The Basics of Critiquing III: The Antagonist and the Conflict

Alright, so we’ve covered two of the crucial things every story needs:

Now we’ll cover the third and final element:

  • A conflict

A story without a conflict is not really a story. Otherwise the story would end on page 2, because after you introduced the protagonist and the goal, you would simply say “and he won.”

(Which, obviously, would be very boring and there’d be no point in telling it.)

So you need conflict. It’s what people like to read.

Now perhaps you remember all this from high school (I can completely hear Mrs. Kirby in my head covering all this.) (Hello, Mrs. Kirby! Thank you! You too, Mrs. Zukoski and Mr. Drummond!). But for those of us who were passing notes to our friend Dawn, or who were busy drawing hearts on our PeeChee folders, or who were running in late to 6th period every day, here are the four basic types of conflict:

Man vs. self – This is usually where the protagonist is facing some terrible moral dilemma throughout the book, or facing a terrible flaw of his that’s keeping him from his goal. The first book that leaps to mind for me is Phillip Roth’s Saul Bellow, which was a bit of a long, dull read for me, but there it is. (These “man vs. self” books often are, quite frankly.)

Man vs. nature – These are like the stories I used to snatch up off the dining table when I was about 8 and my mom would get Reader’s Digest in the mail. Man, those first-person stories of protagonists battling the Andes, bears, cold, fatigue, sharks, what have you. … I loved those. They’re still popular with the young-adult set. (My kids and I just watched a marathon of “I Survived!” on television recently, in fact.) I’m also thinking of The Hatchet, where the young boy protagonist goes down in a private plane, and the pilot dies, and he has to fend for himself in the wilderness (with only his hatchet, of course). Kids love this stuff. It’s a safe type of “antagonist” for them. And the goal is always very straight-forward: usually “to live.”

Man vs. society – This really means “man versus society’s conventions,” and these tend to be moralistic stories I can’t think of any good examples of. Oh, maybe Lord of the Flies? One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (perhaps? not sure.)? Or a more modern one: the movie Pleasantville. If you have good examples of “man vs. society’s conventions,” throw ’em at me in comments.

Man vs. man – Ah, here we go – this is by far the most common. It’s the easiest way to tell a story, and the best way to read one: any reader who wants to flip pages furiously loves a good man vs. man story. And think of all those Sylvester Stalone movies! In fact, even when the theme of the story is something esoteric, like “battling for freedom,” an actual human often stands in for the battle (a warden, for instance, or a nurse named Ratchett. …).

Anyway, literary novels can choose from any of the four basic conflicts, but genre novels (and blockbuster movies) usually stick with the last.

So let’s explore the antagonist

Like the protagonist, the antagonist can sometimes be slippery and hard to pin down, but he or she is the principal character in the story who is keeping the protagonist from the goal.

  • Iago is an antagonist.
  • Sir Leigh Teabing (from The DaVinci Code) is an antagonist.
  • Darth Vader is an antagonist.
  • Cruella De Vil is an antagonist.
  • Alex Forrest (from Fatal Attraction) is an antagonist.

But those are the obvious ones. Some aren’t so obvious, and some are downright subtle. You can discuss long and hard who the antagonist is in certain books, but if you’re struggling with trying to figure it out, always bring it down to the basic question: Who is the main person keeping the protagonist from the goal?

Other questions that come up about the antagonist (usually among writers):

  • Is he always evil?
  • Can there be more than one?

The antagonist does not need to be evil. In classic stories with classic “villains,” he usually is, but there are plenty of subtle antagonists, too. A loving father can keep a protagonist from his goal. A future love interest can keep a protag from a goal, too. Sometimes subtly is engaging, and a multifaceted antagonist (one with both good and bad qualities) can be the most memorable of all.

As far as there being more than one, the answer to that is no. There can be “minions” to the antagonist – people who are carrying out his wishes to keep the protag from his goal – but there is usually one mastermind. (Now, I’m sure there’s some exception to that, but I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts it’s a messy, convoluted story.) 

And here’s an interesting question:

  • In a romance, can the hero or heroine be the other’s antagonist?

In an online class by Jenny Crusie and Bob Mayer, they answered this and said it’s not wise. Why? Because, in genre fiction, the antagonist never wins. Which means that either your hero or heroine will in some way be a “loser.” And that will probably strip at least some of the romance (and certainly the last triumphant kiss) from your story. (… Just sayin’ …)

So what happens to the antagonist?

Typically, he fails. Typically, the protagonist overcomes him and gets a goal. But not always. In “man vs. self,” it would certainly be a horrible read if we hung in for 300 pages for a protag battling something about himself and then failed. (But I’m sure it’s been done.) And in “man vs. nature,” it would definitely be horrible if we hung in for 30 minutes or 300 pages and find out that he didn’t succeed in battling the elements. (But it’s definitely been done.) And in “man vs. society” and “man vs. man,” we often see the protagonist prevail, but we sometimes see him fail, too.

Again, this leads to great discussion. Because what is the author saying when he has the antagonist win? In “man vs. society,” sometimes society wins, and that always leads to a great discussion.

Genre novels don’t usually play with the ending. They are there to provide you with a great ride, and a feel-good notion that the protagonist will prevail and the antagonist will fail. I think we all need to hear that sometimes.

What about you? Which is your favorite conflict to read? If you are a writer, which is your favorite to write?

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9 thoughts on “The Basics of Critiquing III: The Antagonist and the Conflict

  1. Pingback: The Basics of Critiquing II: More on Protagonists and (Slippery) Goals

  2. Oh boy, am I glad you listened to Kirby, Zukoski and Drummond because I was busy passing notes 🙂

  3. Yes – and come to think of it, I was drawing hearts and running late as well…. hahaha! Thank goodness those days are behind me 🙂

  4. Would a dystopian novel be man vs society? Like Oryx and Crake or Year of the Flood? Or The Handmaids Tale?

  5. Oooh, those are good ones, Lauran! Yes, Margaret Atwood seems to love the man-vs.-society conflict, doesn’t she? Have you read Year of the Flood yet?

  6. Yes, the first of the year, right after re-reading Oryx and Crake. Loved them both. Actually I also love this genre (is it a genre)? I think T.C. Boyle writes some man vs society too – maybe Tortilla Flats and Drop City?

    I also love the man vs. environment conflict – I’ve ready many good books in that area.

    I want to know, can a character being both a protaganist and another protaganist’s antangonist? I was trying to apply all this to a book I just finished – Her Fearful Symmetry – where there are multiple protaganists.

    I think you should teach a class……

  7. Hi, Lauran – I think people do think of dystopian novels as a sort of subgenre (to literary). Some people put Margaret Atwood in “sci-fi,” but I’ve heard her (and her fans) argue that. I think dystopian actually describes her books much better, or “man vs. society” literary novels.

    As far as “Her Fearful Symmetry” — that’s another one I want to read! (Since I liked Niffenegger’s “Time Traveler’s Wife” so much — heard this one was just as clever.) Anyway, haven’t read it yet, but I’m guessing there’s still one main protagonist. (Although the word “symmetry” in the title does suggest that maybe there’s a strangely simultaneous plot going on?) But there’s almost always a “main” one. Who is the character who is mentioned mostly in the book (or who the book is about)? That would be your protag. Anyone else is probably playing a different role. (There are “foils,” etc.) I’ll see if I can find all that info on all the different roles. … It’s kind of fun to try to identify everyone!

  8. Pingback: The Year in Posts: 2010 Roundup

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