If it’s true that conflict is the engine of fiction—and I believe it is—what is the best way to inject it into your fiction?
By introducing a worthy, effective antagonist.
What is an Antagonist?
It’s your villain, and every good story needs one.
While some would argue that certain nonhuman elements, like the weather or some malevolent force, might also qualify (and I’ll speak briefly to those later here), I maintain that usually the opposition to your hero (your protagonist) should be personified.
I want to see the opposition to the main character represented by a person readers might grudgingly admire while loving to hate.
And such a character most satisfies the reader when in the end he or she gets what’s coming to them.
While in real life it’s comfortable and rewarding when we accomplish whatever we need to with no trouble, that would make for a boring read.
It certainly wouldn’t make a compelling story.
A good story shows a hero battling conflict and winning the day.
Thus, the more realistic and believable the villain/antagonist, the more heroic your protagonist needs to be—and the more enjoyable the outcome for the reader.
The antagonist should succeed—at least temporarily—in thwarting or slowing the progress of your protagonist, threatening his life, or inflicting emotional damage.
Antagonists take different forms. Your villain could be the school bully or the Emperor of Darkness himself.
Regardless, if your villain lacks depth, nuance, or motivation, he can come across as a cliché, a stereotype who’ll fall flat with your readers.
By employing a single villain against your protagonist , you give your hero a clear, tangible goal: defeat the villain, save the day.
This keeps your plot free of unnecessary conflicts that don’t advance the story.
One of the best examples of a villain in literature is Voldemort from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
Despite a slew of antagonists throughout the series, Voldemort is the large, overarching enemy who constantly threatens not just Harry, but also all that’s good in the world.
Voldemort has an insatiable desire for power, seeks a pure race, and is willing to sacrifice anyone to achieve his goals. His motivations result from his traumatic childhood, which makes him pitiable but no less evil.
While, as I say, I prefer human antagonists, a case can be made for nature itself to be villainous—almost as if it has a personal grudge against the hero. Man vs. Nature tales are as old as time in narratives from all over the world.
The premise is simple enough: the hero’s quest is thwarted by a natural force—whether it be a hurricane, a blizzard, a lion, or a fallen tree in their path.
While some would say that in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, the stubborn marlin or the hostile sharks serve as the villains, the old man faces several other forces of nature too, including the wind and rain and choppy seas.
Interestingly, Hemingway depicts nature as unpredictable and harsh yet ultimately indifferent to the plight of the old man.
Inanimate objects make for the toughest kinds of antagonists to portray, because it’s hard to imagine any motivations for them.
Walls, rocks, buildings, or even more abstract concepts like Time or the inevitability of Death can represent the threat of an inanimate antagonist.
In the movie 127 Hours, James Franco’s character Aron gets his arm stuck in between a boulder and a wall, a seemingly impossible force to escape.
To my mind, the villain here is whatever caused Aron to find himself in that predicament. He had to have been thinking, If only I had—or had not—done thus and so…
Beware, however, that if you choose an inanimate object or force as your antagonist, you run the risk of stagnating the story. That puts even more pressure on developing your protagonist.
One of the diciest antagonists can be the protagonist himself.
Your character’s most formidable enemy is also your hero, with his good qualities pitted against his bad ones.
In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet,the eponymous character, after being commissioned by the ghost of his father to avenge his death, second guesses his assassination attempt on his uncle, his relationship to his friends and mother, and even his own mortality.
The iconic monologue, “To be or not to be…”, showcases his inner turmoil.
Man vs. Self makes for a tough antagonist construct, but the best way to approach it—if you’re sold on it—is to mine your own inner struggles and apply them in your character.
What forces do you balance internally? What motivates you?
Also, internal conflict doesn’t have to take just one form.
Self-doubt, a false belief that needs correcting, fear, or even a choice between two seemingly equal options all can serve as antagonists to your protagonist.
Using Conflict Between Protagonist and Antagonist:
A well-written antagonist will ignite conflict. And since conflict drives the story, the more formidable your antagonist, the better your tale.
Often the best antagonists share the same goals and desires of the protagonist. While they’re after the same things, they pursue them with differing worldviews and personalities. Studying character archetypes can help narrow that work.
If you still find yourself struggling to develop a memorable antagonist in your story, feel free to use my character arc worksheet for your next story.