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.”

For 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. Timely as always. It’s a very easy fact to forget when writing, especially with fantasy. We can’t all write Saurons and Voldemorts. Thanks for the reminder!

    P.S. I like the new layout for your vlog.

  2. It can be difficult to do in a mystery, but even with a major antagonist, or in my case, three, I’ve found that because all my characters have different goals, my protagonist is always being faced with mini-antagonists, especially the deeper into the book you get. My MC’s boyfriend, best friend, and business partners all end up as mini-antagonists at some point, which I think is a good thing.

    Good post! And, I do like how you’ve got the camera setup this time, and the fact you’re turned away from the camera slightly. Looks good, and somehow more inviting.

  3. @Jenn: Variety is the spice of fiction. If all our antagonists were supervillains, boredom would result. We have to keep the reader (and our MCs) guessing.

    @Liberty: I would think minitagonists would be even more prominent in mysteries, simply because the big bad guy is left unrevealed for much of the story.

  4. This was just what I needed! I thought I didn’t really have an antagonist in my story, because I don’t want to make my supporting characters bad guys. Now I can see I don’t need to make them bad people, just obstacles. Good stuff!

  5. “Obstacles” is an excellent way to describe antagonists. Really, when it comes down its basic elements, an antagonist is just someone who antagonizes.

  6. I think that advice helps people who haven’t read real literature. Is Sebastian Dangerfield ‘evil?’ The problem with writers today is that they spend more time working on the craft of writing, than on the craft of wisdom. If you have nothing worth saying, it doesn’t matter how well you write.

    People who reach for a can of ‘evil’ to balance out the taste of ‘good’ in their dish, are Manichean. I think anyone that needs to be told to hold off on the ‘big eeveels’ are in need of far more than a simple ‘pro tip.’

  7. I’m very fond of the William Saroyan quote: “Remember to be good-humored. Remember to be generous. And remember that in the midst of that which is most tragic, there is always the comic, and in the midst that which is most evil, there is always much good.”

  8. Thank you so much for this! I feel like my eyes are opened. This advice has just given my story so much potential. I love the idea of “minitagonists”

  9. When you’re able to see every character as a possible antagonist, it really does open up all kinds of possibilities for conflict.

  10. Excellent post (as always) You know this is so true, and it’s forgotten so often. Thanks for bringing it to the forefront ;o)

  11. Interesting post. Half way through my wip, I realised I could change one of my character’s personality. It gave me a whole new twist to the storyline. He compliments, my MC and antagonist so well.

  12. @Erica: It’s easy to forget, I think, because extremes are easier to visualize. Subtlety is tough!

    @Glynis: The classic minitagonist is the annoying sidekick who is often the MC’s best friend, but still acts as a foil and a constant source of conflict.

  13. I like how you mentioned that the antagonist doesn’t always have to be a “bad” person, just an individual getting in the way of the protagonists goal. Great advice!

  14. The whole point of an antagonist is to create conflict with the protagonist, and, as you say, creating conflict is just a matter of interfering with the hero accomplishing his goal. And *that* can be achieved by just about any type of character.

  15. Great suggestions for adding some subtlety to the tension!

  16. The best fiction is subtle fiction, so naturally subtlety is hard to pull off. Every little bit helps!

  17. Excellent advice on creating tension with all the characters in the story who have relationships with the main character.

    K.M., Thanks for stopping by my blog and leaving a comment. Appreciate it!

    Dawn Herring

  18. I’ve always said the easiest way to avoid writer’s block was to start an argument between your characters!

  19. Great stuff as usual Katie.

    Although my main antagonists in “Crossed Swords” follow a more traditional pattern that makes the bad guys loathsome, I’ve crafted a backstory for all of them (including the dragon) that places them in a more sympathetic light (to me, at least).

    I’ve mentioned the Order of the Stick webcomic to you before, and I strongly recommend it as a powerful piece of writing, particularly if you purchase the books. Berlew explains Xykon’s (the lich) motivation far more clearly in his origin. You even start to sympathize with him.

    Because I am a nerd, I do a lot of things in my writing that are directly traceable to Dungeons and Dragons. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it, but there’s an alignment classification system you’ve probably heard of, where squeaky clean good guys are “Lawful” (They obey a strict set of moral rules) “Good” (They stay on the side of goodness, mercy, and light.)

    On the other side of this is “Chaotic” (They know no law but what they choose to follow.) “Evil.” (They are here on this earth to assume ultimate control and crush hope, light, and love– like Nancy Pelosi lite.)

    I have found that the most interesting “evil” characters are “Neutral Evil.” They can best be described as selfish. They desire power because it frees them from want.

    Another trick I’ve found useful is to consider the antagonist to be following an entirely different plotline than the protagonists. What if the antagonist is following the “Conflict with a God” plotline and it leads him to kidnap the princess, while the protagonists are forced by this into “Abduction” or “Crime Pursued by Vengeance”?

    Sorry for such lengthy comments, but your vlogs really do capture my attention and make me think. Thanks for taking valuable time from your writing to make these for us.


  20. I looked at Origin of the Stick after you mentioned it in a previous comment, and I’m now hooked. Great stuff. One of these days, when I have time, I need to go back and read all the previous episodes.

    I just finished John Truby’s marvelous book The Anatomy of Story, in which he points out that one of the ways to make the battle between hero and villain particularly compelling is to make sure that the heart of their conflict is about them both pursuing the same goal. They may appear to be polar opposites, but they’re really after the same thing. They both want to win the war, they both want to claim the treasure, they both want win the election, etc.

    (The Pelosi comment completely cracked me up, BTW.)

  21. The thought of an antagonist stopping something from getting a double latte is truly a disaster! 😛

  22. Which, of course, proves the point that a latte should be a more than worthy goal for any self-respecting hero.

  23. Nice way to add more drama 🙂

  24. Minitagonists are probably going to be more common in mysteries than in superhero stories since a lot of times, the bad guy could be anyone in a mystery.

  25. 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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