What’s a Contagonist How to Keep Story Conflict High Without the Antagonist

What’s a Contagonist? (How to Keep Story Conflict High Without the Antagonist)

This week’s video explains what a contagonist is and how you can use this important character to augment and contrast your antagonist.

Video Transcript:

We all know what a protagonist is. We all know what an antagonist is. Can’t have a story without either one, right? Without some kind of antagonistic—and most likely human—obstacle between our hero and his story goal, we end up with no conflict and very little plot. That’s your basic story formula in a nutshell. Pretty simple—until you find yourself in a story situation in which the antagonist has to be largely absent for a good chunk of the story.

This scenario could happen for any number of reasons, not least among them the fact that if the protagonist and the antagonist need to kill each other, the story will quickly end the moment they’re in the same room. So they simply can’t meet until the big battle in the climax. But what do you do in the meantime? If the protagonist and the antagonist can’t go mano a mano, then where is your story’s immediate conflict and tension coming from?

This, my friends, is where the contagonist makes his grand entrance.

The contagonist is an antagonistic character who will get in the protagonist’s way, try to lead him astray, and just generally cause conflict and tension. He differs from the antagonist in that he isn’t necessarily directly opposed to the protagonist. They may very likely be on the same side with the same overall story goal—which means the contagonist will often get to be present with the protagonist, even when the antagonist cannot.

The Blinding Knife by Brent WeeksBrent Weeks’s fantasy The Blinding Knife gives us a great example. The primary antagonist—the daunting Color Prince—never even gets within eyesight of the hero within this second book in the trilogy. But Weeks gives readers a tremendously powerful contagonist in the shape of the hero’s formidable father–who wants his son to be on his side, but who definitely isn’t above creating all kinds of threats—and therefore much needed personal conflict and tension that would otherwise have been missing, with the main antagonist so far away for so much of the story.

So maybe it’s time to figure out your story’s contagonist!

Tell me your opinion: Who is the contagonist in your story?

Whats a Contagonist How to Keep Story Conflict High   Without the Antagonist

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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.

Comments

  1. Sheryl Dunn says

    As you so correctly replied to my comment in an earlier post, the contagonist in my novel, ANGRY ENOUGH TO KILL (not yet released) is the protagonist’s own husband. She kills pedophiles; he’s a lawyer who doesn’t even believe in capital punishment. Thank you for that characterization or label…will help me strengthen future novels.

    I think I may have another contagonist, i.e., the antagonist’s go-fer guy, who, in Shakespearean terms, is also a foil. The antagonist is a vile guy (with some redeeming features), but the go-fer or errand “boy” is simply a decent, but very weak, family man. The protagonist has two confrontations with him and a number of confrontations with her husband before she ever confronts the antagonist.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You can definitely have more than one contagonist. The key feature to remember about the contagonist is that he’s not *just* getting in the protagonist’s way, but he’s also doing it in such a manner that he’s able (wittingly or not) to try to tempt the protagonist away from the Truth.

  2. Sheryl Dunn says

    OMG, I’m the first to comment…this never happens!

  3. There’s an official name for the role the snotty teenage sister plays! I jump around to many different points of view in my middle grade fantasy trilogy, but for the first book the main POV character is a 10 year old boy named Joey. One of his sisters is a really nasty teenager named Emily, and while she’s technically on Joey’s side (and the side of Joey’s brother Allan and his other older sister Jill), she creates lots of conflict. Strangely enough, she wasn’t even originally going to go on the quest, but the story just wasn’t working at all until I switched the younger sister with Emily.

  4. thomas h cullen says

    Another solution, negating the need for the contagonist, would be to just re-format the narrative, and make what were before the smaller scale events larger:

    This is the level of narrative all the best films and literature operate on.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I would disagree that this is the level of all good stories. The contagonist brings a marvelous layer of intrigue and nebulous morality that ups the ante and increases the opportunity for thematic subtext.

      • thomas h cullen says

        The matter of context still withstanding, I do agree with that.

        (Literary context can negate and conversely validate all too much.)

      • It’s surprising how much good fiction has a “contagonist.” We often don’t realize it. It’s especially key in group dynamics or a “team” set-up because shiny, happy people loving each other and agreeing with every decision until they fight the antagonist. I’ve also noticed that it tends to move audiences more when the contagonist “sacrifices” herself for the protagonist or directly aids the her in defeating the antagonist. Arguably, this is because we’ve witnessed the contagonist grow and change, which is often more satisfying than the protagonist’s best friend, lover, or mentor helping at the eleventh hour because it’s unexpected.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Very true. It’s worth reiterating, though, that the primary function of the contagonist is to tempt/lead the protagonist away from his true path. So only in very specific story situations would we want the contagonist to evolve into harmony with the protagonist’s values.

          • Agreed. I don’t know if you ever watched the show SMALLVILLE, which was about Clark Kent’s journey to becoming Superman. Either intentionally or unintentionally*, the series depicted the female lead Lana Lang as the contagonist — the temptation/hindrance to Clark’s journey. If intentional, it was very well done (I mean, there are countless examples of Lana serving as a “quest” block), but if not — and it often felt like it wasn’t intentional — the series created a character we were *supposed* to like but who most viewers didn’t, probably because on a subconscious level we “sensed” she was the contagonist.

            And that’s another weird thing about the “quest/heroic journey” plot: If the objective is for Clark Kent to be Superman, I’m going to root for whoever is helping push Clark to that goal. Even when Lex Luthor had become evil and his actions were personally hurtful to Clark, they often were ironically “positive” to the development of Superman.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            I haven’t seen the show, but this sounds like an excellent example.

  5. Super interesting post- I never knew the contagonist existed before today. This post helps me with the story I’m currently working on where the antagonist’s identity isn’t revealed until the end. I was having difficulty creating conflict between the action scenes (game of cat and mouse). The protagonists are working as a group and to continue to keep conflict one of them is becoming the new contagonist! Thank you so much!!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Awesome! Contagonists are fun to write. They’re always wild cards, since they’re not firmly on either the good or the bad side.

  6. Awesome post. I really enjoy this blog. It’s so helpful!

    My contagonist acts as a guide for my protagonist in her travels, but the contagonist is struggling with inner demons (literally) brought on by the actual antagonist. These “inner demons” seek to thwart the protagonist’s goals in many ways.
    But I do need to bring in some sort of conflict with the protagonist, where she finds her views and beliefs are beginning to be distorted by this contagonist. That’ll make it more fun.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Contagonists are great whatever their shape or form, but I’m especially fond of them when they’re people the protagonist loves and who are actually trying to help him – just in a misguided and ultimately destructive way.

    • That sounds like a great story. It sounds natural and not forced. Is it someone the protagonist cares deeply about?

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        Brent Weeks is one of my favorite authors. This book was probably the weakest I’ve read of his so far, but still lots of fun. The protagonist and his father don’t much like each other in this one.

      • Well, not exactly. It would make it better if they had some sort of connection.
        I’m still in the earlier passed with this particular plot, though, and can still shape it that way. 🙂

  7. Katie–
    You have written about “the lie,” a mistaken assumption the protagonist operates under or from. It shapes his/her responses, and because it’s not true, it complicates the process of resolution. I would say this lie is in some respects the contagonist in many stories. Otherwise, it’s some unresolved inner conflict–or, in the case of Brent Weeks’ novel an external conflict (with Weeks’ protagonist it’s the father) that works as the contagonist.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The Lie itself isn’t the contagonist, but is often promoted *by* the contagonist character.

  8. I love the term contagonist, and I have one in my current WIP. Thanks for explaining.

  9. My main conflict with my character is always internal. I create desires so strong that he can’t pull away and just gets himself deeper in trouble. There is nothing stronger in a character than regret.We all have regretted something so we know exactly what the character is going through. I do this mainly until it’s time to bring in an antagonist.

    So I guess I can say my protagonist is my contagonist?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The antagonistic forces in a story can come from just about anything. But technically the contagonist, as a character archetype, will manifest as an actual human. But no worries if your story doesn’t have a human contagonist. Not all stories will.

  10. Great article. I seem to include an antagonist when what I really want is a contagonist. I’ll keep this in mind for my next WIP!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Contagonists bring all kinds of interesting layers to a story, since they seem good (and indeed may be good people) when really they’re leading the protagonist astray.

  11. I learned a new word today! Never heard “contagonist.” Excellent tips here, as usual. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Contagonist” is a term that originates in the Dramatic theory of storytelling–which I highly recommend.

  12. Love this post! Incredibly helpful as I work my way through my outline for my novel. I have exactly the scenario your describe. The protagonist and antagonist must duel so I need contagonists to keep the tension high. Thank you so much!!

  13. Great post with a valuable new concept – for me at least. I am writing a collection of short stories in which the protagonist in the overall arc is not physically in every story, but hovering in the shadows. So I have to create some minor antagonists, most of them serving the main one. Are these contagonists?

    The overall protagonist does get to confront a protagonist in about the sixteenth tale – a protagonist descended from some of the others. (Age is not an advantage)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The important facts about the contagonist is that he’s not directly opposed to the protagonist’s story goal (unlike the antagonist) and he’s acting in a way (consciously or unconsciously) that is leading the protagonist astray. In essence, the contagonist the opposite of a mentor archetype. As long as your minor antagonists fill those qualifications, then they’re contagonists.

  14. Meant to say that I loved your use of contagonists in ‘Behold the Dawn’ – a five star read… as was ‘Dreamlander’.

  15. jeff chandler says

    This title of character and place of importance helps me immensely. In the novel I am working on the antagonist is very prominent in the first quarter but is only active in the story completion at the last quarter of the novel. I have two minor characters that have to help move the story along for the protagonist throughout the middle. Thank you very much for being so on point!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If you haven’t explored Dramatica‘s story module, I highly recommend it. The idea of the contagonist character originated there.

  16. Glad to have a name for it. I was having trouble because my antagonist [the killer] is not one who can be right under the protagonist’s nose, not without giving too much away. I suddenly realized my detective needed to be confronted by some hills, if not cliffs, while he was following his road of clues. Enter a coroner who suspects that he’s hiding too much about the investigation, and a boss who WANTS him to hide certain things. Much more fun! And now I have a name for them.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The boss character, in particularly, sounds like a great example of the contagonist. He’s on the protag’s side and is encouraging him to do the wrong thing for more or less “right” reasons.

  17. Thanks for this post! I had heard the word contagonist before, but I never really knew what a contagonist was. I do have one question, though. Is it okay to only have a contagonist and no antagonist? In my story the “antagonists” aren’t really antagonists because they are actually rooting for the protagonist and they want to help the protagonist. However, the protagonist doesn’t want to accept them, so they are going against her goal.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Your story is always going to need an antagonist in some form. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean a human arch-baddie. It just means a force that’s opposing your protagonist and creating conflict via the obstacles that arise between him and his goal.

  18. I have a character in my story who plays the role of the contagonist by being ‘that annoying friend who you don’t really want to be friends with anymore because she’s cruel, tactless, and super critical.’

  19. Now that was some pretty un-thought of thing. interesting.

  20. Thank you so much for this series, it’s been such a huge help with my NaNoPrep!

    In my novel there are a pair of contagonists who accompany the protagonist on his journey and are both generally opposed to him and his main objective, but each have a particular shared interest with him, so go along begrudgingly.

    After the protagonist has been smacked down by the antagonist at the end of Act 2a (as a result of following others and not taking his own initiative), and realised in the midpoint that he needs to start making decisions for himself, this pair of contagonists are his main adversary in Act 2b. By overcoming them here he gains the skills and self-belief he needs to beat the antagonist in Act 3 and again for realz in the Climax!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The contagonist will often (although not always) end up becoming more of a major antagonist in the latter part of the story. In some ways, they can often be more formidable than the antagonist himself, since they are often in the protagonist’s “camp,” so to speak, for most of the story.

      • Well since I have two contagonists this has now inspired me to have one of them come round to the protagonist’s POV while the other ultimately sides with the villain.

  21. Ashley Macallahan says

    Not much more then a testament post but here we go. The story I have been dueling with for four years, (Definitely the unicorn of my career!) finally got thought the plotting stage last week thanks to the purchase of both of your books (structuring and outlining your novel) and it was lacking alot because of the antagonist working behind the scenes for a VERY large portion of it all so I thought I had once again hit a brick wall! Thank you some much for this! This couldn’t have come at a better time!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yay! Glad the post was helpful! I’m so glad you enjoyed Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel.

  22. Contagonist is a term invented by Melanie and Chris Huntley for Dramatica. If you’re going to use their terms, it might be a good idea to put in links to where they describe what their terms mean. A protagonist drives the story towards the story goal. The Antagonist wants to PREVENT the story goal from being achieved. The MC is the person through whom the audience views the story. Watson is the MC, Holmes is the protagonist.

    A contagonist is NOT a substitute antagonist. The contagonist simply hinders but does not stop the main character from achieving the story goal. It’s the counterpart of the Guardian (that you’ve called Mentor) who assists, and is the story conscience in achieving the story goal.

    A contagonist can be a thief that steals something any of the characters has, the contagonist can be a snowstorm that delays the progression to the story goal; check out Dramaticapedia.com and search for “contagonist”.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I would agree with all these statements. I can see why you might get “substitute antagonist” from the angle of this post, but that’s definitely not what I’m driving at. The contagonist, as a hindering character, is one who pushes the protagonist sideways (instead of backwards, as an antagonist would do). But we still get a nice dose of conflict from that hindrance. Conflict is nothing more or less than an obstacle, and the contagonist is definitely that. Thanks for sounding in!

  23. Thank you for this post! I have become a big fan of your website; it’s proven very helpful as I think about a story I am trying to write. This post finally convinced me to comment. I’ve been struggling with identifying my antagonistic force, and this post helps so much, in that one of my main characters complicates the protagonist’s realization of the Truth and gaining the thing she Needs, but he’s not the antagonist; her deep-seated belief in the Lie is more likely the antagonist that must be defeated (one of those annoying internal antagonistic forces, I suppose). Yet my contagonist gives the story a good deal of tension, as he’s the major romantic interest throughout.

  24. My character, Samantha Storms, is fighting bad guys like Victor, but doesn’t approve of how StarGirl does her things and thinks that she’s not good enough since StarGirl just rounds up the bad guys and Samantha kills and tortures them, though she enjoys it, but StarGirl thinks she can stop Samantha. What would you call her? Samantha, I mean.

  25. Michael Saltar says

    Is this the same as the nemesis?

  26. K.M., if a story adheres to the Hero’s Journey, would the Guardian archetype and/or the Shapeshifter archetype function as contagonist?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Never the Guardian: the Guardian archetype stands in opposition to the Contagonist. But the Shapeshifter could definitely be a Contagonist.

  27. So in one of my stories, the protagonist and the supporting character (his friend) enter a tournament where they compete against each other for the same thing. There’s already an antagonist, but would this conflict between the protagonist and his friend make the supporting character a contagonist or just another antagonist?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Possibly. It depends on how intrinsic this contest is to the overall conflict. If it’s just the one scene, then it isn’t likely the friend is filling the role of contagonist. It’s also important to examine the character thematically. The contagonist does more than just oppose the protagonist; he also functions to try to lure the protagonist away from the right path.

  28. I’m still not sure if this character is a contagonist- she acts as a proxy for the antagonist to send the protagonists to kill their friends (the protagonists only realize later they’ve been sent to kill their friends).

  29. Does every story need a contagonist? While my protagonist doesn’t come face to face with the antagonist until the climax, there’s definitely a ton of tension, conflict, and action via the mini antagonists.

    Madi

  30. I’m writing a story where my contagonist essentially wrecks my protagonist’s life. The protagonist will lose her personal freedom and be wrenched far away from her main goal as a result of being tempted off-track by the contagonist. The contagonist will certainly exploit the protagonist’s belief in The Lie in order to do this. (So far, so good.)

    The way I see it, I have two main problems:

    1. How do I keep the reader from feeling jarred? My contagonist will essentially sail my protagonist down the river (with lots of delicious conflict involved), where she will then meet her antagonist(s). Past that point, however, the contagonist will likely become irrelevant and disappear from my plot. We may be well past the mid-point of the novel by that time. Do you think this could make the reader feel jarred? Might the reader have some unresolved feelings about what the contagonist did to wreck my protagonist’s life?

    2. My protagonist can’t save the world. The root of all of this suffering relates to much greater societal problems (a morally corrupt society) which are going to be far out of her reach. There will be three primary acts in this story, which take place in three major settings:

    1. The normal world.
    2. The hellish world the protagonist is dragged into by the contagonist.
    3. The world the protagonist is then “sailed down” to, where she will meet / battle the antagonist(s).

    During the second and third parts, the protagonist will be struggling to get her life back. At the end of the third part, there may be a way for her to finally get What She Needs (though her life will be drastically altered.) The main problem this leaves me with is that there is no way for my hero to fix all of the evil that resulted in her troubles. The corrupt society will keep on trucking. The contagonist will keep on trucking (and will obviously hurt lots of other people). I may be able to find some way for the antagonists to get some kind of comeuppance, but my protagonist’s ability to do anything is severely limited by the oppressive, corrupt society.

    Sorry, I know that’s a lot. If you can answer any of this for me, it would be greatly appreciated!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Any character that plays a major role in the first half of the story needs to be given some kind of continuity in the second half, otherwise it will feel like a foreshadowing plant that is never paid off.

  31. Hannah Killian says

    I wonder if the character my protagonist is forced to team up with is a contagonist. He’s on the same side regarding the story goal, but they both differ on the best way for the protagonist to protect his family. He (the protagonist) thinks he should go home, but the other character thinks the protagonist’s family would be safer if he stayed away from them. This other character is also a deuteragonist.

  32. Thank you for explaining what a Contagonist is. I had no idea that the term existed until I read your post.
    In my story, I have a protagonist, antagonist and a love interest. The central part of the story takes place with the antagonist on Earth, doing his nasty work, and the protagonist another planet.
    There is another character on the same planet as the protagonist, who is doing things to help protagonist protect his world but hindering him in him in his efforts to identify the antagonist.
    I was at a loss to identify that character’s role. Now I know.
    Thank you again.
    Antaeus

  33. This is a very interesting post. In my novel, the antagonist and the protagonist do not confront each other till the last chapter and this worried me a little. I knew there was sufficient conflict and I realise now that I had created a contagonist. He is the protag’s husband who creates all kinds of difficulties for her in the pursuit of her goal. He is also indirectly related to the main plot. My novel was recently accepted by a traditional publisher. 🙂

Trackbacks

  1. […] somebody to help your protagonist or get in your protagonist’s way—or just somebody for him to talk to? All you gotta do is introduce one of those minor characters. […]

  2. […] The contagonist, this one is not as commonly understood. Short answer, they oppose the work of the guardian. They push the main character’s development backwards, that isn’t an excuse not to have a fully developed protagonist. Unlike the antagonist, they may or may not oppose the main character on purpose. But they do have to oppose them. A good example would be Borimir from The Lord of the Rings. Here’s a more in depth article on the contagonist. […]

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