Ante Up Antagonists

Saturday, April 09, 2022

This week, I attended a webinar on antagonists so I’ve been giving the possible adversaries for my character a lot of thought. One reason for this is that I don’t tend to go with your classic villain, the mustachio twirling bad guy of silent film. Does this mean I don’t have an antagonist? Not necessarily. There are six different kinds of antagonists your protagonist may face. 


Very often, the antagonists in our stories are people. In a cozy it is the murderer, arsonists, or other culprit. In a middle grade story in a school setting, it might be the girl who heads up the most popular clique.  

But it doesn’t have to be that straight forward. Let’s go back to the middle grade story. Your character might think that the mean girl is the one undermining her attempts to finish a school project when really it is her jealous best friend. There’s a lot to work with in creating villainous motivations from human nature. 


Wild animals can also make powerful antagonists. Think about the great white shark in Jaws or the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. The drive that motivates these various animals is pretty simple. Survival! 

Giving your character an animal antagonist increases the fear factor in many ways. After all, unless your human antagonist is Hannibal Lecter, you probably aren’t at risk of getting gobbled up. 


I’ve separated animals and nature because in this category I’m thinking less about living things and more about forces of nature. It could be a storm, the weight of the ocean depths, or the vacuum of space. Natural forces aren’t consciously trying to mess things up for your character but in some ways that makes it scarier. It isn’t personal. It isn’t even conscious. It’s just the inexorable laws of science. 

You can also pair a natural force with an animal antagonist. In Megalodon, the massive, ancient shark cracks the glass in the deep sea research center. At that point the characters have to worry about getting eaten and whether they will get crushed first or drown first. 


You can also give your character a supernatural adversary. You might want to slot in vampires and lycanthropy here but I’m thinking about ghosts, demons, and various spooky forces. Or a character opens up an ancient tomb, Pandora’s box, or a genie’s lamp and unleashes a curse into the world. 

This may be a thinking adversary, depending on the rules you use to create your ghost, or something more like a force of nature. 


Your character’s society can also be an antagonist. Even without President Snow, a society that pits teens against each other like the one depicted in The Hunger Games would make a believable adversary. Any character that is trying to move beyond their “station” or break with a societal convention is, in some way, confronting their society. 


Last but not least, your character’s antagonist might be themselves. Think about the many ways that a character might limit themselves. It might be a character questioning her intelligence, her worthiness, or her right to rule. Any character who battles strong enough self-doubt may well be the antagonist. 

The thing about antagonists is that you don't have to pick just one.  You can layer them into a story. Perhaps your human antagonist is a vassal of a supernatural antagonist, your character has to move beyond the limitations placed on her by society, and is also battle crippling anxiety. 

Layer them on, mix them up, and watch your story tension rise.


Sue Bradford Edwards' is the author of over 30 books for young readers.  To find out more about her writing, visit her site and blog, One Writer's Journey.

The next session of her new course, Pitching, Querying and Submitting Your Work will begin on May 1, 2022).  Coping with rejection is one of the topics she will cover in this course.

Sue is also the instructor for  Research: Prepping to Write Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins May 1, 2022) and Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins May 1, 2022). 


Sioux Roslawski said...

Sue--You showed everyone how writers can open up the arena when it comes to antagonists. (Jeffrey Dahmer would gobble you up too, but I think that was after he killed them ;)

As far as well-known movies and books, in your opinion, who is the most formidable antagonist? Who is the most complex one?

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Ha ha and Eeew re: Dahmer but you are right!
Good questions. I think that forces of nature and battles with oneself tend to be the most formidable simply because they can be so inescapable.
Dan and I were just debating complex antagonists. If you count Punisher, ala Marvel, as an antagonist, I think he is by far one of the most complex and sympathetic. But we still haven't dedided if he is an antagonist or an anti-hero. Dan said he is both, depending on the part he plays in a particular storyline.

Renee Roberson said...

I love this overview of different types of antagonists! I need to print this out and put it on my wall for inspiration. Since I'm knee deep in a thriller right now, I can definitely see how I can layer more tension in.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Don't you think we all have our "favorite" types? My characters tend to go against society and nature which probably reveals quite a bit about me! I definitely need to remember to expand this to add those layers.

Cathy C. Hall said...

Yep, this is excellent, Sue, as I always tend to think in the "man vs. man, nature, self" model.

I tend to have a person villain but I always layer in inner conflict where the protagonist fights him/herself or something in society...though I never thought about the society one till you pointed that out!

I think Stephen King was a pro at the supernatural yet animal/human villain...taking something like a family pet (in CUJO) or the cat or even the son in PET SEMATARY. Making the ordinary into the extraordinary villain? Brilliant!

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

YES! That's so true about King. He really is a master at creating tension. Sigh. I think we can all go a little swoony for a moment.

Angela Mackintosh said...

This is a phenomenal list, Sue! I tend to use nature, man, and self the most in essays, but dang, supernatural is fun! Can you imagine layering ALL of these into a piece? That would be hilarious. I have a piece publishing soon that includes nature, self, and my ex, who keeps appearing in my work. Exes make great antagonists! I was just thinking about Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and how he has to battle his girlfriend's seven evil exes to win her heart. I love that one has special vegan powers, but even he has an antagonist, The Vegan Police (society) who "deveganize" him and take away his powers. :) Punisher is a great one!

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