Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Antagonists Aren’t Just Bad Guys

In literature, an antagonist is a character or a group of characters which stand in opposition to the protagonist or the main character. The term antagonist comes from Greek word “antagonistēs” that means opponent, competitor or rival.

We commonly think of antagonists as villains, the evil people (bad guys) who try to thwart our heroes at every turn. But that’s not necessarily the case.


Sometimes the hero is his own worst enemy. Maybe he or she has an addiction or a dark phobia or some character flaw that keeps tripping him/her up and prevents success in reaching the goal. A pilot with a drinking problem might create a whole lot of problems for himself and his passengers. A young woman with self-esteem issues and no father-figure might look for love in all the wrong places.

An antagonist doesn’t even need to be a person. It can be an animal, a la Moby Dick.

Or it can be the weather. In Ray Bradbury’s story “The Long Rain”, the four characters are driven insane by the incessant rain on a distant planet.

Photo courtesy of FlickrCommons

In my “Cowgirl Dreams” series, the harsh winters of Montana or severe drought can kill the protagonists or their livestock. Ranchers died mere feet from their doorstep during white-out blizzards. During the drought and depression of the 1930s, Nettie and Jake trailed their herd of horses 400 miles looking for grass so their horses (their livelihood) wouldn’t starve to death.

Conflict is a key ingredient of any story. An antagonist – whether a person, animal or the weather — opposes the protagonist and his goals and plans and therefore creates conflict. The protagonist struggles against the antagonist who takes the plot to a climax and later the conflict is resolved with the defeat or downfall of the antagonist.

What are some of your favorite or unusual antagonists?

Heidi M. Thomas is a native Montanan who now lives in North-central Arizona where she blogs, teaches writing, and edits. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreamsis based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, won the national WILLA Award. The next book in the series is Dare to Dream, an International Book Award Finalist, and a non-fiction book Cowgirl Up! A History of Rodeo Women, is also available. Heidi has a degree in journalism and a certificate in fiction writing.

8 comments :

  1. Ernst Stavro Blofeld, head of the global criminal organization SPECTRE. Who else?

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  2. The options we have in creating antagonists open a variety of doors. No rule says a story is allowed only one, so the heroine may face a human foe as well as possible death in a plane hit by lightning during a fierce storm. While this might be an extreme case, it highlights the versatility we have in creating our antagonists. Nice post, Heidi.

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  3. I always think it's interesting when the antagonist is a friendly foe - the mother who thinks she knows best for her daughter and thus stands in her way, e.g.

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  4. Some of my favorite antagonists are self. It is so real to many of us. I guess the Psychology degree might make that bias! I also like weather as the opposing force.

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  5. If you are going to use anything other than an actual villain, it is crucial that you make the audience believe that there is some form of literal or figurative death (death of a relationship, a dream, a self-image, etc.) to make the stakes high.

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  6. I'm a big Hannibal Lecter fan. How can you resist the last line in Silence of the Lambs? "I'm having an old friend for dinner."

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  7. Thank you all for stopping by and for your input. This is a fascinating topic!
    Ye, Polly, I love that line too!

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  8. Nice post, Heidi. I am in the midst of my next mystery, and your comments give me thoughts about my characters and motivations.

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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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