Image: Matthew Loffhagen
We’ve talked before about the benefits multiple antagonists can bring to a story – and how to give each a unique purpose in the narrative – but what are authors supposed to do when those antagonists are on different sides and, like any interesting characters, have specific, often contradictory, goals?
Antagonistic forces have natural potential to not only get in your protagonist’s way, but each other’s too. However, in the same way you need to create believable motives for those standing between a protagonist and their goal, you need to ensure that warring antagonists have realistic reasons to be pitted against each other. Conflict for the sake of conflict is empty spectacle and will always fall flat.
Define your antagonists’ types
As we’ve covered before, ‘antagonist’ and ‘villain’ are not synonymous terms; not every antagonist will be morally dubious, and some may even be unaware that they’re making life difficult for your protagonist. Multiple antagonists need to be dramatically distinctive, and these distinctions are where the potential for conflict arises.
Familiarizing yourself with the different ‘types’ of antagonist that could be wreaking havoc in your narrative will help you identify why, where and how conflict could spark.
The Big Bad
The name speaks for itself. This is the big kahuna standing in the way of your protagonist’s main story goal. They can be related to or familiar with your protagonist, or a complete stranger to them.
This antagonist is someone your protagonist is definitely already familiar with or has a personal connection to. They tend to present a smaller obstacle than the Big Bad, since they operate in a more limited arena, but the pain they inflict is particularly personal and intimate.
A contagonist isn’t so much a type of antagonist as a distant cousin with the same jawline. The opposite of the ‘mentor’ archetype, contagonists will try to lure your protagonist away from their objectives to pursue something else that is ‘wrong’ for them. They may even be trying to help, just not with the goals that the reader cares about and wants to see accomplished.A ‘contagonist’ wants the hero to succeed, just not in the same way as the reader.Click To Tweet
Also known as an ‘internecine foe’. This type of antagonist is essentially on the protagonist’s side, and usually even shares common objectives with them, but also has their own objectives that will ultimately conflict with your protagonist. This type of antagonist is usually the perfect fit in teams, friendship groups and the workplace.
Similar to the contagonist, this isn’t exactly a type of antagonist, but bears inclusion. The opposite of the cheerleading sidekick archetype, a cynic will cast doubt on the protagonist’s actions and decisions without actually obstructing them.
Despite this, they can have real impact on a story, sapping moral and prompting both the protagonist and the reader to see the worst in a situation. Strangely, they’re also often a natural source of humor.
You’ll probably be familiar with all of these different types, even if you weren’t aware that they had identifiable definitions. So, which of these molds do your antagonists fit into? And what kind of conflict would this naturally create between them?
Typical types of ‘antagonist vs. antagonist’ conflict
Since different antagonists want different things, conflict isn’t just possible, but a natural occurrence. A rival – sharing similar main objectives to your protagonist – would likely clash with your big bad, for instance, as they probably see themselves as the real hero of the story. A cynic could be a henchperson undermining the decisions of a more powerful antagonist because they have their own agenda. The combinations are endless, so you’ll need to consider which stands to work best with your story.
Let’s explore a few different examples of multiple antagonist clashes in fiction to get some more inspiration.
The ‘enemy of my enemy’ conflict
‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ This age-old proverb has sparked a wealth of antagonist clashes in fiction. In Stephenie Meyer’s Eclipse – the third installment of the Twilight saga – the vampiric Cullen family’s ancient enemies, the Quileute werewolf tribe, become unlikely allies when faced with the common threat of a rogue vampire out for revenge on their land. The rogue vampire, Victoria, fits into the personal antagonist type as she’s looking for vengeance on the heroine, Bella. The Quileute wolf tribe are antagonistic to the Cullens, but really serve more as contagonists to Bella, with one of their number, Jacob, constantly trying to tempt Bella away from her vampire beau. By throwing inter-species geopolitics into the mix, Meyer gives her antagonist groups meatier subject matter to squabble over than just the basic love triangle.Good narrative is a series of complications, and multiple antagonists will keep them coming.Click To Tweet
The ‘it’s nothing personal’ conflict
This is a particularly common conflict for rival (internecine foe) antagonist types. Every time Katniss Everdeen is forced to fight her way through another Hunger Games, for example, she is pitted against Tributes who are her compatriots. Sure, some have more of a cold-hearted, killer instinct than others, but they are also united by one objective: survival. Survival invariably means murdering the other combatants, making every single person – at least initially – an antagonist. Most of the Tributes aren’t ‘evil’ people, they’re just self-interested and desperate, and that’s what keeps the action so unpredictable.
The ‘no love lost’ conflict
In this type of conflict, antagonistic forces who are aiming for the same objective – usually obstructing the protagonist – are also actively fighting each other. This can be a tricky feat to pull off as the need for multiple antagonists sharing the same goal can be hard to justify to a reader. This certainly didn’t scare off writer Tsugumi Ohba in his manga series Death Note when he controversially replaced antagonist ‘L’ with two new, warring characters: ‘Near’ and ‘Mello’.
Although the pair were intended to work together as L’s successors to take down ‘Light’, the villainous protagonist, their clashing personalities made this impossible. The methodical Near chose to work with the police while the anarchic Mello believed taking down the ultimate criminal could only be done by beating him at his own game. Their conflicting methodologies were orchestrated by Ohba to stretch Light’s cunning to the maximum in a way he believed L could never have managed as a single character, while also breaking up the repetitiveness of Light and L’s one-on-one confrontations.
Different antagonists, same message
Multiple types of antagonist with differing agendas can make for a richer, multi-layered narrative, but that doesn’t mean the dots shouldn’t connect. Ultimately, you should ensure that each individual conflict between your antagonists feeds into the overriding theme or message of your story to keep it feeling cohesive. Remember that ‘person vs. person’ is rarely the best form of a story – ‘person tries for goal and someone gets in their way’ offers more complexity and room to maneuver, especially when you expand the potential meaning of ‘someone’.Varied antagonists offer different viewpoints of the same ideas. Think variety, not clutter.Click To Tweet
Find different ways for your antagonists to clash and you move closer to a story where there’s less of a sense of good guys and bad guys, and more of a sense of a realistic, fleshed-out cast of characters each trying to achieve something unique.
Is there a particular clash of antagonists that you love, or do you think a single villain is best placed to challenge your protagonist? Let me know in the comments. Or, if you want to read more about setting up multiple antagonists, check out How To Make The Reader Trust Your Villain, How To Make Multiple Antagonists Shine In Your Story, and How To Write A Sympathetic Villain.