Tuesday, December 21

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, December 21, 2010 9 comments
Welcome to my countdown of my most popular posts of 2010. The entry reposted below originally appeared in March.

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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.

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. What a great list. I should book mark this.

  2. I like that you are revisiting your popular posts. Great idea! It's nice to re-read my favorites or find ones that I missed. Thanks, Laurel!

  3. I love this list!

    Most of my villains/antagonists aren't actual people; I focus on people and write through their POV, but many belong to an organization.

  4. Great list. I'm currently trying to figure out what the major conflict will be for my new project. I do have a "bad guy" but for the time being, his motive isn't enough for there to be an actual story, so, I'm stuck. This list gives me something to mull over! Thanks

  5. This is a great list. The antagonist in my current wip is a scientific genius who doesn't realize his creation will be used for evil by the powers-that-be. He turns out to be a really good guy.

  6. My antag steals horses. And he took Anna and Claire's horses. Wrong thing for these guys to do. There really is a ring of horse thieves in the U.S. and I am tying that into the book.

    Great post, Laurel. *bookmarking*

    Popped over to say Merry Christmas.

  7. Did you see the querytracker blog post? A case for Villains. Really good.

  8. Angela: Hope it proves useful.

    Jamie: I'm glad you're enjoying it--it's purely a sanity-saver on my part. So much going on during the holidays!

    GE: So it's people caught in a web of something bigger that makes them act wrongly. Interesting. could also make for good internal conflict.

  9. Kelly: I think the antagonist concept is broader than villain. You can have several antagonists in a story with lower-intensity conflict ramping up tension alongside the higher-intensity core conflict. Too many villains, however, spoils the soup.

    Robyn: While your protagonists fight villains, anyone who hinders their quest is an antogonist--like overprotective adults or nosy younger siblings, for example. Throw in both a villain and some other lower-level antagonists and you'll have super tense story telling.

    Oh, and thanks for the heads up about this other post. I'll check it out.