Protagonist and Antagonist

The final part of your recipe is to have a sense of the main conflict that’s going to drive the narrative. You might well have touched on this in coming up with your ‘twist’ in the world idea but it’s worth taking a moment to spell it out.

A hero who wants something

Your protagonist is the main character we identify with. They are the hero of the story.

At the moment we don’t need to define them too much but we do need a sense of how they fit in. Are they a detective, a single mum, a space ranger, an elf, a surly teenager? Some hint at a character trait will help make that picture clearer. A flaw is always more interesting than a strength – an alcoholic detective, a frustrated single mum, a clumsy space ranger, a neurotic elf. Be a poet. Say lots in a few carefully chosen words.

Next, and this is very important, we need to know what they desperately want. This is fundamental to your story. They need to want something tangible very, very much. So much so that nothing is going to stop them. It could be something big or something small but how much they want it is super important. A man trying to find his lost wedding ring can be as powerful as a woman trying to stop a nuclear war. Less likely to affect all of us, sure, but still as compelling to watch. Make your hero want something badly. Make it something we will be able to visualise them achieving. More on that below, but first:

Using the Themes to pick a protagonist desire

One of my favourite tools, particularly when toying with the overall concept, is to look at the list of Story Themes. There’s a whole article about them here (I use them a lot) but here’s the summary

There are only 7 basic themes that drive humans:

  • Survival – the need to stay alive
  • Justice – the need for fairness or revenge
  • Love – the need for connection and sex
  • Power – the need for control or protection
  • Glory – the need for recognition or fame
  • Self-awareness – the need for understanding and self-fulfilment
  • Money – the need for riches or security

If you can hook your protagonist’s desire onto one of those, you can be pretty sure it’s a strong driver. Some genres lend themselves to certain themes (the protagonist’s aim in most horror stories is to stay alive and the protagonist’s aim in a romantic comedy is to find love and happiness with another)

By using the Story Themes I outline, you can be sure that what your protagonist wants is recognisable as a basic human need. Basic human needs are primal, and more likely to register with the audience. For more on this concept read my post on primal stories

The nature of that want

Secondly make sure the thing is specific and timed (oh, does this sound a bit like SMART1 objectives? Well, yes it does.) Having a goal that is vague, could take a lifetime to achieve is to be avoided. For example if our hero wanted to be the best polo player ever, it would hard to know when she reached that goal. Far better if she needs to win a specific trophy in a tournament taking place in three months time. Sometimes it’s okay to have someone set their hearts on ‘making it’ but we also need clarity on actually when that point has been hit: “I want to see my name in lights above that theatre door”.

Pushing action forward

The reason for having a protagonist who wants something is this: it is the protagonist’s job to keep pushing the action forward. Except for a couple of points in the script when they might say to themselves “I can’t do this any more!”, they need to be actively pursuing that goal at all times. They need to push the story forward.

Someone who wants the opposite

Now, for the conflict to work what do we need? Someone, or something that wants to stop them. This is your antagonist. This is your villain. The best villains want exactly the opposite of the hero, and feel as strongly about it. This is a great way to set up a story.


Your antagonist, or villain or shadow is a force (person or thing) that wants the opposite to your protagonist. The more in direct opposition to your antagonist, the stronger the opportunity for conflict.

Here are some examples

Protagonist WantsAntagonist wants
To survive (the night)To kill (possibly eat) the protagonist
To solve the crime (and bring justice)To evade being caught for murder
To find love with the right personTo steal the love from the protagonist
To protect a village from a marauding gangTo capture and enslave the village
To win a the national championshipsTo win the national championships (by cheating)
To be treated like an adult and respectedTo protect the antagonist from the nasty world
To make a fortune and escape their life of povertyTo hold and grow the fortune they already have

Sometimes the antagonist can just be a force (such as the force of nature in a disaster movie). Often the main antagonist will have lots of other junior antagonists running around doing their dirty work for them too (maximising the opportunity for conflict), or there might even be some conflict within the team to work through. Occasionally the protagonist and the antagonist are the same person – in an externalised split personality sense (Fight Club) or within the protagonist themselves (remember that if conflict is going on in the head of the protagonist, you’re probably writing a novel). Sometimes the protagonist thinks they’re the hero but they’re actually the villain (although they should still behave like a protagonist in that they are pushing the action forward)

Either way, having a protagonist who wants something and an antagonist who wants exactly the opposite are the final ingredients to your basic story.

On to putting it all together in the Elevator Pitch!

  1. Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, Timed. Businesses use these criteria to set goals, but they work for us too. Specific – make it a specific thing they need to achieve – pass or fail, Measurable – again, binary is best – they achieve it or they don’t, Actionable – we need to believe they can actually do this even though it will be hard, Relevant – again there has to be a reason why this person is obsessed with this goal and Timed – we need to know they don’t have forever to it. The more the clock is ticking the more invested we are. So I’ve been snooty about them but these are a real handy set of tools! ↩︎