Thursday, March 18

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, March 18, 2010 28 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: " 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.

Acceptance hungry, and willing to do anything to get it
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, or might drop him 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 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.

Caring to the point of being 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 attach 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 vegetarianism or Marxism rather than religion.

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


  1. Ahh, Laurel, if you had any idea how many of your posts I have tagged in my Google Reader. And here's another one. :)

  2. Great post. The mother in my WIP is making life difficult for my MC- she's not a bad mom, she's doing what she thinks is best, but my MC resents her for a bit. I admit though, I do have a "villain" in my WIP- it's fantasy and I needed an evil character

  3. Wonderful and very helpful information!

  4. Awesome post! There's a b-a-d guy in my WIP. But, there are many conflicts facing the MC so that antagonists lurk in her mind, in her way of thinking. She's a talented (and beautiful. of course) young woman who's afraid to live.

    Great info here, Laurel. Thanks!

  5. You've laid these options out really well. I like your analysis :)

    The villian in my book is a killer, among other things :)

  6. This is a great post. Writing YA fantasy is easier, in a way, because you have a "villian." The same type of antagonist doesn't work for contemporary fiction. Thanks for doing this post. It's a huge help.

  7. My first book had a clear antagonist. Two, actually.

    My second book doesn't have a clear antagonist though. There's one guy who leans that direction, but otherwise it's events that are mucking up the main character's life. Poor gal!

  8. This post got my creative wheels turning. An antagonist doesn't have to be the person we all hate. It's the person who gets under the skin of the protagonist. I wrote notes on this as I was reading. It firms up and adds depth to what was already forming. This is good, very good. Thanks!

  9. You are truly brilliant. This is yet another Laurel post that will be bookmarked, printed, and added to my writing folder. You may have to start charging for all these great lessons! :-)

  10. Wow. I now have a perfect picklist for my WIP.

  11. Thanks so much for this! I was just thinking this morning about my antagonist and what I could do to make them stand out. You've given me much to think about :)

  12. I love this post! This is what I've been struggling with recently. My antagonist can be considered just the bad guy, but I want him to be more rounded, with depth and personality, and something to endear him to the reader. It's very challenging, but I'm determined to make it happen. This post has giving me some ideas. Thanks!

  13. Great post, Laurel. I needed this food for thought. In the beginning of my novel, my protagonist works against himself, and the characters giving him a bad time aren't evil at all, yet they still cause problems. Thanks for the ideas above.

  14. Great post! My protagonist comes up against a lot of ambitious characters - including her own drive for success and fear of failure.

  15. Karen: Aw, thanks. What a great compliment.

    Kelly: Yes, an antagonist can be a perfectly nice person who hinders your MC. And not all fantasy has a traditional villain so don't be afraid to think outside the box.

    Bish: Thanks so much.

    Nicole: Thanks. Sounds like you have a great mix of external and internal conflict.

  16. Jemi: Analyses R Us. It's the closet academic in me.

    Stina: I agree. Character-driven stories are more likely to have cross-purposes relationships than traditional villains.

    Stephanie: It's interesting to mix it up, isn't it? There can be plenty of conflict without a traditional villain.

    Mary: Exactly. It was thinking about one of those "perfect people" and how I say the stupidest things around her that got the ball rolling with this topic for me.

  17. Shannon: I love teaching when there isn't a roomful of people staring.

    Tina: Mix and match for some real fun!

    Crystal: It's all in the mix, especially if you have a compelling back story for how the character got to be the way he is.

    Abby: Multi-faceted is key. Hope these "soft" kinds of antagonism give you helpful ideas.

  18. Roxy: The "soft" antagonist can be just as interesting to read as the serial killer--but more relatable.

    Talli: Making an ambitious person's stakes and ideas of failure very concrete can add great drama.

  19. Thank you so much. I love this post. You have such a gift for laying out analysis. Can it work if the antagonist and the protagonist are one and the same?

  20. I love that you've devoted a post to the antagonist. The ones that are ignored become one-dimensional. Not every antagonist has to be Voldemort - Harry has Snape and Malfoy, and others along the way. And they don't have enemies - sometimes it's just two people coming from different angles.

    In the last couple of months I read a post mentioning the movie "The Fugitive" (I wish I could remember the blog). Harrison Ford was wrongly accused and Tommy Lee Jones was his antagonist. But Tommy Lee Jones was just doing his job, which was upholding the law. This example also demonstrates that even without an "evil" antagonist, there can still be excitement.

  21. Another wonderful post! These traits are all wonderful ideas for creating blocks to our main character's attempts at achieving their goals. I am currently working with a villian who is "caring to the point of clingy" and he isn't seen as a villian for the my Laurel at first (well, if I ditch my prologue, that is) but he will become one.

    Starring this in my reader for future reference!

  22. This is my first time here (arrived via the delightful SarahJayne) and I LOVE this post, in particular your organized list.

    Great blog...I think I'll stick around. :o)


  23. Sarahjayne: Many thanks. I think what you're describing is "internal conflict," in which a character's weaknesses, flaws, indecisions hamper her. And yes, those things may well be the traits on this list. Some external conflict in the mix--in which one of these types of "soft" antagonist hinders your MC--can also be helpful in upping tension and conflict in the plot.

    Theresa: great points. There are times that Hermione is Harry's biggest antagonist, with her "true believer" adherence to rules and her ambition in studiousness. In many of the books she hinders as much as helps him, which makes for great, tension-filled reading.

    Amber: Yes, antagonism is blocking, and it doesn't have to be mean-spirited in the least. The Hermione example I just mentioned is one way to look at it--the friend who opposes your MC's choices she fears will harm him. Same with a clingy boyfriend. He's in love and sees being velcro as the best way to express it, and yet he hampers the MCs freedom and inner peace.

    Lola: Thanks for coming by and following. Glad you found the post helpful.

  24. A lot of the time, my protagonist is her own antagonist. I've not yet developed the knack for villainy so it's always something beyond the person that's causing problems for the MC. But this gives me a lot to work with - thanks for sharing, Laurel!

  25. Just wanted to tell you that I have an award for you at my blog :)

  26. E. Elle: a mix of internal and external conflict can be great. Hope this gives you some ideas for "soft" antagonists to add external pressures for your MC.

    Crystal: Thanks! I'll check it out.

  27. Good info, thanks so much!
    Happy weekend,

  28. Excellent post, Laurel! I'm late getting to this one, but I've bookmarked it for future reference.