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Antagonist - Unquestionably the Novel's Most Important Character?

Antagonists are quite often the most memorable characters in literature, regardless of genre.

Without them many of the best selling novels of all time would simply cease to exist, their supporting beams cut away, the shell of remaining "story" quietly imploding to ignominy and self-publication. Consider the impact on a scene, any scene, as soon as the author moves the chess piece of antagonist onto the page. The mere presence of a Javert from "Les Misérables," Assef from "The Kite Runner," or Nurse Ratched from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," immediately energizes the environment. The narrative and dialogue literally crackle and groan with antagonist.

What chances do you as a writer have of getting your novel manuscript commercially published, 
regardless of genre, if the story and narrative fail to meet reader demands for sufficient suspense, character concern, and conflict? Answer: none. But what major factor accounts for this debilitating condition? What precisely makes for a quiet and dull manuscript brimming with insipid characters and a story that cascades from chapter to chapter with tens of thousands of words, all combining irresistibly to produce an audible thudding sound in the mind? 

Such a dearth of Élan vital in narrative and story, more often than not, results from the unwillingness of the writer to create a suitable antagonist who stirs and spices the plot hash. And let's make it clear what we're talking about. By "antagonist" we specifically refer to an actual fictional character, an embodiment of certain traits and motivations, and one who plays a significant role in catalyzing and driving the plot, or at bare minimum, in assisting to evolve the protagonist's character arc - and by default the story itself - by igniting complication(s) that the protagonist, and perhaps other characters, must face and attempt to resolve.

Writers new to the fiction game often shy away from creating an effective antagonist. If you are an editor, you see this time and time again. But why? Is it because they can't accept that a certain percentage of cruel and selfish humans are a reality of life? Is it because they live in an American bubble surrounded only by circumstances that reinforce their Rockwellian naivety? Do they not watch Sixty Minutes or even a shred of film footage portraying the latest repressions of the downtrodden by tyrannical government? Or is it because they don't understand the requirements of good dramatic fiction (no good guy without a bad guy, folks)? Or some combo thereof? Whatever. Though you would think after watching hundreds of films (even comedies), and reading God knows how many novels, they might catch on. And this doesn't mean they have to reinvent the black hat cowboy. We're talking about prime movers of social conflict and supreme irritation that come in wide variety of forms, from relatively mild to pure evil.

Antagonists are often the most memorable characters in literature, without whom many of the best selling novels of all time would simply cease to exist
, their supporting beams cut away, the shell of remaining "story" quietly imploding to ignominy and self-publication. And what drives these antagonists? Whether revenge, zealotry, ruthless ambition, hubris or just plain jealousy, the overall effect on the narrative and plot in general is identical, i.e., a dramatic condition of complication (related to plot) and concern (related to character) infuses the story.

True drama demands they exist. Imagine ANTIGONE without the dictator to stir her into plot. And consider the impact on a scene, any scene, as soon as the author moves the particular chess piece of an antagonist onto the page. The mere presence of a Javert from Les Misérables, Assef from The Kite Runner, or even Marilla from Anne of Green Gables, immediately energizes the environment. The narrative and dialogue literally crackle and groan with antagonist.

Below we see five antagonists from very different novels--all multimillion sellers (and successful films)--also noting their vital roles in the development of the story. Consider them ranked from sufficiently annoying to genuine super bastard.

First, but not worst, we have Marilla Cuthbert from ANNE OF GREEN GABLES. Author Lucy Maud Montgomery intended for Marilla to be a source of tension and obstacle for Anne, not a plot-swinging major like the four mentioned below. You might call her, an "antagonistic force" or temporary antagonist, remaining an irritant long enough to provide verve to the story and suitable growth arc to the protagonist.

Marilla begins as a woman with the personality of a falling guillotine. Only a barely perceptible sense of humor shows itself. Marilla’s state of being clashes markedly with Anne’s romanticism and imagination. She scolds and criticizes Anne, and like Javert of Les Misérables, is equally harsh on herself. Even when she finds herself agreeing with Anne's brazen thoughts, she rebukes herself, and whenever she feels a fleeting rush of affection, she quickly suffocates it. Later, she changes, but she played her role long enough to help keep the reader on the page while at the same time provoking the evolution of Anne's character.

And what decent discussion of antagonists in literature fails to comment on the role of Tom Buchanan in THE GREAT GATSBY? Tom falls fourth on the intensity list. He doesn't qualify as a dangerous zealot or a vengeful junkyard-zilla, but without Tom's endearing personality, Fitzgerald's novel of love and loss falls to pieces.

Playing in a love triangle that includes his wife, Daisy, and Jay Gatsby, the wealthy Buchanan displays himself time and time again as an arrogant and bullying schmuck, enough that by the time Fitzgerald needs us to cheer for Jay, and desire freedom for Daisy, we are more than ready to do so. In comparison to Buchanan, Jay Gatsby, despite his faults, appears like a Lancelot, while Daisy, despite her shallowness, becomes the distressed damsel. If Buchanan did not exist, or if Fitzgerald had depicted him as a decent fellow, the faults of Jay and Daisy would have burned in high relief, and as readers, our sympathy for them would be zero. Fitzgerald's only chance would have been to render them both irrevocably detestable, as Emile Zola did for his murderous couple in THERESE RAQUIN--so much so that as a reader you turn the page in hopes they will both soon be wearing prison orange (or whatever color of rag they wore in those days).

Next comes the infamous Javert of LES MISERABLES by Victor Hugo. Unlike the first two antagonists, Javert's primary flaw might be defined as dogged zealotry, and at times, he behaves as hard on himself as on others. After the character Valjean, a victim of mistaken identity, appears in court and loses both his business and his position in Montreuil-sur-mer, he escapes long enough to hide his fortune. He spends more time in prison, working aboard a ship. Eventually he escapes again and retrieves the character Cosette from the evil Thenardiers. Then begins a decade of hiding, moving from place to place, always staying just ahead of the implacable Javert. Will Valjean save the farm and live to tell the story? Are we not concerned enough for brave Valjean that we want to know?

Regardless, no Javert equals far less misery, and what else? ... No story.

A close second to Assef below, for reasons of sheer despicableness, is good ole boy Bobby Ewell of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee. Shunned by the entire town, and terribly embittered, Ewell’s raison d'etre consists of being antagonistic towards every living thing. As Atticus Finch does his best to defend Tom, the rancor and hatefulness exhibited by Ewell at the trial manipulates the emotions and fears of those present, raising the heat on Tom to lynch mob intensity. Ewell is determined to see Tom hang, and following the trial, Mr. 666 stokes up his inner dragon for yet another bellow. He seeks revenge on those who desired a fair trial for Tom, and doing harm to Scout and Jem seems like a great way to destroy Atticus.

Without Bob Ewell, would you have ever heard of Harper Lee?

Rising like a bad moon to the bottom of the list is the human monster known as Assef, antagonist from THE KITE RUNNER by Khaled Hosseini, a novel that has sold millions of copies in dozens of languages. A vicious and bigoted childhood acquaintance of the likable characters, Amir and Hassan, he torments them whenever the mood strikes, but devolves to subhuman status upon attacking and raping Hassan. And at such time the Taliban gain control of Afghanistan, he gravitates to their culture, thus placing himself in a position to indefinitely torture others he considers inferior. As a brutal cherry on the sociopath milkshake, Assef turns the character Sohrab into his sex toy, and Amir must defeat Assef to bring Sohrab home.

Assef certainly doesn't possess the globe-spanning ambitions of Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter, but what if you handed this megalodon a magic wand? Power equals opportunity equals "enthusiasms" as Al Capone might say.

Bottom line here: writers of manuscript-length fiction must create and deploy a suitable antagonist, allowing them catalyze the plot line and throw obstacles in the way of the protagonist and other characters, or at least become an "antagonistic force" of some type, like Marilla Cuthbert, a source of tension and character development. Or perhaps, you need maximum verve in the novel and wish to create characters who assume the roles of both a Marilla and a Bob. Whatever you do though, plan to make them an integral part of the story, or rather, allow them room they need to define the story.


  1. Haisam Elkewidy6:07 PM

    Not sure if my last comment here was approved or not, but I was wondering. Is there a reason why an antagonist has to be a person only, as you describe? Can it be a natural force, or a current situation, which more or less embodies human qualities as described in this article?

  2. Mostly because as human beings we place human antagonists in a context we identify with, as opposed to space aliens, or oceans. However, we've all been entertained by dangerous monsters in science fiction who are sufficiently threatening, but that depends on a certain setting and genre predisposition on the part of the audience. Better idea to emulate the best creators of dramatic character from Shakespeare to J.K. Rowling and beyond.

  3. In reality, people tend to have a little bit of good and bad in their personalities. I think this complexity in literature draws readers in. How effective is it to have a black and white notion of the protagonist vs. antagonist? And often, there may be more than one antagonist, or even protagonist in a story.

    1. Yes, and the degree and nature of this dichotomy quite often depends on the genre. And yes, there could be more than one. Look at a story like HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG. They were basically good, but each other's antagonist. Very clever by Dubus.

  4. Anonymous2:06 PM

    What if the antagonist is more of an institution? Not a person but an organization controlling the characters with rules and expectations the characters need to define and rebel against?

    1. Having such a thing adds rich complexity to the novel, but as I note above, "... as human beings we place human antagonists in a context we identify with." so it would be best for human readers to see a human who epitomizes the antagonism inherent in the institution. The walls cannot talk, the human antagonist can.

  5. Catherine11:35 AM

    Can 'society' and its component biases be considered antagonists?

  6. Catherine11:37 AM

    Can 'society' and its pressures/bigotry be considered an antagonist or must there be a a character that embodies them?

    1. Please see my reply above. A novel with a setting such as you describe would be of necessity brimming with potential character antagonists.

  7. Can the antagonist be the protagonist as well, the inner conflict?

  8. The protagonist needs inner conflict to evolve, antagonist-generated or no. The antagonist and protagonist only gain status by being opposed to each other as separate entities, plus the reader and publisher expect such a state of being. Besides, a great antagonist makes your work more readable and marketable.

  9. Anonymous8:52 PM

    In the case of a memoir - can the antagonist be the side of the self that is dark, cruel, and angry? the one that seeks to destroy what is good, that does not see light, or humor, or love? That induces guilt and shame, rather than gratitude and clarity? Can a memoir exist as a struggle between good and bad within oneself, protagonist vs antagonist? Or... can the antagonist be all that is outside of the self, at a more abstract level, the bully at school, the schmuk at work, the evil neighbor or PTA mom, and so on...


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