In the shady world of fictional antagonism, there are
Any and all can stand in your protagonist’s way, thwart your protagonist, even harm your protagonist.
Fiction is built on scenes of conflict, and conflict is created when a protagonist and an antagonist clash.
The conflict should be direct, not oblique. In other words, protagonist and antagonist should each want the same thing and be locked in a situation where only one of them can have it. This is much different than simply choosing philosophically different sides of an issue.
For example, let’s say that Wilbur Writer wants to craft a story about a boy seeking adventure. (Motivation)
The boy, Peter Protagonist, decides he’ll volunteer to serve on a peacekeeping mission to a rebellious colony planet. (Goal)
Wilbur Writer now must design an antagonist. Without this character, there’s nothing stopping Peter from hopping aboard the spaceship and going forth to do his duty. If nothing stops Peter from having his adventure, Wilbur’s story will end by page two.
Wilbur wants to write a ripping good yarn that will keep readers engrossed from start to finish. However, he doesn’t want to be too obvious so he chooses the concealed villain.
He creates Anita Antagonist, planetary president. Anita is greedy and without conscience. She has been corrupted by the colonists, who are bribing her to sabotage each peacekeeping mission. (Motivation)
Anita, therefore, chooses inexperienced volunteers for these missions, intending them to fail. (Goal) She’s sneaky about her involvement, and no one knows what she’s really up to until Peter figures it out near the end.
Let me ask you to reread my example. Then answer this question: Are Peter and Anita in direct opposition to each other?
(This is where Wilbur is going to start squirming and explaining how these two characters are on opposing political sides and how eventually they’ll meet up–probably in the climax where Peter will accuse Anita of nefarious crimes–but right now we want Wilbur to hush.)
Wilbur has made a fundamental error in designing story conflict. Yes, he’s trying to think long-range. He’s trying to think about the end of his story and what kind of showdown there will be. He’s trying to think in terms of opposition.
But despite his best efforts, he’s setting his plot up to fail. Why?
A.) There’s no plausible reason for the president and a raw recruit to cross paths.
B.) Even if Peter did figure out … eventually … that Anita is a treasonous snake, his confrontation with her will involve one scene at the end.
C.) Who’s going to oppose Peter through the other 275 pages leading up to this showdown?
“Oops,” Wilbur says. “I didn’t think of that.”
Back to the drawing board, Wilbur Writer!
Granted, there are all sorts of successful stories featuring the concealed villain. Mysteries rely on this construction. The Harry Potter series dangled Voldemort as the uber-villain that remained in the shadows until the climax of each book.
I’m not saying that concealed villains don’t work. They do, but only if their goal directly opposes the protagonist’s. And only if another character stands in as the visible villain.
Which I’ll discuss in my next post.