I am starting to revise my novel-in-progress after getting some insightful feedback from two smart and generous first readers. I’m working on increasing the tension and conflict in the second half of the novel (among other things), so I’m thinking a lot about antagonists.
Now if you know me, you probably know that I don’t really care for conflict in my day-to-day life. I have a low conflict threshold, I think. When I’m writing fiction, I’m often squirming around in my seat thinking, “Ooh, this is tense. Look how uncomfortable I’m making these characters! Look at all these subtle psychological dynamics at play!” And then other people read what I have written and say things like, “Who’s the antagonist here? Everyone is so nice to each other. Can you ramp up the tension?”
In my current novel, the beginning is plenty tense. There’s a very clear antagonist—a boy who humiliates my main character and breaks her heart, propelling her to leave home and spend the summer with her estranged father. Nobody who reads the beginning of the novel tells me to add more conflict. This is good.
But then the boy doesn’t appear again for a long time, and the estranged dad tries really hard to make the main character feel welcome. To me, her interactions with her dad are full of tension and discomfort because, while her dad means well, he inadvertently undermines her and makes her feel like she isn’t good enough. I find their father-daughter relationship compelling because I think it’s heartbreaking when people care about each other and have good intentions but hurt each other anyway. But I’ve realized that I need to make the dad a lot more antagonistic, even though he isn’t antagonistic on purpose.
I’ve always kind of backed away from conceiving of clear-cut antagonists, hiding behind the knowledge that a book’s main antagonist doesn’t need to be a person—it could be a character flaw, or a societal problem, or a force of nature. But as I’m forcing myself to consider how the dad in my novel can function as a stronger antagonist, I’ve suddenly begun to think of other secondary characters in the novel who can stand in the main character’s way more dramatically, too. By standing in her way and therefore adding to the story’s tension, these secondary antagonists will ultimately make her growth and her triumphs all the more satisfying. (Or I hope they will, anyway.)
Meanwhile, I’ve also been looking at the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) Young Writer’s Project’s Middle School Workbook, because I’m attempting to lead a NaNoWriMo club at school, and the workbook includes some pretty helpful information about antagonists. Here’s the definition of an antagonist from the workbook: “The antagonist is the character in a novel that is standing in the way of the protagonist achieving his or her goal. That does not mean that all antagonists are evil, scheming monsters. Some antagonists stand in the way simply through jealousy, or misunderstanding, or by having a set of goals that differs from the protagonist’s.” (The workbook also provides a few questions you can ask yourself about your antagonist: 1. Why is he or she facing off against the protagonist? 2. Any likeable traits? 3. Sure-fire ways to defeat your antagonist?)
What I’m realizing, though, is that there doesn’t have to be only one antagonist in a book. Maybe there is one capital-A Antagonist, but then there can be little-a antagonists, too, who hold the protagonist back in smaller, but related, ways. Right now, my seventh grade students are reading Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now, and I’ve been noticing all of the different antagonists that the main character Doug faces when he first moves to “Stupid Marysville.” The various antagonists don’t dilute or confuse Doug’s struggles, because they treat him in similar ways and activate the same kinds of defensive responses from him. But they really do help ramp up the tension and encourage readers to empathize with Doug.
How about you? How do you craft antagonistic characters, and/or who are some of your favorite (big-A or little-a) fictional antagonists?
I like the sort of thoughts you’re having in examining your own book here, and they’re things I’ve been struggling with myself. I also have a somewhat low conflict-threshold. My novel is a fantasy book in which there are a lot of bad things happening TO my characters that they are required to deal with, and there is a greater antagonist and a lesser antagonist that consistently stand in their way, but I worry that the personal and emotional stakes just aren’t high enough—that too many of the conflicts are exterior, rather than interior. At the same time, I conceive of this book as a beginning to a series, and there are certain lines of conflict brewing between my protagonists that I’m not willing to go down yet because this is book One, sort of the honeymoon phase, and I see it all blowing up in book Two. Right now it makes sense to me structurally… but I worry about the conflict, and whether the little tensions I’ve nurtured in the narrative are enough. It’s part of my I’m trying to get through my rounds of editing, because I suspect it’s the sort of thing I can’t figure out on my own and I need to hear what those first readers have to say! It sounds like your first readers have been helpful, and I hope your re-write goes well.