The Key to a Great Story – Puppet and Puppeteer Antagonists

Antagonists who pull the strings...

Antagonists who pull the strings…

In my last post I wrote about antagonists who are redeemable in the eyes of the audience and the other characters. This post is about a more manipulative, more reprehensible type of antagonist. What I call Puppeteer Antagonists. However, you cannot have a puppeteer without a puppet with strings to pull and manipulate to the detriment of the goals of the protagonist.

You can of course have protagonists who pull at the strings of their fellow characters, but the motivations behind their manipulation need to be purer and understandable to the audience. Antagonist Puppeteers though can leave a trail of Antagonist Puppets in their wake; their strings cut and their lives destroyed as well as the protagonists.


In a way the characters of the puppets can be more interesting than the puppeteer. Depending on how you decide to write the puppets, they can also fall into the category of redeemable antagonists as well as puppet antagonists.

Redeemable Puppets

In a way redeemable puppets have a lot in common with redeemable antagonists more generally, and for that I advise you to read my post on redeemable antagonists as well. But redeemable puppets are subjected to being manipulated by the puppeteer as well as acting on their own feelings and desires. There are two ways in which they might have their strings pulled; either because they are ignorant that they are being manipulated or because they are threatened in order to make them do as they are told.

The first is potentially less forgivable to the audience than the second, as fear can be a very strong motivation to do things that a character wouldn’t normally do, but either way redeemable puppets can end up being as much a victim in the eyes of the audience as the protagonist.

Willing Puppets

And then of course you have the characters who are actually willing to play along with the plans of the puppeteer. It makes then as bad as the villain in many ways, but there are two ways that a willing puppet can be written, and it very much depends on the attitude of both the puppet and the puppeteer.

There are some great willing puppet antagonists, and in recent films Christopher Lee seems to be the go-to actor to play the part. Saruman and Count Dooku are both committed to the causes of their puppeteers. Saruman though is more aware that he’s not on an equal footing to his master than Count Dooku.

Saruman is seduced by the power that the one ring and Sauron can offer. In the end though it isn’t his Master who betrays him, but Wormtongue, who is one of his own puppets. Count Dooku though is openly betrayed by his master, who callously uses a more desirable puppet, in the form of an ever darkening Anakin Skywalker, to kill him. The reactions of the willing puppets to their betrayal can make for interesting plot twists and helpful aids to the protagonists; if they last longer than Count Dooku of course.

That moment of betrayal...

That moment of betrayal and disbelief…


The grand villain, with their dastardly plan and their manipulative ways. They pull the strings of the puppets (and cut the strings of the puppets) and are just generally there to make disrupt the lives and plans of the protagonist. Some of the greatest manipulators of fantasy and science fiction, include Voldemort and Emperor Palatine. There are many great villains in literature and film, but the very best ones are those who are controlled in their character development.

The best villains are the ones who are more than just two dimensional evil people, who only care about carrying out their plans. Good villains have dimensions, purposes, reasons for why they are like they are and to what they do. The only exception as to why a villain does what he does without much explanation is The Joker, portrayed by the late Heath Ledger in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. As Michael Caine puts it, some men just want to watch the world burn. This character gets away with being evil without much purpose, but that’s because he explains that he likes reducing everyone to the same level of villainy as him and is disappointed at the end when he fails to achieve this by pulling on the strings of Gotham’s citizens. The Joker is the exception to the rule.

Pulling on the strings with just a look and a taunt.

Pulling on the strings with just a look and a taunt.

Most Puppeteer Antagonists though need to be less mysterious than this and have character development as complex as the protagonist. In my posts about developing characters I’ve spoken a lot about understanding as a writer how your characters react. How a villain reacts to situations is just as crucial to lay out as it is for the protagonist. It is less likely that the feelings and motivations of the antagonist are something you are likely to draw upon from personal experience though, and this is why having a clear plan is crucial for antagonists, even if you don’t end up revealing it all to the audience, it doesn’t matter; if you understand it then you can write about it a lot easier.

Feelings that generally motivate the plans of villains include, hate, greed and the desire for power. All of these can be understandable to a writer on some scale. All of us can hold up our hands and admit occasionally we can be a little greedy when it comes to our favourite food for example. Just capture that feeling of greed that you do understand and expand upon it using your imagination and the limits you’ve put in place in your story world. The villains can have a massive amount greed, but there are limits in the world and also protagonists to get in the way of them working their way towards satisfying their greed.

So when it comes to the Puppeteer Antagonist and their puppets, there are a few combinations you can play with in how you develop them as characters. What you do with them though a matter for plotting, but that’s topic for a another series of posts.


One response »

  1. Pingback: The Key to a Great Story – Combining Characters and Plot | A Young Writer's Notebook

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