Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Can multiple antagonists work in a story? The answer depends on the author, but that shouldn’t be surprising when the term is so loosely defined. There are people who’ll tell you that a truly great story shouldn’t have any antagonists at all, and some who’ll tell you that you need at least three to create a narrative worth reading.
What you’ll hear less often is how difficult it can be to write a story with multiple compelling antagonists. That’s a shame, because while it’s a difficult endeavor, it’s one worth pursuing for authors who want to create engaging, realistic conflict in their stories.
Happily, that’s exactly what this article is about – I’ll be touching on how appreciating the antagonist’s role in a story can help you incorporate more than one, how to ensure minor antagonists pack a punch, and how to use differences in ‘kind’ and ‘scale’ to craft multiple antagonists who pose unique threats to the protagonist. Before any of that, though, we have to start by defining a term.
What is an ‘antagonist’?
An antagonist is a character who opposes the protagonist. At first glance, it seems like a synonym for ‘villain’, but the differences between these terms are important. To start with, a villain is wrong or immoral, whereas an antagonist just opposes the protagonist. They’re someone who stands in the way of the protagonist achieving their goals, and that means that if the protagonist of your story is a villain, the antagonist might even be a hero.Antagonists don’t have to be evil for the reader to hate them. #writingtip #amwriting Click To Tweet
Calling someone an antagonist rather than a villain also suggests they might have less intent to do harm. If the protagonist is rushing to work then the person driving slowly in front of them isn’t necessarily a villain (they don’t mean harm), but they are an antagonist (they’re in the way of the protagonist’s goals).
Finally, an ‘antagonist’ doesn’t have to be a person. The antagonist in a story is any identifiable force that works counter to what the reader understands as the best path for the protagonist; it might be a human, but it might just as easily be a natural disaster, a society or a state of mind.
Since your protagonist is likely to encounter multiple obstacles in reaching their goals, it should already be obvious why managing multiple antagonists is important. Not only that, but it opens up avenues of choice for the author. Using multiple antagonists allows you to challenge a protagonist on multiple fronts. In Jack Douglas’ Quake, the protagonist must contend with not just the results of a huge earthquake, but also the release of a dangerous criminal. The quake is a vast, powerful force which he can’t ‘defeat’, but which bears him no specific ill will. The criminal is less powerful, but is consciously acting against him. This allows Douglas to test his protagonist in different ways, and confront him with a wider array of challenges in the name of compelling storytelling.
A less pronounced example can be found in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Here, Harry is opposed by evil wizard Lord Voldemort and cruel teacher Dolores Umbridge. Umbridge has access to Harry on a more domestic level, allowing author J.K. Rowling to make his life miserable in ways her initial antagonist can’t believably manage.
In short, multiple antagonists mean more options for the writer, but that doesn’t make them easy to write. However, there are a few tips and things to keep in mind that make things easier, the most important of which is…
The goalkeeper is not the goal
The basic blueprint of storytelling is that a protagonist wants to do something but there are obstacles. Often, these obstacles come in the form of an antagonist, and it’s here that the blueprints are often misread. When a single antagonist stands between a protagonist and their goal, beating that antagonist can seem to become the goal.
It’s a compelling idea that’s led to some great stories – especially in the fantasy and romance genres – but it’s also a trap that can keep authors from exploring more complex frameworks. In truth, though the antagonist is barring the protagonist’s way, they’re really just a fancy obstacle – the antagonist is not the goal, they’re the goalkeeper.
The most important thing to understand about antagonists is that they’re not essential storytelling tools in the same way as the protagonist and the goal. If the protagonist struggles to do something then that’s a story. An antagonist might be the most fun way to bring about that struggle but that doesn’t make them vital.
This may sound obvious, but it can be difficult to put into practice. Often, authors focus on the relationship between protagonist and antagonist rather than protagonist and goal, and this can lead them to frame the relationship as inherently reciprocal. If the story is ‘protagonist vs antagonist’ then surely they’re on the opposite sides of a single issue: one wants to rule the world and the other would rather they didn’t.
Imagine a story where a protagonist and antagonist quarrel about who gets to eat a cake. Both want mutually exclusive outcomes to the exact same issue. This isn’t necessarily a bad story, but it has no place for a second antagonist of any note. If the antagonist is so closely bound to the protagonist’s struggle, then what can another do? In this situation, the only available avenue is to introduce another antagonist who also wants to eat the cake.
Sure, now there are more antagonists – you technically have more options – but each is lessened by the other. When there was one antagonist, they were the focus of all conflict, but now that same conflict is split between more characters. Each becomes less engaging on their own terms. At this point, it’s time to talk about differences in kind.
Differences in scale vs differences in kind
In the scenario above, the protagonist struggles with two antagonists for a cake. Let’s explore three variations of that story. In the first, the protagonist is opposed by two equally strong antagonists. We’ve already discussed the fact that both antagonists become less engaging if this is the case – neither is unique, and so they have to share the conflict that previously belonged to one antagonist.
In the next variation, one antagonist is weak and the other is strong. Now, the antagonists differ in scale. They are involved in the same conflict, they’re offering the same opposition, but one is a bigger threat than the other. I’ll talk more later about different levels of antagonist, but at this point it’s clear that the strong antagonist is the ‘real’ threat and the weak antagonist is far less of a concern.
In the final variation, the strong antagonist is wrestling the protagonist away from the cake while the weak – but smart – antagonist tries to talk them out of eating it. This is a difference in kind – at this point, neither antagonist is necessarily a more difficult obstacle than the other.Multiple antagonists can attack the hero’s health, mind and lifestyle – one area each. #writingtip Click To Tweet
This final variation is the most compelling way to write multiple antagonists – having them act as different types of obstacle between the protagonist and their goal. Each is now an engaging antagonist in their own right; they no longer have to share as much of the conflict as they’re challenging the protagonist in different ways.
That’s not to say that differences in kind have to be huge; Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is a great example of multiple antagonists who differ very slightly in both kind and scale. The story’s central antagonist is Kevin, the protagonist’s son and an overtly hostile presence who wishes to hurt and upset the protagonist. On the other hand is the protagonist’s husband, Franklin. Franklin has absolutely no wish to hurt the protagonist, but his willfully blinkered approach to Kevin, and dismissive view of the protagonist’s concerns, act as significant obstacles of a subtly different nature.
These antagonists work together to make the goal of a happy family life impossible for the protagonist. The story is complex – the protagonist is not portrayed as blameless – and yet the difference in kind allows the reader to fully appreciate the individual influences of multiple antagonists. Franklin is nowhere near as antagonistic as Kevin, and yet the difference in kind stops him from being overshadowed.
In this way, differences in kind can create the space for multiple compelling antagonists, but that’s only half the answer to populating your story with great antagonists. Having covered differences in kind, it’s time to return to the idea that ‘defeat the antagonist’ shouldn’t be your protagonist’s goal.
Enhancing antagonists by focusing on goals
The problem with the cake scenario I described above is that, no matter how different the approach of each antagonist, they’re still after the same thing. Even if they engage the protagonist on different planes of influence – physical and intellectual, in this case – they’re still splitting a single point of conflict between them.
For many authors, the answer seems to be to add a new source of conflict – the protagonist wants a cake and is opposed by the strong antagonist, but since the weak antagonist deserves some of the limelight, the protagonist also wants to get a tattoo. Now each antagonist has their own point of conflict, but the story has been warped to accommodate them. Flabby stories are less engaging, and the boost to the antagonist’s role isn’t going to cover that deficit.
Instead, the answer is to distance the antagonists from the protagonist’s final goal. Remember – ‘beating the antagonist’ is an incredibly simple goal, and one that offers little flexibility in storytelling.
So, consider a new variation of the cake story. In this story, the protagonist has skipped work to get to the cake shop. A work rival calls them en route, explaining that they plan to steal a major client while the protagonist is gone. The protagonist resists the urge to run back and stop them, instead getting into a taxi. Once the taxi pulls up at the cake shop, the protagonist finds they don’t have exact change for the driver, but they know that in minutes the last cake will be gone. They promise to return with money, but the driver demands they go straight to a cash point or they’ll call the police. Though worried, the protagonist ignores them, rushing to the shop where they have to wrestle another customer to get the last cake.
In this scenario, all three antagonists want different things and yet they all act counter to the same goal. By focusing on the protagonist’s relationship to their goal, it’s easy to introduce antagonists who all want different things and who all pose different types of obstacle. Notice that the colleague isn’t even trying to change the protagonist’s behaviour; they just wanted to gloat, but because the story is framed to focus on a specific goal, that act becomes antagonistic.
In the real world, life is a tapestry where people antagonize each other not because they want to see someone else fail (usually), but because their pursuit of a goal means they have to act counter to someone else’s wishes. This doesn’t make that antagonism any less intense or sincere, but it does mean that one person doesn’t tend to become our nemesis in every walk of life.
This ties into some general advice about antagonists, which is that they should have their own goals and motivations. Try to think of events from their point of view, even if that’s not how the story’s going to be told. This is vital with multiple antagonists, as it’s easy for disparate characters to end up ‘teaming up’ against the protagonist, even though they’ve never met and have no reason to work together. The joy of having multiple antagonists is that one can harass the protagonist in ways and at times when it isn’t believable for others to do so, allowing all conflict to emerge from realistic, consistent behaviour and attitudes.
Antagonists are at their most effective when the reader can see – and believe – their point of view, especially when the protagonist doesn’t. The idea of ‘person attempts goal’ should go both ways, and yet that doesn’t mean the goal has to be the same. In Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the protagonist has no real conception of the antagonist’s desire to rob her and the antagonist does not understand the protagonist’s unusual mental state. The protagonist buries valuables as part of a spell to remove the antagonist, and he digs them up because he doesn’t want his future possessions to get damaged. Neither understands the goals or behaviour of the other, but since the reader understands both, and they still result in conflict, it doesn’t matter.
If you take one thing away from this article, it should be that the antagonist is entering into an existing relationship between protagonist and goal. Consider these three elements equal and you’re limiting what your antagonist can do. Instead, consider them an interloper into a perfect system. They’re messing everything up, but that doesn’t mean they have to oppose the goal.Antagonists aren’t essential, but your hero NEEDS a goal. #writingtip #forauthors #amwriting Click To Tweet
Think of your protagonist as a small child building a sand castle. That’s their goal, the focus of their desire. The antagonist isn’t another kid who wants to knock the castle down (or, if they are, they’re not a particularly well-developed character), they’re someone who runs through it while trying to catch a Frisbee, or someone with a metal detector who thinks there’s treasure buried on that exact spot. It’s this kind of attitude that makes multiple antagonists work, and it’s the perfect marriage of form and content. Design your antagonist as an outsider intruding on a perfect system and the reader will instantly appreciate why the protagonist doesn’t want them around.
Dovetailing your story
Focusing on the protagonist/goal relationship also allows you to dovetail your story in terms of defeating multiple antagonists. As I said earlier, adding to your story so each antagonist has something to do only warps it out of its ideal shape. If the cake story is ‘about’ how the protagonist tackles the co-worker, the taxi-driver and the fellow customer then success becomes a meandering journey between disparate points. If the cake story is ‘about’ the protagonist trying to eat a cake, then everything can be wrapped up when that occurs.
This can be literal or metaphorical – either the story is written so that the reader is satisfied by the success or failure of a goal, or the goal literally settles every point of conflict that’s cropped up. For instance, say the cake-eating protagonist wins the fight and pays for their cake. The change from their purchase allows them to pay the taxi driver, and their client, who saw them wrestle the cake from the other customer, is so impressed by their tenacity that there’s no way they’re going to take their business to the gloating colleague.
This might sound a bit pat, and that’s because it is – it’s a favourite of half-hour sit-coms – but a writer’s control is such that they can create situations where this kind of resolution seems perfectly reasonable. If not, the other option is always there: simply write instances of conflict in such a way that the protagonist’s goal is what really matters. Write the cake-eating protagonist as someone who just needs this one treat to take on the world and the reader won’t mind that the colleague is moving in on their client, or that they can already hear a siren in the distance: they’ve had the cake, and they’re going to be able to handle it.
Sometimes, though, a writer wants a central antagonist whose defeat is the protagonist’s only goal, or for the protagonist to face more minor issues on their way to a larger challenge. Am I suggesting that in such situations they simply can’t have other antagonists? In a word, ‘no’.
‘Bump in the road’ antagonists
I mentioned earlier that fantasy stories often make use of the ‘antagonist as goal’ model of storytelling. This is popular when there’s a greater evil whose forces have to be whittled away before they can be defeated.
The problem is that these forces are really just junior expressions of the main antagonist, and their impact will be lessened because of it. If we consider a single antagonist as a mountain the hero must climb to reach their goal, then these secondary antagonists can feel more like bumps in the road.
The way to solve this problem is to make the reader aware that the protagonist has made real progress towards their eventual goal. This can be done by breaking up the protagonist’s goals into increments of success, as seen in Emily Rodda’s Deltora Quest series of books. In these books, the protagonist is ostensibly out to defeat the ‘Shadow Lord’, but needs to complete a gem-studded belt to do so. Each book in the series focuses on the recovery of one gem from a unique monster.
This model imposes a conceptual order to the story, instructing the reader to see the defeat of the first antagonist as the hero having moved 1/8 of the way towards their goal rather than to focus on the numerous antagonists still barring the way forward. Not only that, but each gem grants the hero a new power, gradually increasing his chance of victory in the final conflict. Here, a single goal becomes many, and multiple antagonists are provided with specific relevance.
For an idea of how quickly this can change your reader’s perception, imagine the scene from The Matrix Reloaded where the protagonist is swarmed by an army of identical antagonists. Some see it as a thrilling fight scene, but few would argue that the viewer derives satisfaction from the defeat of any individual attacker. The challenge is too diffuse, and so the hero’s progress feels nonexistent.
Now, imagine that scene with a number in the top right corner, counting down how many antagonists have to be defeated before the protagonist can escape. It may not be a sophisticated device, but it would instantly quantify the hero’s progression for the viewer – multiple antagonists would be given weight because their individual value would be made apparent.
Deltora Quest is a children’s series, and does this in a way that doesn’t try to hide its structure, but it can be done with varying degrees of subtlety. More complex fantasy stories such as the A Song of Ice and Fire series and even The Lord of the Rings do the same thing – the reader is made to understand the value of many different antagonistic forces, even when they exist in the service of a single antagonist, and therefore sees value in their individual defeat.
Where to start with multiple antagonists
As ever, combining all the techniques above will give the best results. It’s a lot to take in though, so where should you start? First, think about your protagonist’s goal. What resources will they need to complete it? Do they need time, money, weapons, allies or just a good reputation?
Next, think about ways that someone could deprive them of one of those resources for their own ends. Try to keep the protagonist on the sidelines – the person should want something for themselves; the inconvenience to the protagonist is just a side effect.
Now, place this new character in the arena where they can most easily and totally deprive the protagonist of this resource. Maybe that makes them a traditional enemy or maybe it makes them an ally who’s vying for the same position. If your protagonist needs time to accomplish a goal then maybe a family member can most easily deprive them of it, or if they need money then perhaps the bank doesn’t think they’d make a good investment.
Finally, try to choose another resource which this antagonist would struggle to threaten. If a colleague is making them look bad then this might be having somewhere to which they can retreat. If they have a romantic rival, it might mean having them mugged. Attack this resource with a second antagonist, but do your best to give them a different view of the protagonist than the other antagonist possesses. If the colleague hates them then perhaps a neighbor is overly friendly. Alternatively, if the protagonist has a neighbor from hell then maybe the colleague is a wunderkind – totally pleasant to the protagonist while making them look bad by comparison.
Start from the goal and assail your protagonist – remember that story arises from conflict, and so the fewer areas in which your character is safe, the more chances you’ll have to engage the reader. Try out this quick exercise with your own story and let me know the results in the comments.Use multiple antagonists to ensure there’s nowhere your hero is safe. #writetip #amwriting Click To Tweet
For more on writing great antagonists, check out How To Create Conflict Between Multiple Antagonists, The Two Secrets To Writing A First-Rate Villain and The Best Ways To Root Out A Cheesy Villain.