to the primal thing once again and explains all of that body paint.

-Entertain – suspend reality! Again this points to plot, which defines the premise and later informs the theme.

-Deliver within the genre.  Both of these two point to each key.  You wouldn’t want to see a romantic comedy entitled JOURNEY TO CENTER OF THE EARTH but if you’re writing a sci-fi adventure make that journey truly spectacular. Really this is 1-6 but in this example it starts with the title, #3.

-Build up and release tension – This points to the pacing of the plot as well but defines it better. Freud says pleasure comes from the release of tension- this is why stories end in climax (I added that last part)

It’s also why I like to equate sports fanaticism with stories (movies or books) everytime a favorite team walks onto the field you don’t know the ending. Which points to the primal thing once again.

So, there you have it many books, blogs, seminars etc… sell their wares under wording that will tell you they have an overlooked key to writing – but trust me these 6 are at the core and everything else points to them.

Stay tooned…

2 thoughts

  1. Most excellent articles! Stumbled onto your site today, and have spent a good amount of time here.
    However, I cannot find your two articles (no links?) for
    “Title” and “Beginning, Middle & End.” I hope they are still available. Thanks again. Your fan… Steven

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