Antagonists Don’t Have to Be Evil

A Quick Secret to Secondary Antagonists

A Quick Secret to Secondary AntagonistsMuch of the conflict in a story will comes in the form of people causing problems for your main character. The most obvious form of trouble is that presented by the antagonist, that supremely evil being whose sole purpose in life is to wreak havoc in the universe and cause problems for your MC. But don’t overlook the opportunities for conflict that exist on a much smaller scale in all of your minor characters—secondary antagonists, or what fantasy author Janice Hardy calls “minitagonists.”

The House on the Strand Daphne du MaurierFor example, consider how, in her time-travel book The House on the Strand, Daphne du Maurier does a marvelous job of keeping the conflict rolling without ever resorting to a major bad guy.

The Qualifications of an Antagonist: Opposing Goals

Most of the tension in the book is the result, not of a super-villain out to do unspeakable things to the hero, but instead the protagonist’s wife. Each have (relatively) reasonable, normal, and ethical goals throughout the story.

The protagonist wants to:

  • Keep his time travelling, via an experimental drug, a secret.

His wife wants him to:

  • Leave England
  • Take a high-paying job in America
  • Drop his long-time friendship with the eccentric professor who invented the drug
  • Generally behave as a responsible husband and father

Neither of these characters is a “villain,” but their opposing goals put them at odds throughout much of the story.

How to Mine Your Story for Secondary Antagonists

An antagonist doesn’t have to be someone who wants to kill the protagonist. An antagonist can be anyone who stands in the way of the hero accomplishing his goal, whether his goal is to save the world or just order a double latte.

The more roadblocks you put between the hero and his goal, the more conflict—and the more tension—you’re going pour into your story.

Goal Obstacle Conflict Infographic

Take a second look at even the friendliest of your characters and see if you can’t use their ordinary, everyday, mostly innocuous goals to antagonize your protagonist in ways large and small.

Your protag may not thank you for it, but your readers will!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Who are the secondary antagonists in your story? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. In my current WIP, the protagonist has to deal with disembodied spirit of a young mage who has taken an oath to protect the house she’s inherited. (He’s not a ghost, BTW, but to explain the details is a spoiler.) Throughout much of the first 50% of the book, he seems to be the primary antagonist, but he’s really not doing anything more than trying to fulfill his oath: keep everyone out of that house. The real antagonist (the traditionally evil fellow), is the great uncle who will do whatever it takes to get his mitts on that house and the secrets inside.

    This is probably the most fun I’ve had with my antagonists in a while. It’s been a learning experience for me because it’s more twisty than straightforward antagonist-driven conflict. Story planning definitely has contributed to a smoother writing experience here, too, because foreshadowing for the real antagonist is necessary to make it work. It’s much easier to get that right when you have some idea of the path you’re going to travel.

    Anyway, thanks for this post. It was right on time. Are you sure you aren’t psychic? 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve definitely found in my own writing that my most compelling antagonists are never those I purposefully set out to make “bad,” but rather those who are simply opposite the protagonist’s goals for their own deeply held reasons.

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