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  • Writer's pictureA.J. Super

All the Bad: Antagonists & Obstacles

It never fails. On hashtag games, during pitching contests, there's always this question: Who is your antagonist? And I'm always incredibly disappointed in many of the answers.

Lots of people answer with "Well, my protagonist's fear is..." or "The memories of X are..." And there's nothing wrong with those CONFLICTS, but...

Those aren't an ANTAGONIST. An antagonist can't be a concept. Character or characters, yes. But thoughts, memories, being haunted, those are things to overcome, those are OBSTACLES, sometimes even THEMES. An antagonist is a CHARACTER. Big difference. And while an antagonist can be an obstacle to overcome, they're still a person. That's why the question is "Who is your antagonist?" not "What is your antagonist?"

Now. Wouldn't the antagonist be the protagonist in those cases? To be honest, I've not always been a fan of the my protagonist is my antagonist line. I'm sure there are books without an antagonist. As long as there is CONFLICT and OBSTACLES to overcome, I don't necessarily think it's mandatory to have a protag/antag relationship. And I think so many people believe that's a hard and fast rule that they confuse an OBSTACLE with a CHARACTER. You can even have a group of characters, like the male establishment in Handmaid's Tale (personified by the Commander) as antagonists that embody the obstacle of male power and Offred's struggle to maintain any amount of power of her own.

But, to be completely honest. I have yet to read a book that I loved that didn't have an antagonist or antagonists. A character (or characters) that embodies the obstacles, conflicts, and themes of the story, a person or persons that the protagonist has to "physically" fight against in a metaphorical battle against what he/she is fighting against in him/herself. For instance, Bonzo in Ender's Game is an antagonist that embodies Ender's own darkness.

When I had this conversation with my CP, Glen, he threw out an interesting protagonist as antagonist example. Fight Club. But if you look carefully, the narrator's split personality is made real. Made into a separate and equal character. It's not like he is "haunted" by a "thought." He is actually haunted by a fleshed out character. And with the events happening in real time and space, but the relationship actually in his head, it definitely twists the idea of protag and antag being the same person. But at the same time, Tyler Durden and the narrator really are separate characters from a characterization standpoint. It's not like Durden is this effluvium of ideas. He is a SOLID character. That's HOW the author gets away with protag/antag as the same person.

The narrator and Durden are disparate characters.

Antagonists just can't be a force outside or inside of the protagonist. An antagonist is a person. Obstacles to overcome (or not) can be antagonizing, cause conflict, but they aren't the same thing. However, antagonists CAN be obstacles. They can hinder a protagonist's progress, and, obviously, they cause conflict. Just remember they aren't merely "villains." Flat characters that go around being jerks twirling their mustaches. Antagonists are CHARACTERS who make bad, destructive, "evil" choices based on the morality of your protagonist.

An obstacle, a force outside or inside of the protagonist that exerts conflict, is meant to be something that a protagonist TRIES to overcome. In some cases it can be, in some it can't be. These "existential" obstacles often present themselves as the THEMES of a story. Those bits that emanate from the corners of your world that can't be overcome but are constantly fought against, those are what tie a book together THEMATICALLY. But, while antagonistic because they poke and needle, these are still OBSTACLES that people fight against. Things that a protagonist pushes against. Fights against.

Even a concept can be an obstacle. Fighting against sexism. But think of the words. Fighting (action word) against (like pushing against something, an actual physical action) sexism (yes, conceptual, but the words before have just implied physical action so why wouldn't this concept be as hard and fast as an actual physical obstacle?).

Sexism and the power of men over women in Handmaid's Tale is very conceptual (and also physicalized and characterized). But as a THEME Offred is constantly fighting against it somehow while trying to survive. She fights an obstacle, no matter how nebulous it is. (Of course eventually taking steps to regaining her power by sleeping with the driver.) But the nebulous obstacle of sexism is also CHARACTERIZED by several male characters as well as the male dominated government.

The point, sexism itself isn't an ANTAGONIST, however the THEME is an OBSTACLE and there are CHARACTERS that embody the obstacle who can be considered antagonists to the point that Offred is fighting them for her own little bit of power in a world where women have none.

So who is your antagonist? What do they represent? What obstacles and conflicts do your progagonists face?


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