Revise It! 6 Tips to Clean Up Characterization for Your Protagonist and Antagonist

Characterization is one of those make-or-break elements in stories. While there are genres that emphasize plot more and genres that emphasize characters more, nailing both puts you on a good track to reach every possible reader and make your book unforgettable. Use these six tips to make your character revisions flow!

I prefer to tackle character revisions in two sweeps:

  • Micro: focusing on the protagonist’s specific journey and arc (as well as any secondary protagonists and the primary antagonist).
  • Macro: focusing on the use and placement of the secondary and supporting characters, and how all of the characters fit together within the story.

This week we’ll focus on the protagonist and the antagonist. The protagonist, of course, is the main character. You almost always have only one primary protagonist in any story (there are a few exceptions). They are trying to accomplish goals that are either helpful or harmful. The type of goal often determines whether or not the protagonist will succeed, since often authors use a positive growth arc where the protagonist is transformed in a good way over the course of the story.

The antagonist is notable for having a goal that opposes the protagonist’s goal. Sometimes the antagonist is just trying to stop the protagonist, but the conflicting goals themselves can also be the main issues rather than pure animosity. Many readers these days enjoy a complex antagonist who has their own backstory and reasons for their actions apart from the protagonist. Ultimately your antagonist and your protagonist need to be connected.

Much of the revision sweep for the protagonist and antagonist involves clarifying these opposing forces, understanding exactly what you are trying to achieve with your protagonist and antagonist, evaluating how well you’ve achieved that goal, and then making any appropriate changes to make a coherent story. Going through this stage first on your own can save an editor a lot of trouble and make it a lot easier for you to talk about and pitch your story.

Copy of Beta Readers

1.) Clarify your protagonist’s and antagonist’s goals.

  • Make sure their goals make logical sense for their backstories, personalities, and worldviews.
  • Make sure that the goals oppose each other in a logical way (even if it’s crazy-character logical).
  • Make sure to track any goal changes and how they effect the overall plot.

2.) Clarify your protagonist’s and antagonist’s issues.

  • Make sure your protagonist’s issues (referred to as a Lie or a Crisis or any number of terms to indicate internal dissonance) are clear and come from rational places based on protagonist backstory, personality, and worldview.
  • Make sure your antagonist’s issues make sense for them and place the antagonist in a logical place of opposition to the protagonist.

3.) Clarify what your protagonist and antagonist value.

  • There are many different angles to approach protagonist and antagonist values. It can get even more complicated if your protagonist’s growth arc involves them altering what they value–maybe even they were even allied with the antagonist and switched sides!
  • Your protagonist and antagonist could value the same thing, but for different reasons. For instance, the protagonist and antagonist both want the gold mine, but the protagonist wants to save their sister, while the antagonist wants to use the money for a fifth sports car. Or you could easily reverse the roles here (remember, the protagonist doesn’t have to be the “good guy”).
  • Your protagonist and antagonist could also both have the same abstract values that place them in conflict. For example, historical films based on the US Civil War often reveal that soldiers on both sides had similar values for entering in the conflict (although of course the value of protecting or opposing slavery was a key difference).

4.) Clarify your protagonist’s and antagonist’s arcs.

  • Your protagonist could have a positive change arc (they change for the better in the story – one of the most common arcs), a negative change arc (they change for the worse – tragic heroes with their tragic flaws), or a flat arc (they don’t change – common for cozy mysteries, action heroes, etc).
  • Know which arc you’re using, why you’re using that arc, and clean up your prose to make sure it’s clear. And all of the arcs could also apply to your antagonist if you so choose!

5.) Clarify exactly how your antagonist opposes your protagonist.

Using all of the above checks should enable you clarify this element as well. Your protagonist and antagonist are the major players in your story. Making sure you nail their interactions is key to effective storytelling. If your antagonist is more abstract (a greater force like nature or an emotion, like fear or stubbornness), then make sure you are using that abstract antagonist in sufficiently concrete ways so that their interference still makes the protagonist’s life difficult.

6.) EXTRA BONUS: find your protagonist’s and antagonist’s personality types and archetypes.

  • Whatever you feel about personality tests, typology, and archetypes in other fields, they are fantastically useful for fiction. In fiction, characters are supposed to make sense in coherent ways for reader comprehension. Finding boxes that your characters fit into (even roughly) helps ensure you are consistent with their character portrayals, thought patterns, and actions.
  • Use the MBTI (my personal fave, especially cognitive functions), Enneagram, The Big Five, the twelve archetypes, or other personality inventories to get inside the heads of characters, add layers and depth, and make sure your protagonist or antagonist aren’t changing personality mid-story–or mid-scene!

What’s your favorite way of classifying characters? Any more characterization tips? Have a unique protagonist-antagonist situation you want to share or get help on? Share in the comments!