At the heart of every story is conflict. Conflict creates tension and drama, and brings about change. The agent of conflict is the antagonist, because it is through the actions of the antagonist that the main character—the protagonist—will learn and grow.
Simply put, the antagonist is the opposite and equal of the protagonist. Whatever the protagonist values and desires, the antagonist represents the opposite. If the protagonist desires freedom, the antagonist should represent oppression. Where the protagonist values family, the antagonist should steer towards isolation.
The main value of having an antagonist is that it forces the protagonist to take action and make choices. The struggle enables the protagonist to grow, thus taking them on a satisfying arc. You should have an antagonist, because without one you do not have a story.
However, there are a few myths surrounding antagonists. Let’s take some time to bust a few:
1. The antagonist is always a person – FALSE
The simplest and most direct form of opposition is physical. Having a personal antagonist makes for high drama, tension, and a cracking read. Literature is full of juicy villains, from Lord Voldemort to Professor Moriarty, from the White Witch to Miss Trunchbull. Children’s literature, in particular, is full of dynamic antagonists.
However, the antagonist does not necessarily have to be human; nor does it have to take physical form. In ‘The Road’ (Cormac McCarthy) the two protagonists are struggling against their environment, as they travel through a post-apocalyptic wasteland. There are other people who attack them and pursue them along the way, but it is the titular Road—the pain and struggle of the journey—that poses the main obstacle, and that forces them to change and grow.
Other examples of an impersonal antagonist might be wealth (struggling to find the perfect present in ‘The Gift of the Magi’), or circumstance (struggling to survive against the odds in ‘The Martian’).
2. The antagonist is always bad – FALSE
Most people would suggest ‘bad guy (or gal)’ as a synonym for ‘antagonist’. But the antagonist does not have to be a villain. Remember, the purpose of the antagonist is to oppose the protagonist; this does not have to be in a way that is morally reprehensible.
In ‘The Notebook’ (Nicholas Sparks), Allie’s mother hides letters written to Allie by a lover, so that she does not receive them. This action, while sneaky, does not necessarily do Allie any lasting harm. She ends up happily engaged to another man, if conflicted about her feelings when she finally discovers the letters some years later.
The point is that the actions of the antagonist (Allie’s mother) prompt the protagonist (Allie) to make a decision. She can stay with her fiancée, or return to the man she loved in the past. It is this decision that drives the story and causes Allie to change. Hence her mother is what we might call a ‘sympathetic antagonist’.
3. The antagonist always has a master plan – FALSE
Life is messy. People are fallible. When your antagonist is a person, they will not necessarily have a plan for bringing about the protagonist’s downfall (see 1 and 2). Nothing screams lazy writing as much as a villain with a complicated master plan in which they have foreseen every action and choice that the hero will take. It makes for a certain kind of satisfying puzzle-box storytelling, which suits thrillers and crime novels, but it should be used with consideration. For most of us, I’d suggest staying away.
Arguably, George Smiley in ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’ is a ‘master plan’ kind of antagonist, as he manipulates Alec Leamas for his own political and ideological ends. But at the same time he makes educated guesses and reacts to new developments as they arise.
Instead of giving your antagonist a plan, give them their own set of goals and desires. And let them fail, not just be defeated.
4. The antagonist is always defeated – FALSE
In ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ (John Green) the antagonist is arguably cancer. Without giving too much away, cancer wins (in one way or another). But it’s not a story about overcoming cancer, rather a story about growing and living despite cancer. Yes, the disease ‘wins’ in the end. But this isn’t the point. The point is that cancer, acting as an antagonist should, forces the protagonist into marketing choices. It enables her to grow and learn over the course of the novel.
Usually the antagonist ‘loses’, meaning that the protagonist is able to overcome all obstacles and achieve their set goals. But take careful consideration. Perhaps the protagonist’s journey would be better suited by suffering loss, if it ultimately leads to them growing and changing in some way
They may not even be out to get the protagonist, but their actions will force the protagonist to change and grow.
So have a think about your antagonist. Get to know them. Give them an interior thought life, desires and passions, disappointments and successes. And remember the age-old adage: Every villain is the hero of their own story.