You may have a great plot and a great protagonist, but without an equally great antagonist, you’re going to be stuck spinning your story’s wheels. That’s no problem. Just stick in a great bad guy! But what happens when even that’s not enough? Sometimes your story is going to require not just one, but multiple antagonists.
How do you juggle them all? How do you keep them from becoming redundant to the conflict? And how do you make sure each antagonist’s addition to the story makes it all the better?
Welcome to the sixth installment in our month-long series, inspired by writing techniques I learned or had reinforced for me while writing my dieselpunk novel Storming (releasing December 4th). As you can probably deduce, I ended up using (drumroll!) multiple antagonists in Storming. Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t something new for me in this book. Almost all of my stories (especially Behold the Dawn) have featured layers of antagonists.
But Storming was fun since its plot challenged me to include a more varied cast of antagonists than usual, which in turn allowed me to layer the conflict in personal ways for the barnstorming pilot protagonist. This is one of those stories in which the primary plot mover—the Big Bad—was off-screen for much of the story, both for practical reasons and to facilitate some important mysteries. This opened up some really delicious opportunities for other antagonists to step up in his stead and interfere with the protagonist in different ways, while still keeping the conflict hopping.
Today, we’re going to take a look at the benefits (and drawbacks) of multiple antagonists, and how you can make sure you’re taking full advantage of them to keep your story running at full steam (or diesel!) ahead.
Benefits of Multiple Antagonists
First of all, remember: not all stories will require multiple antagonists. Sometimes the conflict will be better off if it’s straightforward and laser-focused, thanks to a singular opponent. But many stories will broaden in interesting and compelling ways with the addition of some creative antagonists.
Benefit #1: Conflict on Every Level
Multiple antagonists will ensure you have conflict happening on every level of your story. Like me in Storming, you may end up with a main antagonist who’s just too dangerous (or busy or imprisoned or presidential or something) to appear in every scene with your protagonist.
Although your main antagonist will always be providing the primary obstacle between your character and his goal, your scene-by-scene conflict is probably going to need more immediate threats to keep things interesting. Complex stories offer conflict on a number of different levels, including the following:
This is your “Big Bad.” This is the antagonist who is opposing your protagonist’s main story goal. Sometimes, this conflict will start out as a relatively impersonal one. Your protagonist might not ever have come into contact with this antagonist, much less had a problem with him, if it weren’t for the story goal he conceives somewhere in the First Act.
Especially when your plot-level antagonist’s relationship with your protagonist starts out relatively impersonal, you’ll want to make sure you’ve also included a layer of conflict that hits your protagonist on a more intimate level. In Storming, my main antagonist starts out very impersonal. He’s someone the protagonist has never heard of before and really doesn’t care about outside of his plot goals. So I also gave the protagonist a very personal and equally formidable antagonist in the form of a corrupt sheriff who has a dangerous hold over the protag thanks to backstory baggage. Even in scenes in which the main antagonist can’t be present, the personal antagonist can.
Finally, we have internecine antagonists. These are people who are, at least ostensibly, on the protagonist’s side. But despite the goals they hold in common with the protagonist, internecine antagonists have agendas of their own that interfere with the protagonist’s main story goal. There were quite a few of these in Storming. The most obvious is a member of the protag’s barnstorming crew. They work together, but they have no love for each other, and they’re always getting in each other’s way.
Benefit #2: Richer Archetypes and Themes
Where you have layered conflict, you also have layered themes–because every angle of conflict should be presenting a slightly different perspective on the story’s Truth/Lie. In part, this is going to arise out of a complete working set of antagonistic archetypes–as found in Dramatica‘s story theory. (I discuss my take on all those archetypes much more thoroughly here.)
This is the obvious one. The antagonist is the Big Bad, the guy in direct opposition to the hero. Assuming your protag is on a positive or flat arc, the antagonist will either believe in or evolve into believing in the story’s Lie. He will help demonstrate theme in the ways he is similar to the protagonist.
The contagonist is a ton of fun. Unlike the mentor archetype, who helps guide the protagonist down the right path, the contagonist tempts the protagonist onto the wrong path. He will often be someone who seems to be on the protagonist’s side, but who consciously or unconsciously leads him astray.
The skeptic contrasts the supportive sidekick archetype. Unlike the sidekick, the skeptic is the voice of doom to the protagonist’s plans, introducing doubts and discouragement.
Pitfalls of Multiple Antagonists
Before we learn how to make the best use of multiple antagonists in a story, let’s first quickly mention two possible reasons you should avoid featuring multiple bad guys.
Pitfall #1: Too Many Characters
Honestly, not many stories can stand upright under the burden of a cast of thousands. Tight stories are good stories. Streamline your cast. If you don’t need multiple antagonists, don’t include them. Always be on the watch for extraneous characters you can delete or combine. The best stories are like Swiss watches: not a single extra working part.
Pitfall #2: Scattered Conflict
Every antagonist you include should contribute to the main conflict. If your antagonists are opposing many different goals from your protagonist, then they will be creating multiple threads of conflict that won’t tie together in the end. Even with a broad, complex story, everything has to ultimately be working toward the same end–the same Climactic Moment.
What Is an Antagonist?
Alrighty, so with all that said, let’s go back to perhaps the most basic–but most important–question.
What is an antagonist?
When we think antagonist, we think mustache-swirling melodrama villain–or serial killer–or megalomaniacal dictator. Strictly speaking, those are “bad guys.” But they’re not, perforce, antagonists.
An antagonist within a story is someone who creates conflict. And how does he create conflict? By presenting himself as an obstacle between the protagonist and his goal.
As such, the antagonist doesn’t even have to be sentient. Obviously, however, most stories find their best expression in giving the protagonist an equally human nemesis.
The important thing to remember is that this human doesn’t necessarily have to be evil. He just has to get in between the protagonist and whatever it is he wants/needs in the story.
The 3-Part Checklist for Great Multiple Antagonists
This all can get tricky when it comes to validating the necessity of each of your antagonists and then coordinating their efforts into a resonant overall conflict. Fortunately, you can simplify these problems by making certain you’re checking off the following three necessities in your multiple-antagonist story.
1. Does Each Antagonist Have Unique Goals?
If all your antagonists want the same thing for the same reason, then there’s zero reason for them all to coexist in the same story. Even when you’ve got sidekick antagonists carrying out the bidding of the main antagonist, each antagonist should have his own unique agenda, driven by his own personal motivations. The more your antagonists’ goals complement and particularly conflict with the other antagonists’ goals, the deeper and more layered your story will be.
2. Does Each Antagonist Oppose the Protagonist’s Main Goal?
It’s fine to have antagonists who aren’t, strictly speaking, interested in your protagonist’s overall story goal one way or another. But even if they’re not deliberately trying to oppose your protagonist’s main story goal, their actions still need to be getting in the way of that main goal, either directly or indirectly. Otherwise, their presence and the conflict they’re creating is extraneous to the story and has no place within it.
3. Is Each Antagonist’s Contribution to the Conflict Thematically Resonant?
Even in a story with deep and varied themes, all those themes need to coalesce into a single resonant motif. If your main conflict is all about loyalty to family, but one of the minor antagonistic conflicts is driving home a theme about opposing political graft, then that secondary conflict almost certainly isn’t closely related enough to your main conflict and theme. Its presence is going to fragment your story and weaken your story’s overall thematic message.
Multiple antagonists have the ability to add lots of interesting layers and possibilities to your story. Make sure you’re using them judicously, and you’ll make your story that much better.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you used multiple antagonists in your work-in-progress? Why or why not? Tell me in the comments!
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