A Guest Post by K.M. Weiland (@KMWeiland), author of “Structuring Your Novel”
How many times have you heard that conflict is story?
This truism powers all of fiction for the simple reason that conflict creates plot. Your protagonist wants something. Someone prevents him from immediately gaining that thing. Conflict ensues, and a story is born.
On the surface, conflict is a ridiculously easy concept. Have one character punch another. Or yell at him. Or even just give him the silent treatment. Easy-peasy, right? And to some extent, that’s true. As long as you have an antagonistic force that is preventing your protagonist from getting his grubby little mitts on his overall story goal (and the individual scene goals in between—both of which I discuss in way more detail in my book Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys to Writing an Outstanding Story), then you have enough conflict to drive your plot.
But if you want to take your story to the next level, then you’re going to want to not just generate a simple round of one-on-one conflict. You’re going to want to take it to the next level. You’re going to want to layer the conflict among multiple characters.
Selecting your story’s antagonists
How do you know which characters should be your story’s antagonists? To begin with, let’s just stop and clarify that an antagonist is not necessarily a bad guy. An antagonist is anyone (or thing) preventing your character from getting what he wants. A scene’s antagonist could be the nice little old lady your protagonist has to take time to help across the street before he can go catch the escaping bank robbers. The story’s overall antagonist could be the character’s mother, who wants him to go to college instead of hiking around the world.
So when we start talking about people who are opposing your protagonist and creating conflict, we’re not necessarily talking about super-villains with squirrely henchmen. What we’re talking about is a person who has a legitimate reason to oppose your protagonist’s wishes—and who has the muscle to be a formidable threat. It isn’t enough for a character to disagree with your protagonist; he has to have the ability to block your protagonist’s best moves.
Once you’ve got your main antagonist in the bag, you’re then going to want to identify at least two minor opponents. These folks probably won’t have quite as much muscle as the main antagonist, but they will also oppose your protagonist on some level. And they’re going to be just as tenacious and annoying in holding him back from getting what he wants. For example, if your main antagonist is a mafia don, then your minor antagonists might be your protagonist’s family members or co-workers. They may not even have a direct connection to your protagonist at all, but rather just a vested interest in preventing his goal of bringing the don to justice.
Creating contrast and pertinence in each instance of conflict
Now that you’ve identified a handful of important antagonists, your next step will be answering the following questions:
- How will these characters stand between your protagonist and what he wants?
This is always the most important question to ask yourself about any potential opponent. If a character isn’t standing in your protagonist’s way, then he’s not an antagonist.
- How will these characters attack your protagonist’s weakness in different ways?
Each of these antagonists needs to oppose your protagonist in a different way. In short, Henchman #1 and Henchman #2, who are only in the story to carry out the bidding of the Evil Mastermind, do not qualify as antagonists in their own right. You’re looking for characters who are going to attack your protagonist from different directions. His fight with the main antagonist will be head-on; the minor antagonists will come at him from the sides.
- How do the opponents’ motives and values differ from your protagonist’s—and from each other’s?
Here’s where the whole exercise suddenly gets deep. Your protagonist’s values—and how they evolve over the course of the story—are what create the framework for your story’s theme. If your protagonist is going after that mafia don out of vengeance, but learns to appreciate justice over the course of the story, your theme will probably center around the moral ramifications of revenge.
But a character’s value system can’t exist in a vacuum. What he believes—and how he acts upon those beliefs—only matters insofar as his beliefs are opposed (and thereby tested) by the other characters’ value systems. In the plot, your antagonists’ chief purpose is to prevent your character from reaching his goal. But in the theme, your antagonists serve to challenge your protagonist’s motive for wanting that goal.
On the basic level of one-on-one conflict, you’ll be presenting a relatively black and white perspective of your theme. The protagonist has one idea, and the main antagonist has another. But when you deepen your conflicts, you have the opportunity to also deepen your theme by giving each antagonist a different motive and value system.
Layering your conflicts
Finally, once you’ve identified your story’s antagonists—and once you’ve figured out how and why they will each oppose your protagonist in a different way—you now get to have the fun of taking it one step further. Instead of merely presenting conflict between your protagonist and his antagonists, why not see if you can create a little organic conflict between each of the antagonists as well?
Script doctor John Truby calls this “four-corner opposition.”
In his words, this approach “allows you to create a story of potentially epic scope and yet keep its essential organic unity.” You’ll have created endless possibilities for conflict without endangering the thematic purity of your story’s focus.
K.M. Weiland is the author of the epic fantasy Dreamlander, the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her website Helping Writers Become Authors, her books Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration. She makes her home in western Nebraska.