Every main character in every story ever told has a conflict with an antagonist or an antagonistic part of his/her inner self. The best stories and the most intriguing heroes have great antagonists. But, what makes a great antagonist? And, what kinds of antagonists are there?
Main Character Versus Environment (Nature or Technologically-Ruled Universe).
In The Martian, an astronaut must survive the harsh elements of an alien landscape. In The Matrix, Neo and his allies must fight against the technological rules of the Matrix world while simultaneously battling a society of evil machines bent on the destruction of human freedom.
To make these kinds of environments into realistic antagonists, the writer must do their homework to either understand how the natural world could kill the main character step by awful step, or to create the world-building setting in a way that feels realistic to the viewer or reader so that the conflict makes “sense.”
Other examples: “To Build a Fire” by Jack London, 2012 (movie), and Hatchet.
Main Character(s) Versus Society (Community or Government).
In The Hunger Games series, Katniss Everdeen must fight for her life and for freedom from an oppressive government. In Elizabeth Seckman’s romance novel, Bella’s Point, Bella struggles to survive socially as a slave-freeing pariah after the Civil War ends.
Why do these societal antagonists “work?” Because they are founded in realistic expectations of human behavior that we’ve all seen, either in our history textbooks or in our own lives. However, it’s always good to have a reason for the society being the way it is. Why does the government of Panem have the Hunger Games? It’s explained via President Snow, some edited video footage, and the actions of some people in the Capital. Why does Bella have to struggle in the South after the Civil War? It’s shown in the novel, but it’s also in our history books.
Other Examples: Mean Girls (movie), Tara Tyler’s Broken Branch Falls, a MG fantasy novel, and Nick Wilford’s Black & White, a dystopian YA novel.
Main Character Versus the Inner Self.
When the crux of the story hinges on the main character’s inner struggle with self-doubt, depression, mental health, or just plain bad attitude, the main character’s antagonist is within.
Some of the movies in the Marvel Universe do get into the inner conflicts of their main characters, most notably Iron Man. All heroes struggle with their self-doubts, but there are some novels that seem to really get into this as the main conflict including Alex J. Cavanaugh’s CassaStar and Dragon of the Stars, both novels in which the main character must battle with a bad, bad attitude toward others and both novels in which the main character suffers serious self-doubt. Yes, there are space battles and other conflicts, but the drive of these novels is the storm within.
To make the inner self conflict believable, a writer needs to keep the progress of the problem steady. A character might make progress with her/his inner conflict, but then regress slightly, only to struggle again to move forward. A character who has struggled with a bad attitude for his/her whole life does not just have an easy-going personality within a few seconds. Time needs to pass. Growth needs to be shown.
Examples: C. Lee McKenzie’s YA novels, The Princess of Los Pulgas and Double Negative, Corinna Austin’s MG novel Corners, and Diane L. Wolfe’s novel series, Circle of Friends.
Main Character(s) Versus Antagonistic Character(s) aka Man Versus Man.
There are Three Subsets to this Group:
Villains/Bullies/Criminals/Serial Killers - these are the abusive characters, the purposeful criminals, the megalomaniacs who want to rule the world or a small part of it. They seem, at first glance, to be all bad.
But, the best ones have a reason to be who they are. They’ve made choices. They have a past. They have loss. They have suffered. They are just one step away from being heroes (and sometimes they think they are heroes in their own story) and the reason they bother us so much is that if we made bad choices, that could be us. A villain with a backstory is a villain who is remembered.
Villainous Examples: Voldemort, Thanos, Annie Wilkes in Misery.
Frenemies - these are the family members, friends, or peers who stand in the character’s way, usually believing they are in the right or that they are saving the main character from some kind of harm, either social or physical. Sometimes, frenemies turn into friends later on in a story and sometimes they turn into full antagonistic enemies. Peers who are also competitors can also fit into this category; they don’t really have anything against the MC, but they want to win the competition themselves.
Frenemy Examples: Professor X and Magneto from X-men, Woody and Buzz in Toy Story, and some of Hutch’s friends in C. Lee McKenzie’s Double Negative.
Romantic Frenemies - Most romances fit into the old literary conflict area of man vs. man, or actually Woman Versus Man. I’m not a romance expert, but the main character in a romance often fears losing her dreams or her true self if she gives into her love for the “antagonist” – who is actually an ally for life.
Examples: Christine Rain’s 13th Floor novella series and her Totem series.
All of our antagonists need to follow some reasonable set of “rules” within their worlds. If an antagonist isn’t believable, our readers get frustrated or bored. Even if we throw multiple antagonists in the way of our main characters to heighten tension, we need our antagonists to be realistic.
What notable antagonists have you encountered in fiction lately?