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Antagonists in Contemporary Fiction

Reader Rachael asked the following question, on an interesting topic:

I’ve been wondering if a lack of one clear antagonist is a problem if you’re writing YA contemporary (which I am). It seems like it would be a huge problem for fantasy, sf, mystery, etc., but for contemporary, I just don’t know. I can think of several YA contemporary books that don’t seem to have one clear big bad antagonist. Don’t get me wrong, they’re packed with conflict, but the antagonists change throughout the book (usually it’s some combination of the MC’s best friend(s), boyfriend(s), family, and the MC his or herself). So, does that mean it’s okay?

Antagonists in today’s fiction can take many forms. Lord Voldermort (yes, I said it) in HARRY POTTER is a traditional antagonist. He’s a big, bad villain and the entire series is spent tracking Harry as he clashes with Voldermort and his supporters, the Death Eaters. And Rachael is right. In a lot of fantasy, adventure, and sci-fi, there does seem to be a big, bad villain who you can point to and name. This is usually a person, and they are usually as multi-faceted as the main character (or they should be), which gives the story more tension and raises the stakes.

But what do you do if you don’t have a villain in mind? If there’s no shadowy baddie behind the curtain, always threatening danger and doom? Do you still have a story?

I’d say you do. For another complex and fascinating villain, check out Lia, the main character of Laurie Halse Anderson’s WINTERGIRLS. She’s also our point of view narrator, and the hero of the story. But she’s suffering from anorexia and the demons of the disease, not to mention the guilt she feels when her best friend and partner-in-dieting, Cassie, dies. The hero and the villain here are one and the same.

In the highly-anticipated MATCHED, by Allie Condie, there are individual people who are villains, but one might say that the villain itself is the big, bad government (a popular theme in dystopian fiction), which seeks to control its citizens and uses that control for nefarious purposes.

Instead of thinking about this from the is-it-or-isn’t-it-a-villain perspective, I want you to consider your story in terms of conflict. Every story needs a balance of external and internal conflict. Internal conflict is what the character has going on inside them, basically, character’s inner life vs. the world. The story must also have external conflict. In other words, character’s outer life vs. the world and/or character vs. other characters.

An example of internal conflict: I am eating lunch under a table in the library because I am so different from everyone and I feel so alone.

An example of external conflict: Now I’m headed to the principal’s office because the librarian found me. The principal is going to call my parents and I’m going to get in so much trouble.

If your story lacks a central villain in the style of Lord Voldemort, don’t fear. Even if your story does have a baddie with all the evil fixin’s. Your focus should be on developing a rich and complex balance of internal tension and external tension that still carries all the tension and stakes of a story that has a centralized antagonist.

Would HARRY POTTER still have its oomph if Lord Voldermort vanished from the storyline? It would lose a central story engine, sure, but there is still enough going on for Harry internally and externally that the series wouldn’t be totally sunk. I think that’s key. Even if you do have a Lord Voldermort in your cast of characters, that can’t be the only source of conflict. It’s much more important to look at all your sources of conflict and make sure they’re balanced and come into play throughout your plot, not just at the beginning and the climax.

If you forego the villain route, do study writers like Sara Zarr, David Levithan, John Green, Lauren Oliver, and many others. Their worlds are populated by kids who lack a mortal enemy, per se, but who still have plenty of internal and external conflict to give the story fireworks and momentum

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