When Antagonists Become Allies


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As Seen On
by Naomi Write + Co. in screenwriting, story analysis

In most movies, Act 3 culminates in a final, climactic confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist.

… But not always!

Today let’s talk about antagonists who become allies.

Why would you want your antagonist to switch sides?

Generally, the way a story ends demonstrates the thematic lesson. It “proves out” the theme, or shows us that the thematic lesson is true.

So it makes sense that — in some cases — the best way to prove the point of the story may be with the antagonist coming around to the protagonist’s way of thinking or living, and even joining forces to that end.

But when is this the right approach? And how do you make it work?

A case study: How to Train Your Dragon

This week I re-watched How to Train Your Dragon since it had been suggested as a good teaching example. And I noticed something I hadn’t before, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

If we boil it down to its most basic, the movie is about a young Viking from a dragon-hunting tribe who secretly befriends an injured dragon and learns that dragons aren’t the vicious creatures his tribe believes them to be.

If we pull that story apart to its essential components, we see:

    • Protagonist: young Viking from a dragon-hunting tribe (Hiccup)
    • Story goal: secret friendship with injured dragon (Toothless)

Off to a good start. Then:

    • Antagonist:

If you have a hard time identifying the antagonist (in your story or any other) it can help to come at it from a different angle. Ask, “Where is the conflict coming from?” or “What’s the main conflict?” or “What’s the main thing stopping the protagonist from easily achieving the story goal?”

For HTTYD, what’s the main thing standing in Hiccup’s way?

Having a secret friendship with a dragon is what Hiccup is doing in Act 2 (the story goal), and the conflict is created by the person/people he must keep the secret from. To put a face on the forces of opposition, we can say that the antagonist is Stoick — Hiccup’s father and the chief of the tribe. Stoick represents the tribe’s belief system, traditions, culture, etc. He also has the most power over Hiccup and is the one Hiccup most wants to hide his betrayal (befriending a dragon) from.

To send the right message, end with the right message

HTTYD is ultimately about how Hiccup changes his father and the whole tribe with what he learns through his friendship with Toothless.

Forcing Hiccup to choose one group or loyalty over the other wouldn’t convey the same meaning. And a climax where the protagonist defeated the antagonist in a more traditional sense just wouldn’t feel right.

If anything, we need to see the protagonist defeat the antagonist’s beliefs and replace them with something new, and in that way create change for everyone.

So, in this case, Hiccup needs to bring Stoick and the other Vikings over to his side – to show them the true nature of the dragons and the value of working with them rather than against them.

When Hiccup creates understanding in his adversaries, they’re no longer adversaries. The antagonist becomes an ally.

In some stories, like How to Train Your Dragon, we need that switch to truly demonstrate the thematic message.

What kinds of stories might benefit from an antagonist who switches sides?

How do you know if a side-switching antagonist is right for your story? Here’s how I would approach it:

Start with the end in mind, and — specifically — with that takeaway message. The life lesson or observation at the heart of the story. What’s it all about? What does it mean? What’s the point of this particular story?

Think about what you want to say, and then how the story might say it.

Types of stories that lend themselves to an antagonist switch:

    • If you’re demonstrating a life lesson that’s in some way about working together, you may want to turn the antagonist into an ally. (Toy Story)
    • If the story is about a relationship and how it changes the people in it, they may essentially be antagonists to each other that could become allies in the end, working toward a common benefit. (Silver Linings Playbook, The Sixth Sense)
    • If you’re making a case for some necessary or desired change in the world or in a particular group — depending on the nature of the change, of course — it could make sense that the ultimate demonstration of it is in the antagonist becoming an ally. (How to Train Your Dragon, Billy Elliott)

And if you do decide to turn the antagonist into an ally, there’s one very important thing to keep in mind in order to make it work.

Once the antagonist becomes an ally, is the story over?

Sometimes winning over the antagonist is the climactic battle, but that’s not really the type of story I’m describing here. A lot of romcoms fall into that category, where “winning” the other person is the thing that needs to be accomplished by the end.

The examples I’m thinking about today are movies where the antagonist stops working in opposition to the protagonist’s goal by some point in Act 3, and then they join forces or work together in some new way to accomplish a bigger or joint goal by the end of the movie.

But if the antagonist is the main force of opposition and the other half of the main conflict, and they suddenly stop doing that… doesn’t that mean the story’s over?

If you take away all the conflict, the story will very likely limp along until the end — which is not really the audience experience you’re going for. So if the antagonist is no longer the one providing that main conflict, you’ll need another conflict to pick up the slack.

Which is why, if you do turn the antagonist into an ally, you’ll need to ask, “Now where is the conflict coming from?”

There may be an obvious answer inherent in what the protagonist and antagonist must now work together to do to resolve the plot (like defeating the newly discovered big bad dragon that’s a threat to both the Vikings and the other dragons in HTTYD, or solving Cole’s ghost problem in The Sixth Sense).

And if the answer doesn’t seem obvious, it’s time to brainstorm. Think about where the conflict could come from, what the antagonist-turned-ally could help the protagonist do, and how the end of the story could drive home the thematic message.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.