A story is incomplete without any sort of conflict, whether internal or external. As readers, we want to see the protagonists challenged in some sort of way, making them fight to achieve a goal or desire. Often, this conflict is embodied by the antagonists. Because they play such an essential role in the novel, poor construction of antagonists can repel readers.
What are antagonists?
To start, there are two central character types in a story, protagonists and antagonists. The protagonist is the main actor in a novel, and the events surrounding them are what the novel is portraying. The protagonist will have a goal or desire that they will try to achieve throughout the story, but some sort of obstacles called conflicts will appear along the way, coaxing them to use their abilities to the max and grow as an individual.
On the opposite side of the protagonist is the antagonist, this personification of conflict. Antagonists can be a number of things, all dependent upon the main conflict the protagonist is facing. External conflict will usually lead to antagonists in the form of other people, groups, or disasters while internal conflict will give way to antagonists that are “unseen” like jealousy and guilt, which a main character will usually have to fight on their own.
What will be the antagonist?
The first step to developing an antagonist is asking the question, “who or what is it?”
What kind of being are they? What do they look like? Are they a monster, a supernatural being, or just another human? How do they fit into the fictional world of the novel? Other human or creature antagonists like these will fuel an external conflict and force the protagonist into a head-on battle for conflict resolution.
In fact, they don’t even have to be characters. Instead, it may just be an obstacle that is so overwhelming in the plot that it becomes one of the largest sources of tension for the main character. Internal antagonists like fear, guilt, and depression can really push the protagonist into some serious character development.
A few types of these antagonists can include:
- an everyday person
- a supernatural being
- an evil villain
- a group of people or other beings
- an internal struggle
- an external struggle
To gain an idea of who or what your antagonist will be, you may look to other works for inspiration. For example, in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the antagonist is a created monster, the physical opposite of the protagonist, Victor Frankenstein. In the Harry Potter series, the protagonist is a wizard that is threatened by a dark wizard named Voldemort, the antagonist.
The protagonist and antagonist don’t have to be complete opposites, but there should be a general idea as to how they are different from each other. You don’t need an intricate backstory to begin writing about an antagonist, but you should have an idea of what the protagonist will be facing.
When determining your antagonist, be able to outline it in a few general sentences, and determine how its existence is wreaking havoc on the lives of the protagonists and other ordinary people. Those basics can guide your book as you develop more details.
Background and Motivation – What drives the antagonist?
Your antagonist should be simple enough for your audience to grasp, but should have some underlying complexity on how they were created or what motivates them to keep your readers intrigued.
That’s why giving your antagonist a background or motivation is such a valuable step.
If your antagonist is an evil villain, consider giving them a backstory or ambition. While you can have a character that is evil for “the sake of being evil”, it may not intrigue the audience to continue reading about such a one-dimensional character.
Besides, these additional elements make these characters more appealing. To the readers, they are compelling because they seem more “human” and “real,” allowing the audience to relate to them to some extent.
The power of this is evident in Frankenstein. While the stereotype of Frankenstein’s creation is an apathetic monster, the original story delves deeply into how his background impacts him. At first, it may seem like he’s just a monster, but we learn how Frankenstein’s abandonment of him has profoundly inflicted pain within the monster, sparking his outrage.
His lonely backstory makes us sympathize with him to an extent, and his death highlights his guilt for the demise of others. The monster isn’t evil just because he can be, which is why his conflict with Frankenstein is so fascinating.
Antagonists born from internal struggles may not have their own motivation, but the protagonist they’re attached to should be doing something that is fueling that antagonist. Maybe your protagonist is struggling with a devastating loss, but they can’t let go of their lost one and often live in the past. That desire to hold on to tragic events is what is keeping that antagonist there, and that desire is what the protagonist will need to overcome to win their internal conflict.
Both the antagonist and protagonist should have something of an end goal to make the book exciting. What happens if one or the other wins? For some antagonists, that may mean they get to take over the world, but for internal antagonists, they succeed if they prevent the main character from growing and progressing in life.
Flesh Out Your Antagonists
Invoking the audience’s senses will help them envision the world of your novel more and allow them to become invested in the things to come. Creating a detailed description of your antagonists is one of the ways to do this.
If they are a human you should think about the following physical traits:
- Eye color
- Hairstyle and color
- Body shape
- Scars, disfigurements
- Health conditions
You may also want to be careful about how you present all this information. A paragraph or two dedicated solely on the antagonist’s visage will bore the reader. Instead, gradually introduce these details throughout the story.
Other details you may want to include could also be personal, like their:
- Mental condition
- Economic class
- Relation to the protagonist
Additionally, not every single detail above has to be provided. Leaving some things to the imagination will allow the readers to expand the world they read individually, making it linger longer in their minds.
For antagonists that are supernatural beings, you may want to consider:
- What Powers do they possess
- How they appear to humans
- Their weaknesses
- Basis in any mythology
For internal antagonists, consider:
- How they developed (mental illness, past trauma, an accident, etc.)
- How they impact the main character
- How they impact other characters
- What will happen if they take over the protagonist
The deeper the backstory, the more likely you are to hook your readers into the conflict.
Progtanist v. Antagonist – What is the source of conflict?
Before the protagonist comes into contact with the antagonist, it is crucial to think about where the conflict is arising from.
What are the goals or desires of the protagonist, and how is the antagonist blocking them from achieving these things?
On the other hand, if the antagonist is a sentient being, what is it about the protagonist that is getting in the way of the antagonist in achieving their own goals?
This is where conflict plays a role. With the protagonist’s goals and dreams being suppressed by the antagonist, there is a build-up to a clash that creates a riveting source of tension.
Some sources of tension include:
- Threats to one’s existence
- Threats to others
- Opposing moral interests and values
These sources of tension can influence internal antagonists as well. Things like heartbreak and humiliation can leave the protagonist suffering with things like low self-worth and betrayal and rivalry can give way to an unhealthy desire for revenge that must be overcome for the protagonist to live life normally. One source of conflict can spring more than one antagonist, so think through several before choosing one.
Internal vs. External Antagonists
While there may be multiple types of conflict at play in your novel, consider what the antagonists may be for both internal and external conflict.
The easier conflict to isolate first may be the external one, just because it is usually more obvious and contains a clearer solution. When your character is facing an external conflict, the antagonist will usually be a force of nature, another person, an organization, etc. Find your external conflict and external antagonist and write out how the conflict will be resolved between the two, if it will be resolved at all.
An internal antagonist may be more difficult to pin down. Your character may have an internal conflict over a variety of things, like where their loyalty lies or how to overcome an underlying fear. The conflict may be clear, but you may struggle to figure out who the antagonist is.
In some cases, the antagonist may even be the main character’s own flaws or qualities. When facing an internal conflict, the protagonist will have to do some self-confrontation or find a way to overcome a key part of their personality.
When considering internal conflict an important part of fighting that obstacle is figuring out how it came to be in the first place. Did a traumatic event leave the character with remaining guilt? Did an external antagonist create an internal antagonist for the character through years of manipulation? If your character is going to successfully fight that internal bad guy, they’ll want to start by tackling the events or people that created it in the first place.
Remember that internal and external antagonists usually go hand in hand. The protagonist frequently needs to rely on overcoming a personal obstacle before they can fend off the bigger external threat. When writing conflict, consider how these two relate in your story, and how the resolution can bring both peace in the world and in the mind of the protagonist.
Will the conflict be resolved?
A story’s frame will develop with a focus on conflict. As a novel progresses, it is the conflict that most sections will be centering on, which is why you want to carefully bring it to a climax before you finish your novel.
In this climax, the antagonist and protagonist’s opposition will come to a head, and the protagonist must try to prove themselves to see if they can overcome this significant obstacle.
However, improperly resolving the conflict can leave your audience feeling disappointed. With all the time you’ve dedicated to following the protagonist and their journey to get the better of their issues, this climax should be engaging and fitting with the rest of the novel’s reality.
If your climax has a conflict between a protagonist and antagonist that are humans, you don’t want them to battle just because they merely hate each other. As an audience, we want to be exposed to the passion behind the actions of these characters – we want to see what drives them.
For any kind of antagonist, it should feel like the protagonist is at risk of losing something vital. It should seem like they are at a “make it or break it” point, at which they will either obtain what they want or will lose it all.
Because there are so many different ways to end a story, it isn’t necessary for the protagonist to “win” over the antagonist. Sometimes, they simply can’t overcome the conflict and lose. If that is the ending you have selected, it is okay to have the conflict not resolve fully in the protagonist’s favors, but in the antagonist’s instead. Just remember, the ending should be fitting for the story and its world.
Whether the ending is or isn’t the most desirable outcome, the conflict should be resolved in some form without too many lingering questions. Sometimes the antagonist does win, or the protagonist doesn’t get exactly what they wanted. While your characters may experience some loss, what shouldn’t be lost is the message of the book. Even if the good guy doesn’t succeed, the message of your story should.