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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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  1. Creepy Query Girl’s avatar

    This was a great question and something I’ve also noticed in a lot of contemporary YA. Sometimes I think you don’t even need a precise ‘villain’ if the MC is fighting against a situation in general that’s got them down.

  2. Sidni Mordhorst’s avatar

    I agree with Creepy Query Girl, sometimes inner conflict in your main character can act as the antagonist in a story. But, it’s definitely harder to pull off than having a personified villain.

  3. Kate B.’s avatar

    Wonderful question and fantastic answer. Villains are my weakness. I have a hard time not making them cartoon-y. There are places in HARRY POTTER where the madcap quality made it seem a little “animated”–but never Voldemort. He was deliciously evil and believable in every scene.

    I appreciate this analysis. I never thought about how HARRY POTTER might work without it’s main antagonist.

  4. @jmartinlibrary’s avatar

    Great delineation of villains vs. conflict. And no vague antagonists, right? :)

  5. Vonna’s avatar

    Thank you for addressing this. I think it’s true that not all stories require a villain. Kids can get into plenty of exciting trouble all by themselves.

  6. Anne M Leone’s avatar

    Thank you for answering this question. I’ve struggled with it a fair amount, as so much writing advice seems to be devoted to developing the antagonist, but whenever I try to add a straight-up villain to my stories, it ends up not working. I think it really does come down to the type of story I’m trying to tell, and thinking about it terms of genre is helpful.

  7. Jennifer’s avatar

    Great topic, thanks for the informative post!

  8. michelle’s avatar

    Such a great question!!

  9. Elizabeth May’s avatar

    Love this question, and I’m glad Rachael asked! I’ll be honest and say some of my favourite stories lately have no clear cut single villain. It leaves more time to focus on internal conflicts and external struggle. Like Jackson Pierce’s SISTER’S RED, where the villains are werewolves, but there is no single baddie.

  10. Erica’s avatar

    We were just talking about this on my online writers group. Perfect timing. Thanks.

  11. Shari’s avatar

    I once went to a workshop on conflict, and the presenter was great and had handy little diagrams that would really help you make sure you set up good conflict in your novel. Problem was, it was totally dependent on having an actual “villain”, which so didn’t work for the contemp YA I was writing. (So basically, that workshop just messed me up, lol!) I think I’ve finally come to terms with the idea of int and ext conflict, and the fact that it doesn’t require a Voldemort…. ;)

    Thanks for this post!

  12. Kevin Sheridan’s avatar

    I had a similar question posed to me, but more from a “horror” genre perspective, which requires a different antagonist. I agree in the conflict first advice, wholeheartedly. The bad guy will take many shapes, but the main role of any antagonist is to get in the way of the hero’s journey. Check out my blog and let me know what you think…

  13. Rachael’s avatar

    Thanks for answering my question, Mary! I had been feeling just like Shari – pressured to have an antagonist, even though that totally doesn’t work for me with the stories I’m writing now. I think concentrating on external/internal conflict is a much better way for me to think about things. And thank for the writer suggestions!

  14. Hanna’s avatar

    What a great post. This is something that I’ve mulled over in the past without having any sure answer. Thanks for shedding light on the topic.

    Also, I laughed out loud at that first sentence mentioning Voldemort. I love how it is mainstream knowledge that saying his name is a radical thing.

  15. Eileen Cook’s avatar

    One thing I keep in mind is that an antagonist doesn’t have to be a villain. They are the person who is in the way of the protagonist obtaining what they want. It doesn’t mean they are doing it to be evil. It could be two best friends who both want the lead in the school play, it could be a parent who prevents the character from dating someone etc. I always go back to GMC
    Goal: what does the character want
    Motivation: why do they want it?
    Conflict: What stands in their way of getting it?

  16. Ishta Mercurio’s avatar

    I love your handling of this question: the nature of the conflict is less important than the presence of conflict itself. It’s an important distinction.

  17. Leah Odze Epstein’s avatar

    This is a great post–thank you thank you! i was just struggling with this myself, and realized the authors you mentioned at the end are precisely the authors whose work most resonates with me.

  18. Adele Richards’s avatar

    Brilliant! Thank you.

  19. Taylor Ramage’s avatar

    I’ve also never thought about how books would stand if the main villain were taken out. That gives me a lot to think about in terms of plot development.

    Thanks. :)

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