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Layers of Antagonism, and Why You Should Embrace Them

Does your WIP have an antagonist? Just one? Are you sure?

My question is asked only partly in jest. Not to be antagonistic, but I’m guessing that many if not most of you have several layers of antagonism in your work, whether you’ve created them consciously or not.

I’ve had antagonism on my mind lately. And not just because it’s tax season. Or because of the latest Game of Thrones trailer. (Well, maybe the Thrones trailer [1] is a small part of it.) What initially prompted it was this thought-provoking essay [2] by WU’s own Jo Eberhardt. Which spurred me to sort out my own antagonists, and how they fit into what I’m trying to build. Granted, my WIP is an epic fantasy trilogy, but I still feel like I have quite a few. And for a moment there, I questioned if I had too many. It certainly got me thinking. The more I thought about it, the more I recognized that most of my favorite stories have multiple layers of antagonism.

Why would I want to offer anything less? So maybe this is a good thing…?

In the interest of exploring the idea, I thought I’d attempt a list of the various types of antagonism, from the specific to the obscure. This might get tricky, so we’d better start with a definition, to make sure we’re all on the same page. Merriam-Webster’s is:

Antagonism noun

  1.  the opposition of a conflicting force, tendency, or principle
  2.  actively expressed opposition or hostility
[Note: I apologize in advance for using fantasy/sci-fi examples, but that’s my wheelhouse. Besides, as WU’s resident geek it almost feels like a contractual obligation.]

The Antagonism of Setting: Okay, yes, I said I’d go from specific to obscure. And, yes, the concept of the setting itself being antagonistic is sort of obscure. But in many cases, a story’s setting reveals some of the earliest forms of opposition—often before we’ve encountered an active villain. Think about it. Harry Potter (eventually) gets his letter and ventures out for Hogwarts, Ned Stark feels honor-bound to go to King’s Landing, and Frodo and his companions must leave the comfort of the Shire.

Often our heroes are pushed from their comfort zone, or even compelled into danger. The outside world looms as their first obstacle. Using setting as a force of antagonism is an excellent way to grab and hold a reader’s attention.

An Active Villain: Ah, back to the specific. And obvious! Not every story has one, but when we think of antagonism, the first thing that springs to mind is an individual whose aims and/or desires are directly counter to those of our protagonist(s). It springs to mind because having an embodied central antagonist is tried and true storytelling. What would Harry Potter be without Voldemort; Star Wars without Darth Vader; Lord of the Rings without Sauron? I’m guessing probably not the iconic stories known by all and loved by millions.

Agents of an Active Villain: Another fairly obvious one. But these can be much more than mere henchmen or mindless cohorts (or arrow-fodder). They do, however, act at the bidding or command of a central villain. Tolkien’s Nazgûl are a good example. Perhaps they are a bit mindless (driven mad by their lust for the One Ring), but in spite of acting at Sauron’s command, they have enough agency to manage to hunt our heroes across the realm (can you imagine finding lodging in those outlandish wardrobes and with those hissing voices?). They are genuine players on the story-board, but they play specifically at Sauron’s direction. And do so darn scarily, too.

I think Wormtongue fits this category, as well; though Saruman–his director–is not the primary baddie, he is an active villain (see next category).

Actively Villainous Secondary Characters: Now we’re swinging into the rough. Not every story has these (but I do!). These antagonists have both their own agency and an agenda that’s distinct from that of any other force of antagonism. Their goals may be similar or tangential to the primary antagonist’s, but these secondary characters act of their own accordance. Occasionally secondary villains team up with primary villains (and often—surprise, surprise—they betray one another). I’ll stick to the theme and cite Gollum as an excellent example. And this is where Saruman figures in, too. You can dig deeper in LOTR and find examples like Bill Ferny, and even Ted Sandyman (hey, he was a villain to Sam, right?).

Passively Antagonistic Characters: These are characters who come into opposition or conflict with the goals of your protagonist(s) without purposely seeking to do so. Often their intentions are innocent, and the protagonists don’t necessarily consider them villainous. They often offer only incidental obstruction. They may even share the protagonist’s goal, but their means of opposition creates conflicts for your protagonists. Using LOTR again, Boromir springs to mind. He shares the goal of Frodo and Gandalf—to defeat Sauron—but his city and his people come first. And his belief that wielding the One Ring is not only fine but advisable puts him in direct conflict with our heroes (it’s a belief that tragically leads to a moment of active villainy). A case could be made for putting Denethor in this category, too (though he seems to be under some level of control by Sauron, via the palantír).

I would put a favorite character of my own into this category. My Gothic chieftain Thaedan has a cousin, Rohdric. They both wish to defeat the same imperial invaders, but Rohdric, being a former imperial slave, has a very different outlook and strategy than Thaedan—which very much puts them at odds. They’re opposites in temperament, naturally. Which makes for delicious conflict.

Actively Antagonistic Meta-Individuals: These are individuals who represent, cause, or lead an antagonistic force or movement, but they have no direct contact or conscious concern with our protagonists. In epic fantasy they are often distant emperors or kings/queens. In LOTR, I would exclude Sauron from the category because he has a direct interest in our heroes. (Perhaps we could say Morgoth [3] fills the roll in the Middle Earth legendarium, but that’s an obscure reference.) The Night King from Game of Thrones makes a better example. That creepy dude doesn’t care which Westerosi opposes him. He’s just intent on conquering the living.

Antagonistic Meta-Symbols: The One Ring. The Death Star. That Tiki-god charm necklace [4] that Bobby Brady found in Hawaii. You get the idea.

Unembodied or Thematic Antagonistic Forces: I guess I’ll just lead this category off with the dark side of the Force. In Epic Fantasy this layer often involves some version of dark or unclean magic. Sometimes it’s an archaic religious element or a denounced deity. But it’s not limited to those. The applicability and metaphoric intent of such devices is a matter of interpretation—both by the characters within a story and its readers. But for me that only adds to the intrigue.

In my WIP, I have a prophecy that I would put into this category. Even within the context of my story world, the prophecy is ambiguous, has only anecdotal validation, and is open to interpretation (or misinterpretation, as the case may be). It’s often used as a basis for accusation or as a justification for… well, all sorts of outrageous behavior. I’ve enjoyed thrusting it on my characters to see how they bear up under its weight. It’s one of my primary forces of antagonism because it’s reflected in every facet of my story’s conflict.

The Inevitable Inner Antagonist: We’ve all heard the saying. We are our own worst enemies. At some point in every life (some more often than others), the saying applies. And, for me, if it’s true that at the heart of every story is the change that occurs in the protagonist, this form of antagonism is one that every story necessarily explores to some extent.

As I say in my reply to Jo’s wonderful aforementioned essay, this is a fundamental antagonism my protagonist faces. His inner antagonist is a combination of all of his worst impulses: his ego, his stubbornness, and his inability to forgive (himself and others). In order to defeat them, he must embrace honor and humility, friendship and love.

It’s fundamental because without this layer, there would be no story. It’s the motherlode of all of my story’s conflicts.

Layer It On Me:

I totally agree with Jo’s essay’s point, that every element, including the antagonists, should culminate in the story’s ending. Each layer of antagonism should clearly be a working component of a cohesive whole. In other words, don’t jam in some random baddie just to impede your hero. Advice which would seem to make utilizing various layers of antagonism all the trickier.

But having taken a look at my own layers of antagonism, I more firmly believe they can serve the build to a natural and satisfying (I hope!) culmination. I can more clearly see how having layers of antagonism offers not only complexity and realism, but opportunities to increase the conflict, raise the stakes, and heighten the urgency and tension on every page.

I’m pretty sure it’s self-evident, but I’ve come to embrace my layers of antagonism. Adding them was my inclination from the onset. But I’ve come to believe they add a richness to the stew. And I do love a hearty story-stew.

Serve me up! How many antagonists are in your WIP? Are you seeing your own layers of antagonism in a new light? Is there such a thing as too many layers? Let’s discuss.

[Image is: The Portonaccio Sarcophagus, by Ryan Baumann on Flickr [5].]

About Vaughn Roycroft [6]

In the sixth grade, Vaughn’s teacher gave him a copy of The Hobbit, sparking a lifelong passion for reading and history. After college, life intervened, and Vaughn spent twenty years building a successful business. During those years, he and his wife built a getaway cottage near their favorite shoreline, in a fashion that would make the elves of Rivendell proud. After many milestone achievements, and with the mantra ‘life’s too short,’ they left their hectic lives in the business world, moved to their little cottage, and Vaughn finally returned to writing. Now he spends his days polishing his epic fantasy trilogy.