Plotting a Story 101: Building a Plot Framework with Your Antagonist
October 16, 2019
Hey there! Thanks for joining Indigo Typewriter in our second installment of Planning for Pansters. We’ve been talking about plotting a story, and today it’s all about the antagonist.
Now, let me clarify: there are a few different types of antagonists, and I encourage you to check out this blog post from Well-Storied. for a quick, super-helpful overview of these types! Today’s story plotting post will apply to the first three kinds of antagonists (the external antagonists), but not the last (the internal antagonist).
Antagonists can be a lot of fun to write, especially if they take some elements from the traditional villain archetype. There’s a reason we all love to hate those over-the-top villains from fairy tales.
But let’s be honest: most of us want more out of our antagonists. We don’t usually buy the old “evil for the sake of evil” idea. Antagonists need to have a goal, a reason for wanting that goal, and a plan to get it. We talked about using your protagonist’s goals to plot your novel last week, but it’s just as important to figure out your antagonist’s desires. That’s where the plotting wizardry lies.
Hang on, what about really amazing villains like the Joker? Wasn’t he just evil for the sake of being evil? Yes, and no.
Take some of the more recent film adaptations of the Batman comics. Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight had a goal: chaos and anarchy taking over Gotham. Is that a good, morally sound goal? No. But it doesn’t have to be. It’s still a goal. Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker from Joker (which I totally went to see a couple weeks ago and totally loved) had a whole host of reasons for wanting chaos to descend on Gotham: most prominent his desire for recognition.
Sometimes, your villain’s goal is clearly evil, but they’ve got reasons for desiring that outcome. It’s also okay if the audience doesn’t know those reasons. For example, compare the two Jokers I mentioned above: we know the second’s reasoning, but not the first’s. And it worked for that character in that story––in fact, knowing the Joker’s reasons would have made him less frightening. It’s also okay to give your antagonist reasons that aren’t, well, reasonable. A broken thought process is still a thought process.
So, if there are so many exceptions to the rule, why bother?
Because even if the reader doesn’t know your antagonist’s goals and reasons, you should. An antagonist with no agenda is an antagonist who does nothing for the plot.
I follow three pretty simple steps when using my antagonist for plotting, so let’s jump right in.
Plotting a Story Step #1: Find Your Antagonist’s Why
First off, some, maybe even most of the work in Step #1, won’t make it into your story. That’s okay. I’m a firm believer in characters being fully developed whether all that work shows up in the text or not. It makes them more real even if the reader can’t see all the details.
I usually start with figuring out my antagonist’s backstory. For example, in the book I’m currently writing, I stumbled upon the main antagonist out of the blue. It was pretty clear from the get-go how I wanted him to interact with the protagonists, but his goals were all over the place. I was just using him as a plot device on my whims.
I took a step back and thought through how he became so blinded and twisted. You certainly don’t have to have your antagonist start out as a decent person, but you can. I played around with a few ideas until I landed on one that felt right, that felt like him.
There are plenty of motivators that can turn decent people into villains:
repeatedly enduring pain
desire for greatness/influence
wanting to be seen/heard/loved
and lots more . . .
Really, you can use just about any motivator for a villain. As you’re exploring your antagonist’s story, think about what would take a decent person down dark paths, or what would trigger an already twisted person to act and thus get our plot rolling.
For Example . . .
Warning: the examples used in this post contain spoilers for Marie Lu’s Warcross and its sequel, Wildcard.
In the novels Warcross and Wildcard by Marie Lu (one of my favorite YA authors whose work you should definitely check out), there are a couple antagonists. One of them is Hideo Tanaka, the heroine Emika’s love interest. Hideo wants to rid the world of crime.
At first glance, this seems like a decent, if misguided desire. But when you consider the fact that the only way to eliminate crime is to destroy free well, you realize his motivation is more sinister than it seems. Emika also has proof in her own life that sometimes, breaking the law is right. Laws aren’t always just.
Why is Hideo so bent on destroying free will? Because his younger brother’s kidnap when he was a child has deeply scarred him. He wishes it had never happened and wants to ensure no one else will ever experience the same thing.
Think about your antagonist’s main motivation for doing what they do. What’s the root cause? Is it an understandable, even sympathetic reason? Or is their thinking just deeply flawed and their motivation purely selfish? How did they get that way? Were they always fundamentally broken?
Plotting a Story Step #2: Flesh Out Your Antagonist’s Goal
Okay, so now you have a motivator. You have some tragic story about why your villain became a villain in the first place. Now what do they plan to do with that? Good villains, like good heroes, don’t just sit around and whine about their problems––they aim for something to fix their issues.
Loss and a twisted version of love motivate the villain in my story. He’s trying to recreate the past and destroy those who caused his pain in the first place. He thus has two goals: to reclaim the one he lost and to kill the ones who took that person away. His goals themselves are understandable as desires, but when they turn into actual goals, the problems and moral questions start to rise.
Take your villain’s goal and determine how this character with this personality would go about trying to get it. Some antagonists are more calculated, while others are spontaneous, even reactive. But most likely, your villain has some idea of how to achieve their goal. This is their plan, their evil scheme, and usually where their immoral nature really shows itself. Some villains’ goals are amoral, but their attitude of “the end justifies the means” gets in the way and turns a neutral goal into a dark one.
If your villain does have a goal that’s amoral or even well-intentioned, be careful. Your protagonist still needs a compelling reason to fight against them. If the antagonist is just “kinda bad,” you’ll run the risk of (a) the reader having too much sympathy or (b) the protagonist coming off as a petty jerk. Make sure that your villain’s amoral goal is backed by an immoral plan.
This step is where plotting a story really happens. If your antagonist has a detailed plan from the start, you can walk through those steps and immediately have a backbone for your plot. Often, it’s the antagonist who makes the first move and determines the trajectory of the story.
One last thought on goals: the antagonist’s goal is usually in direct opposition to the protagonist’s goal, but it doesn’t have to be. The protagonist’s goal will usually change or expand when they decide to heed the call to action and actively fight the antagonist.
For Example . . .
Think about Hideo Tanaka again. We’ve already mentioned his desire: to rid the world of crime. His goal, then, is a world where morality is dictated by perfect laws and no one is capable of disobeying those laws. And his plan to get there? Using his famed NeuroLink technology to alter thought processes in real time, killing all thoughts of lawbreaking as they arise.
He’s already partially through his plan. He’s got the vast majority of the world using his new NeuroLink lenses to play Warcross, the game that took the world by storm. The game’s culture has so enraptured everyone that it’s almost a given they’ll all watch the final of the Warcross Championships.
So, when Hideo uses the Championships to release a new update to the lenses, every pair downloads his mind-control algorithm. At once, without consent or awareness, most of the world’s population is controlled by Hideo’s algorithm. He has taken their free will. They can no longer break the law. He realizes his dream of a peaceful, lawful society.
What’s your antagonist’s plan to realize their goal? Who or what will they use? To what lengths are they willing to go? What will they sacrifice?
Plotting a Story Step #3: Discover Your Protagonist’s Reactions
Having your antagonist’s plan is fantastic, but remember: you’re writing from your protagonist’s perspective. In all likelihood, the protagonist doesn’t know what the antagonist is planning, even if they do know their goals.
Let’s take your antagonist’s first step toward their goal. What does it look like from the protagonist’s perspective? Is it clearly an offensive move? Is it even noticeable? How does the protagonist react, if at all?
Do this with every step of your villain’s plan until they’re either defeated or they’ve won. And remember, your antagonist probably won’t have as much trouble achieving their goals as your protagonist. The hero needs to trip up the villain a couple times. And the villain should recognize them as a threat at some point, but not a particularly big one. The protagonist’s final victory should come as a surprise to both parties.
Once you’ve finished this, look at the plot purely from the protagonist’s perspective. Is there enough conflict? Does the situation feel impossible? Do re they still compelled to fight?
The plot here should be a more detailed version of the one we worked on last week using our protagonist’s fears, flaws, and goals. And it should provide a nice framework for you to start writing.
This last step can be done two different ways. You can hammer out every detail and create an in-depth, scene-by-scene outline. Or, you can just start writing. I usually do the latter. Yes, I check to make sure my newly fleshed-out plot is taking my story where I want it to go. But as long as I know what my villain’s up to, how much or how little my protagonist knows, and how the latter will react to the former’s actions, I don’t work through plotting a story scene-by-scene.
For Example . . .
We’ve talked about Hideo’s motivations and plans in Warcross and Wildcard, but how does Emika react to all this? She’s unaware of Hideo’s goal for most of Warcross, but when she discovers his plans at the end of the novel, she immediately tries to find ways to disrupt them. To protect herself from the algorithm, she doesn’t use the new NeuroLink lenses.
But it’s not until Wildcard that Emika gets the chance to dismantle Hideo’s actions. Emika teams up with another antagonist, Zero, to undo what’s been done. At the same time, Emika believes Hideo can see reason, so she takes multiple opportunities to try talking him into turning off the algorithm.
Her goal is to kill the algorithm, by reasoning with Hideo or, if she has to, destroying the NeuroLink. Her plan to do so adjusts with every action by Hideo or one of the other antagonists.
How does you protagonist react at each stage of your antagonist’s plans? Do their own plans and their own goals adjust according to the villain’s actions? What propels them forward to the final battle?
Final Thoughts on Plotting a Story with the Antagonist
This is a lot of pretty in-depth planning for writers who let the story take them where it wants to go, but don’t get overwhelmed. I’ve altered the course of a plot or a character’s arc during the writing stage. Planning doesn’t mean you give up creative control to the almighty outline––it just means that when you get stuck, you have an objective.
I strongly believe in letting stories tell themselves. Just remember that the story can start telling itself before you write. And if, like me, you’ve written a whole novel and ended up completely off course from the story you wanted to tell, these steps will refocus that plot.
Planning for Pansters will be back in two weeks (October 30th!) with some more plotting tips. Take the extra time to really dig into your antagonist’s backstory, goals, and plan. Then go ahead and start working on your protagonist’s reactions to that plan. In the meantime, don’t forget to come back this Friday!
The Dark Knight. Directed by Christopher Nolan, performance by Heath Ledger, Warner Bros., 2008.
Joker. Directed by Todd Phillips, performance by Joaquin Phoenix, BRON Studios, 2019.