Keeping it Fresh Part 6: Antagonize the Hero


July 22, 2013 by Kira Lyn Blue

I realize this final installment of the Keeping it Fresh series has been delayed, but life and Sith Squirrels happen. Never underestimate the power of the dark side of the Furce.

Anywhoo…Welcome to the final part of our series on how to keep your Urban Fantasy and Supernatural Fiction from getting dry and crusty! So far we’ve covered SettingSystems of MagicSupernatural Beings, Plot, and Characters. Today we’re going to hit what might be the most important aspect of the story:

Prepare to be antagonized!

Prepare to be antagonized!

Antagonizing Your Hero

Whether or not your protagonist is actually a hero or more of an anti-hero, you’ve gotta have opposition for them and sources of conflict. I’m sure we’ve all heard it before, but conflict is what drives a story. The tricky part here is that most sources of conflict are fairly universal. We’ve seen them all before.

1. Pure Evil that must be prevented from taking over the world: This is a trope that comes up frequently in fantasy, where there’s no question that the bad guys are bad. Lord of the Rings has Sauron and his minions, Star Wars has the Sith, Harry Potter has Voldemort and his Death Eaters. I could come up with some examples more specific to UF, but let’s stick with these just because they’re familiar to most.

Spiders: The Ultimate in Pure Evil

Pure, unadulterated evil is much easier to create in a fantasy cosmology because it’s easier to create a race (like say Demons) or a magic path that is forbidden (Black Magic), so any member of that race or who practices that magic is automatically an antagonist. Your readers will have no problem with wholesale slaughter of these bad guys. Their motives are easy to define: they want power, to subjugate others, and to enforce their will on the world. Obviously, someone has to stop them, right? Sweet! Let the slaughter begin!

2. The Criminal Element: This is a bit more prevalent in UF because of the popularity of protagonists that are paranormal investigators. The protagonist has to catch a killer with supernatural powers to stop their crime spree. In some cases the criminal in question may be pure evil, but they’re not usually at the level of “take over the world” evil. Regardless, this type of antagonist typically means the story is CSI with supernatural elements.

3. Warring Factions: Warring factions can be more fun to write and read because the opposition is not necessarily inherently bad, their motives and goals just differ from their competition. In the end, it’s all about who has the power and what that does to the losers. But if the opposition isn’t inherently evil, to what lengths can your protagonist go to win?

4. Romantic Conflict: Unless you’re writing Paranormal Romance, this type of antagonism is usually a sub-plot to the overall story, but I’m including it here because I think relationships are an integral part of life and thus a part of fiction I hate to see overlooked. Even if your character is already happily married, whatever larger conflicts they face as part of the story will impact that relationship. Even if you don’t intend to build a romance into the story, I think it’s practically impossible to have an asexual protagonist who faces absolutely no romantic or sexual tension. Hell, even the twisted and revolting Inquistor Glotka of Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself who hates everyone and everything isn’t entirely immune.

Alright, so we’ve covered the big four sources for antagonizing your hero. Holy crap! Just four sources of conflict? How in the hell can I write something fresh with only four sources of antagonism?

You can’t.

What you can do is weave all of your story elements together in a way that’s never been done before. Your combination of magic system, plot, cast of characters, setting, conflicts, and even things we haven’t covered like themes are going to be entirely unique to your story. And if you focus too much on how aspects of your story may be similar to other books, you’ll only distract yourself from the story you want to tell and drive yourself crazy trying to be different.

All things considered, it’s ultimately the conflicts your character faces and how they deal with them that will determine your overall success with your story. I think the biggest mistake I made as a rookie writer is focusing too much on my protagonist and not enough on developing my antagonists. And that has led me to stumble over and over again in my writing process. I highly recommend checking out Kristen Lamb’s post, The Single Largest Cause of Writer’s Block- Might Not be What You Believefor more on this.


13 thoughts on “Keeping it Fresh Part 6: Antagonize the Hero

  1. MishaBurnett says:

    The thing that will make me lose interest in a story faster than just about anything else is an unbelievable antagonist. No one and nothing is bad just for the sake of badness. Unless what the villains are doing makes sense from their perspective, you’re going to lose me as a reader.

    Now, it doesn’t have to make sense from a rational perspective. I expect the bad guys to be wrong, but I want to be able to understand how they came to their wrong ideas.

    Personally, I think the most frightening antagonists are those who honestly believe that they are doing the right thing–for example, Ed Harris’s character in “The Rock”.

    • Ooh, I agree on all counts. I also think those antagonists that think they’re doing the right thing are the most interesting. Another fun version of that antagonist is the one trying to accomplish “the right thing” in very bad ways.

      Oh god, I can’t remember the specific book, but I recently read something that hit me pretty hard concerning powerful beings and what they’re capable of. I don’t recall the exact quote but it was something like, “Men with as much power as I have should not be given something to love because we will burn down the world to protect it.”

  2. B. Patterson says:

    If I may propose another, what about internal conflict? Like in a redemption story. Part of the hero’s problem is himself. Although, I personally don’t think too much plot being wasted on the character trying to overcome a person flaw that “cripples” him.

    • I did consider including that as a main source of conflict/antagonism for this article. The main reason (aside from post length) that I ultimately excluded it is that I consider it a secondary source of conflict. You’re still going to need a primary antagonist to be defeated in spite of your characters inner conflict. Granted, I’m focusing on the myriad of fantasy genres. Perhaps I could come up with a story where internal conflict is the primary source of antagonism, but I can’t see it working for a fantasy story. Although, I’m willing to debate it if you can rebut my argument 🙂

      • MishaBurnett says:

        Well, I would bring up Ursula K Leguin’s “Wizard Of Earthsea” trilogy as an example of Man Against Himself as a primary theme in a fantasy series, although even there it is externalized in the person of the shadow.

      • See, that’s the trick, there’s still an externalized threat. Modern fantasy or supernatural fiction very frequently deals with inner monsters like the thirst of the vampire or battling the inner beast of the werewolf, but I can’t think of a single book where those battles don’t coincide with some other major antagonist.

        Could one do it though? Could you write a fantasy novel where the protagonist is also the antagonist? My immediate thought is that it would be very Jekyll and Hyde. The protagonist would be working to prevent their alter ego’s mischief when they’re in control. And doing that sort of thing requires segregating the psyche to the degree that the inner demon is a separate entity that just happens to share a body with your protagonist. Which seems very much like your Catskinner and my Murphy. And both of us have chosen to provide outside sources of conflict in addition to the inner demons.

      • MishaBurnett says:

        Or possibly time travel. Both David Gerrold’s “The Man Who Folded Himself” and Tim Powers “Three Days To Never” deal with conflicts between the same person at different points along a time stream. And then there’s the television series “Fringe”, which I am currently watching, that deals with conflict between people and the alternate universe versions of themselves.

        Frank Herbert’s “Dune” deals in large part with Paul working to avoid becoming the self he sees in his visions… that might be the way to go, actually. But then we’re more into Man Against Destiny than Man Against Himself.

        No, I think you’re right–the conflict-with-self pretty much is always a part of the conflict-with-the-other in SF and Fantasy. Learning self control can be the means of conquering the other, but it’s not the main story. Interesting. I don’t know if that means that there is an untapped story idea here, or if it just wouldn’t work.

      • I guess it depends on which piece you consider to be the main story. One might be able to argue for either the internal or external conflict in each of these cases we’ve mentioned.

      • B. Patterson says:

        If internal conflict is the primary source, it may not draw in as many people. For example, if the character’s big conflict involved getting over a fear of spiders (arachnophobia being one of the top 10 common phobias), there’s still going to be A LOT of readers who can’t relate. So when this fear comes up as a persistent block for the character that may annoy some readers.

        The only example I can think of is if the character had some type of psychosis and most of the story was spent in his/her mind? Although that may stretch the definition of fantasy.

      • Stretching the definitions of a genre could be intriguing, although I do agree it would run the risk of being unsuccessful commercially.

        I have been convinced that I have been hasty in excluding internal conflict from my list of major antagonists, though. Even if it can’t stand alone in a story, it is still integral to many stories and is honestly one of my favorite sources of conflict to read.

  3. I created my main antagonist long before I created my hero, and I think it’s given a good dynamic to my own writing. I plot the story as much from the ‘bad’ side as the ‘good’ side, with them reacting and adapting to each other instead of the antagonist setting up standard barriers for the protagonist to knock down.

    It always disappoints me when a villain turns out to be hollow inside, characterization-wise, or when we never learn enough about them to understand what motivated them. Some of Jim Butcher’s villains left me really frustrated with Dresden’s limited perspective.

  4. L. Marie says:

    Welcome back! Sorry the Sith Squirrels and life kept you away, but I understand. I’m loving this series. I love a good megalomaniac, which is why I love the old Avengers TV show (John Steed/Emma Peel–that ilk) on DVD. It features a megalomaniac every week. In fiction, I like my Saurons and Voldemorts. In my book, I wanted to feature a complex villain–someone who doesn’t think of himself as a villain. He’s more of a fallen hero who wants revenge for the way he was treated. I also have a romantic subplot in which the main character spars with another guy she doesn’t understand.

  5. I really appreciated your fourth point. I recently read that your love interest is always an antagonist. Love interests are a source of conflict and suspense. That had just never occurred to me. I kept seeing the LI as a mini or second protagonist. That means most books will have at least two antagonists–your villain and a LI. What do you think about multiple antagonists? I read that one of the reasons Jane Eyre was such a good book was because Bronte had 7 antagonists, but I’ve also heard you shouldn’t have too many. Thoughts?

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