I was watching a TV series based on a popular novel the other week, curious about how the showrunners were going to adapt it to the big screen. Turning a book into a movie or series can be a daunting task in the best of circumstances, even if you leave out the messy business of Hollywood. But in the case of this particular TV series, my curiosity was more focused on whether the show would lose steam two-thirds of the way through. That’s because I’d read the book it was based on, and I remember distinctly losing interest just past the midway point.
Much to my surprise, the TV series remained faithful to the book on a level that I’m sure would make most authors ecstatic. The problem is that the TV series fizzled two-thirds of the way through. And I knew exactly why: the protagonist got too comfortable.
Robert McKee talks in his amazing book Story (which I highly recommend) about the Principle of Antagonism. He says: “A Protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.” That’s a pretty wild statement! Especially since many of us writers have been taught for years that character development trumps everything else. Heck, there are entire websites dedicated to helping writers develop realistic characters! We make notes of what they eat, what they’re scared of, who their parents were, even when they go to sleep every night.
But McKee is right. And it’s important to think about antagonism not simply as an arch-villain (like Thanos from the Marvel movies). Rather, think about antagonism as any force that pushes back against your hero. Anything that gets in your hero’s way—whether it’s external or internal—is an antagonist. Audiences don’t want their hero to spend six chapters relaxing. Audiences want their hero tested, prodded, hurt, damaged, frightened, confused, and—above all—struggling. It’s a little sadistic, I know! But the fundamental truth of storytelling is that the forces of antagonism define your hero.
That’s why this particular TV series couldn’t hold my interest throughout, same as the book. There was literally an entire episode where the hero sat around and talked to other characters. No conflict. No antagonism in sight. An entire hour.
Let me give you an example of a masterclass in antagonism. Take Josh Malerman’s novel Bird Box. Not only do the forces of antagonism define our hero, Malorie, they become more intense as the story develops. The story begins with an event: creatures suddenly appear all over the world. Anyone who looks at them goes insane. Malorie must navigate this frightening new world with her eyes closed. She eventually encounters other people who have hidden away in a house and covered all the windows. But there’s friction in the group, and Malorie must deal with that while also considering her pregnancy. Then a new guy named Gary shows up and turns out to be bad news. Gary sows further discontent before he’s kicked out … but one of the house members secretly hides him in the basement. Gary and this other house member secretly continue antagonizing everyone, including Malorie.
The climax arrives when Gary lets the monsters into the house. Chaos ensues, and Malorie is the only survivor! But that’s not where the story ends. Because part of the story takes place later, when Malorie and her two children are trying to escape on a boat by the river. In these moments interspersed throughout the book, you might think the author will give us a breather. But no—the river is treacherous, and the monsters are everywhere. Malorie must deal with them while also constantly stressing about keeping her children safe and blindfolded on this journey.
Whew! Now those are some real forces of antagonism!
So here’s the most important point: direct your energy to the negative side of your story. Your audience won’t remember the chapter where your hero sits down and has a nice, relaxing dinner. Your audience will remember the forces of antagonism, and how your hero reacted.