You now have a picture of your protagonist. You’ve given him a SMART goal. Now, it’s time to think about your chief antagonist. What is an antagonist? It’s the person who is against your protagonist achieving his goal. He is your story’s primary source of conflict. Often, it’s a good-guy vs. bad-guy story.
However, there can be a group of antagonists. Think of it as a football game. The antagonist/defense is doing all it can to keep the offense from scoring. This is obviously not a perfect analogy. Yes, there are eleven characters on defense against the offense but marvellous stories don’t have that many protagonists.
In the first paragraph, I provided a simple and true definition of what an antagonist is. He is a person. These novels are my favorite. The antagonist is a person, a real, living-breathing human being. But, there is much more to consider.
Generally , there are four types of antagonists: villains, quasi good-guys, nature, and the protagonist himself.
Villains are the true bad-guys. They are evil and will do anything to stop the protagonist from achieving his goal. There are many types of villains, which I’ll ignore for now. You’ve probably heard of the following villains: Hannibal Lecter; Norman Bates; Darth Vader; and The Wicked Witch of the West.
Quasi good-guys can be antagonists. They aren’t evil in and of themselves. Often, they simply have goals that conflict with that of the protagonist. Think of Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. He and Elizabeth Bennet are in constant disagreement.
A force such as nature can be an antagonist. Here’s two stories where the sea is the antagonist: The Old Man and the Sea (by Ernest Hemingway), and Robinson Crusoe (by Daniel Defoe). Here’s other stories with nature as the antagonist: Walden, by Henry David Thoreau; Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, and Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer.
Some of the most meaningful stories are those where the antagonist is the protagonist himself. The story’s conflict comes from within. The source could be any number of things such as a past mistake, a fear, a weakness, an obsession, an addiction, or a needed, but absent, skill. Any one of these things can prevent a protagonist from reaching his goal.
Absent from my list is the story without an official antagonist. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut is an example. However, this doesn’t mean there is no conflict. There are always obstacles standing in the way of a protagonist reaching his goal. If not, there’s no story. Who wants to read about Ted who decides he wants to climb Mt. Everest and, after a quick cup of coffee, finds himself standing on the world’s tallest mountain?
Start thinking about your story’s antagonist. Put words to paper. A ten or fifteen minute free-writing session can get your juices flowing. Ask yourself some questions: what is my protagonist’s story goal? Who/what is most likely to get in his way of achieving this goal? Why?