Thursday, January 2, 2014

Levels of Antagonism

You embark on a new story story idea, but the plot does not involve an evil lord, an opposing army, or a big scary monster to serve as an antagonist. You worry that you shall have to plug one in because structure calls for it.

Here’s the good news: You don’t necessarily have to. 

Certain genres do have certain requirements:

A Thriller has a looming threat to someone or the entire planet. There must be someone who is opposed to the protagonist removing that threat.

A Horror story must have some sort of horrible thing that threatens one or many. Encounters with this entity are essential.

A Murder Mystery must have a killer. However, the mystery formula is a sleuth dismissing suspects until the finds the correct suspect. It is not typically Moriarty versus Sherlock.

A Romance must have people opposed to the lovers’ relationship.

So how do you provide obstacles without a big, bad villain?

The answer is by layering conflict. There are four types of resistance to solving the overall story problem to throw at your protagonist.

1) Internal resistance comes from an initial reluctance or refusal to cross a line or incur a personal cost. You supply tension when the stakes are high.

2) Interpersonal resistance comes from people who have differing ideas on what the right course of action is. They may have agendas that interfere with what your character must do. They may dislike your protagonist. They may love your protagonist too much.

3) External resistance stems from things in the external world that make completing the task difficult. It can be laws, society, religious taboos, physical obstructions, space limitations, distance limitations, not having the right tools, etc.

4) Antagonist resistance comes from a person or persons working toward an opposing goal. They don’t have to be evil or maniacal. They can be well-intentioned but equally determined. They can be an opposing team, agency, or race.

In my series, Mythikas Island, I did not have a specific villain. It was a Golden Fleece tale in which the end was not as important as the journey of discovery. I wracked my brain trying to come up with an evil lord then realized it didn’t fit the needs of my story. The four girls (Diana, Athena, Persephone, and Aphrodite) fighting for survival on a deserted island provided enough opposition to work with. The self-destructing island presented hazards and challenges and, at times, seemed to have an agenda of its own. It served as both antagonist and external conflict.

The four girls had different backgrounds and conflicting approaches which provided antagonistic and interpersonal opposition. Each girl struggled to overcome personal demons that offered internal opposition.

I was told by one person that the Olympian parents should have been there meddling. I ignored the advice. The story was about the girls learning about themselves and each other. The parents would have been a distraction. The point was for the girls to save themselves, not parents or love interests.

I’m also glad I didn’t throw in a Lord Voldemort. The story didn’t need it. I debated the topic of whether there is magic in the world but did not give them superhuman powers. It was another artistic choice that was questioned. I wanted to portray real girls finding their personal power and learning how to use it. The story was given five stars for plot and character by the judges of the Writer’s Digest contest with the comment that it was “a thrilling read” and “difficult to put down.” I don’t feel that my artistic choices hurt the entertainment value.

Write the story you wish to tell. Don’t be afraid it will fail because it lacks a wicked villain. Layering the types of opposition can provide enough tension to propel the reader through to the end.

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Sometimes it's hard to trust our gut, but we need to learn to. Not every change someone suggests should be incorporated. I struggle with this but I'm getting better.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Sometimes you can have too many cooks in the kitchen. : ) My rule is if more than one or two people mention the same thing, I listen. I evaluate the content of what is said. If it is because they would have done it another way, I put that aside. If it is a speed bump, plot hole, unrealistic dialogue or action, choreography problem, lack of tension, or a character violation, I listen. Finding people you trust to read the manuscript is the hardest thing after writing and revising it.

  2. I always resist resistance ... just go with the flow.

    Happy New Year BRP!

  3. Diana, your willingness to resist the cliched suggestions paid off. My daughter loves the Mythikas series, and she can be a tough critic. You do more than counsel going with the gut; you offer a taxonomy of other paths.

    In my Homeland Connection thrillers, I have broken from formula more than stuck to it, particularly in steering clear of the usual suspects for the antagonists and avoiding the typical near-superheroes for protagonists. After eight novels (GASLINE was published New Year's Eve), I have definitely found my voice and a comfortable personal style, but it is still dang scary to be going against the grain.

  4. When I started writing, I had a hard time with conflict--I was "too nice" and didn't want my characters to have enemies or trouble. BORING! I've since found it's fun to create antagonists and conflict. And antagonists don't always have to be the big bad ogre, they can be self-induced.

  5. One of the problems I've always had with "genre" is "rules." Story needs to triumph over rules in cases where following a contrived formula limits characters and/or plot. While this may be one of the hazards of self-publishing, it's also one of the benefits — as evidenced by the words of the Writer's Digest contest judges. Great post, Diana!

  6. I never liked having to describe my 'villain' in most of my books, both mystery and romantic suspense, because I didn't write villain's, per se. Detectives solve crimes (and I don't even like the idea that there has to be a murder for it to be a mystery). My covert ops books don't have a single 'bad guy' and for me, it's about the conflict and figuring out a puzzle. On the romance side of my romantic suspense books, my hero and heroine never have others opposed to their relationships; they just have to learn to love each other, whether they're working together or against each other to solve an exterior problem. I don't think I'd ever be able to write a 'thriller'. I don't do bad guys well.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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