Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, June 24, 2015 16 comments
We hear again and again that without conflict, you have no story. So what kind of conflict should you have? How will it arise? One obvious way is to toss in a bad guy and mean girl or two and let them make trouble. Alas, bad guys and mean girls can become cliched and cardboard, sucking away energy and tension rather than adding it.

Who really wants to write generic bad guys, let alone read them? Ya-awn. And who says you really need a traditional villain anyway?

Here's another concept, from Nancy Kress's Dynamic Characters: "...you don't actually have to have a villain in your story at all. Many novels flourish without any bad guys. The conflict in these books comes from wrongheadedness, moral muddles, human confusion and incompatible goals of basically sympathetic characters."

What you might have instead of villains are simply characters who play an antagonistic role, blocking your character, causing her doubt and anxiety, influencing her to do out-of-character risky things. We all have people in our own lives like this. Here are a passel of traits that can make some of your characters become causers of conflict.

Good at 101 things your protagonist is not
This is the shiny, perfect person who makes your otherwise competent protagonist become a babbling idiot. And if the good-at-everything person is also humble and nice, all the better for highlighting your protagonist's neuroses and insecurities.

Curious to the point of being nosy
Whether it's the neighbor who logs your protagonist's comings and goings, or the geeky guy who stalks your teen MC or that annoying little kid who can't hesitate asking "whatcha doin', mister?" every time your lead tinkers with his car, a nosy antagonist can quickly change your protagonist's habits and behaviors to avoid the scrutiny.

Em, they're watching. Go on, do it. Prove how cool we are.
Acceptance obsessed
It's good to have friends, but when social climbing becomes a ruling passion, watch out! This kind of antagonist might drag your MC into some strange new worlds he'd never normally go near in the endless quest to get close to the "right people." The acceptance hound also might drop your MC at the moment of greatest need because he's "not cool" anymore. And this behavior is certainly not limited to the under-22 set (though it's perhaps overdone in YA).

Ambitious to an extreme
On the job, he's "the yes man" who everyone thinks is "so nice," until he betrays co-worker after co-worker on his climb to the top. In school, she's the girl who is so determined to have "leadership quality" singing all through her transcript that she joins every club and pulls strings to get officer positions. The trick of making ambitious antagonists not become bland is to make their motivation for success complex and fraught with inner tension. Some of their reasons should be noble.

Invasive and clingy
These Velcro types don't have clear boundaries about where they end and another begins. Clingy folks like this love in a smothering way. They need to be needed. They take unprecedented pride in their beloved's accomplishments and take it as a personal attack when their beloved doesn't mind read and live up to their unspoken expectations. When your protagonist attempts to get needed distance, the clinger just pursues and clings even more. When a Velcro-type is in the picture, every outside relationship suddenly becomes a tug of war for the protagonist's attention.

Change averse
When inertia rules for a key player in your protagonist's life, it will require a lot more than bribes or whining for your protagonist to get to her goal. She'll have to evade and work around the stuck antagonist's habits. To make any major change that includes this person--a move, job change, having kids, getting an education--will require mustering every resource the protagonist has at her disposal. Change-averse types can be very charming in their stuckness, if you can overlook the wardrobe that's 40 years out of date.

True believer
A character who is certain of his moral rightness can become a fearsome opponent to your protagonist. When this antagonist's cause is just, but blocking or hindering your protagonist's goal, it can lead your protagonist to doubt and founder. Proselytizing is common from this type too, though the cause may be ecology or veganism or Marxism rather than religion.

Addict
Whether it's an alcoholic, workaholic or shopaholic, the addicted antagonist is often in the grips of a drive she can't control with willpower. She'll desert your protagonist, take away resources, and in some cases, add chaos to your protagonist's life. Yet addictions are often a kind of mental illness that need treatment, adding a layer of guilt when your protagonist gets fed up.

What kinds antagonists are making life difficult for your protagonist?
 What other traits would you add to the list?

Photo credit: taylorschlades from morguefile.com

16 comments:

  1. Definitely intriguing to think about. I like the idea of building conflict and tension by other characters being antagonistic in ways other than "the mean girl" or "class bully" or whatever (the more 2-dimensional antagonists). Great list!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Robert McKee in story talks about "forces of antagonism" being essential to create a good story--meaning all kinds of things that block your hero from getting what he desires. The more variety of forces, the more realistic and well rounded your story will seem. Most normal people don't have merely one arch-enemy, but many people with other agendas that cause blocks.

      Delete
  2. A real nice list, Laura. I'll have to bookmark this one, or return. It needs some extra pondering over. Thanks for sharing. Almost weekend, have a good one. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It might be that you can build a villain from one of these profiles, or merely a cast of characters that hinder your protagonist in large and small ways.

      Delete
  3. This is impressive and bookmark-worthy (although you always give a lot of thought to your writing advice). Characters with these traits would add dimension and dilemma to a story.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks. Yeah, arch-villains don't fit every kind of story, but forces of antagonism must exist, so these kinds of ordinary hindering personalities can help build tension.

      Delete
  4. What a great post! I'm definitely going to be using some of these types of characters in my WIPs.

    Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad you found it useful. Thanks for coming by!

      Delete
  5. These are great points. Was thinking today about a story I'd read that I couldn't get into, and at first I couldn't put my finger on why. Too generic and predictable, and just plain vanilla, that's why. Love Kress's books, she offers such good info. As do you, thanks! Thanks also for stopping by Susan's blog for my guest post. Enjoy the rest of the week!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The single arch-villain has been done so much, it can really feel like a worn out cliche. It's funny I've never read Kress's fiction itself, but I adore her writing resources!

      Delete
  6. Definitely love this. The antagonist can totally be the protagonist at the same time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Indeed, person vs. self is a pretty common conflict in literary fiction. The person has to overcome inner demons that are a force of antagonism in his/her life.

      Delete
  7. This was a great post! I love the idea that "antagonists" don't have to be someone determined to thwart the protagonist but simply people whose traits have a negative impact on her goals one way or the other. I like the 8 types you suggested and can imagine there are even more types that could cause difficulties. I've been working on a novel for several years where the situation was laden with difficulties, but I couldn't really see a malevolent type antagonist in the picture. This post give me food for thought. Thanks so much.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks. I love that Kress gives us permission to ditch the single arch-villain model and fill our stories with multiple, complex characters that act at times as forces of antagonism. It's much more like real life.

      Delete
  8. Excellent points! The antagonist can also be the environment, the hero overcoming physical hardships.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Right. These are antagonists in person vs. person kinds of conflict. But there are, as you say, person vs. nature and other kinds of conflict such as person vs. society and person vs. self.

      Delete