March 1, 2016

Story Conflict: Villains vs. Antagonists

Man sitting in a dark room with text: Does Every Story Need a Villain?

Conflict is one of those words that can be hard for new writers to understand. We all think we know what it means, but the writing-world meaning doesn’t quite have the same connotation as the non-writing meaning.

Outside of the writing world, the word conflict often evokes images of fist fights or screaming matches. So new writers—when they hear the advice to include conflict on every page—might imagine that they need to include lots of arguments in their scenes.

However, in the writing world, the word conflict can be used more generally. It’s only after understanding how broadly we can view conflict that we’ll be able to understand the difference between antagonists and villains in storytelling. Let’s take a closer look…

What Is Conflict in the Writing World?

Among writers—and therefore within writing advice—conflict can refer to any situation where:

  • characters have conflicting goals or
  • there’s a gap between what a character wants and what they currently have.

In other words, conflict is everywhere.

In real life, we see this style of conflict constantly…

  • We want to go to one restaurant, and the rest of our family wants to go to another.
  • We’ve asked for a raise, and our boss won’t give us one.
  • We need to get to the store, but our car broke down.
  • We want to cut back on desserts, but our taste buds really, really want that brownie. *smile*

What Is an Antagonist?

An antagonist is any thing that has different goals from our protagonist or widens the gap between “want” and “have.” Notice the word thing

An antagonist doesn't have to be a person or character. Click To TweetAn antagonist doesn’t have to be a person or character. In the examples above, the antagonists are “our family,” “our boss,” “our car,” and “our taste buds.”

Under that definition, we can see how most novels would have several antagonists. Depending on a story’s length and complexity, a story would typically have anywhere from one to a dozen or more antagonists.

Other than in a slice-of-life-style story, even the shortest flash fiction would usually have at least one antagonist. Antagonists create the struggle and conflict that develop our protagonist and add tension to our story.

Types of Antagonists

  • Romantic Partner:
    In a romance, the hero and heroine (or whatever combination participates in the relationship) are almost always antagonists to each other. Many romances involve a power struggle, as they each need something from the other, or one partner evokes interest and attraction that the other doesn’t want to admit to, etc.
  • Sidekicks and Mentors:
    These antagonists act like they’re on the side of our protagonist, but their goals don’t quite match up. They try to convince the protagonist to take an action different from the current plan, or they push the protagonist along the story path faster than would naturally occur.
  • Secondary Characters:
    Whether the boss, the best friend, the mother, or the neighbor—any character that’s more than a spear-carrier should have a personality, which often comes down to their attitude due to their goals. Like real life, no one’s goals will exactly match another’s goals, so the potential for conflict exists.
  • Weather, Nature, or Circumstances:
    A protagonist might struggle against a blizzard, a wild animal, or a traffic jam making them late for work. As antagonists, these situations don’t have their own “goals,” but they still work again what the protagonist wants by widening the gap between the protagonist’s Point A and where they want to be.
  • Ticking Clock:
    A protagonist might need to accomplish a goal by a certain time. That deadline then becomes an antagonist in our story because it makes our protagonist’s goal harder to reach by limiting the time they’re allowed to try, try, and try again.
  • Identity vs. Essence:
    The mask a character wears prevents them from reaching what they (often subconsciously) long for. Our protagonist is “safe” but living in fear, and that fear holds them back from reaching their full potential. The antagonist here is their fear or false belief that drives their internal conflict.
  • Man vs. Self:
    Our protagonists might also struggle against themselves in an external way, such as dealing with an addiction. The antagonist would be their addiction to alcohol, drugs, or other self-defeating behaviors that increase the difficulty in reaching their goal (such as becoming a healthier person).
  • Minion:
    Minions are minor “bad guys.” They’re like Secondary Characters, except they’re more purposely working against the protagonist, often in the service of the Big Bad Guy villain.
  • Villain:
    Villains are the Big Bad Guy. Depending on the genre, these antagonists might be a co-worker sabotaging our protagonist’s job, a terrorist threatening to blow up a city, or aliens invading from space. While other antagonists might work at cross-purposes to our protagonist, villains are often a more direct threat by being purposeful in their pursuit of a harmful goal.

Villains Are Just One Type of Antagonist

Given that list, it should be obvious that while every story will have antagonists, not every story will have a villain. Depending on our genre and story, we might not need a villain at all.

While every story will have antagonists, not every story will have a villain. Click To TweetThat’s okay. As long as our antagonists are worthy of our protagonist—as far as creating strong conflict, goals, motivations, etc.—our protagonist will seem more heroic as a result.

The point of antagonists is like the point of most stories’ plots. Plot reveals our character, and similarly, antagonists give the protagonist a chance to show what they’re made of.

Our protagonist’s inner strength and character is revealed by how they react to the struggle, how they rally or give up, how they fail and try again. It’s those characteristics (or lack thereof) that demonstrate whether our protagonist deserves to be called a hero. *smile*

Have you ever wondered about the definitions of conflict, antagonist, or villain in storytelling? Do these explanations make sense or do you need more information? Can you think of any other types of antagonists? Are you usually able to develop a list of 8-12 antagonists in a novel-length story? Or do you struggle with identifying your story’s antagonists?

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Comments — What do you think?

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The short questionnaire I use for myself (to identify my plot core for short stories) is focused on the protagonist/antagonist thing. “What does X want? What does Y want? How do those goals conflict?” is about half of the questionnaire. 🙂 Sometimes that conflict is direct, but sometimes it isn’t.

One planned novella series looks as if it’s gonna even have some stories where the antagonist of one is the protagonist of another. Some of the antagonists in the series are villains; some are minions. Some are just other characters who pretty much have to oppose the protag, for whatever reason (philosophy, job, etc). That’s gonna be fun. 🙂


Excellent points about the need for conflict in a story, and how it can be achieved in many ways. That’s what makes writing endlessly fascinating and challenging.

Of course, the fun really begins when one conflict magnifies another. Look at Jack London’s To Build a Fire. Nature is a deadly antagonist, but only because of the protag’s ignorance of his situation, which we can think of as a conflict between what dangers the protag faces and what he THINKS he faces. And then comes the bigger point that few of us really comprehend mankind’s tenuous situation in the universe, which is what ultimately leads to the protag’s death.

Roy Evans
Roy Evans

Thanks.It’s been of great help.Am writing and I didn’t know how to go about developing confict.

Helena Pulacu
Helena Pulacu

I like these little reminders:

A Sidecick or a Mentor can also act as Antagonists at some point of the story.

Hi Jami, your post interesting as usually. 🙂

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Oh I love internal conflict the best, when a character holds conflicting beliefs, values, goals, or desires. Moral dilemma situations are super fun too. So the character wants to do the right thing, but they see that both possible courses of action are wrong in some way, so that’s frustrating for them. Kind of a what they want-what they have gap.

Lol I realize more and more that though I’m writing a romantic comedy, it’s highly untraditional in that though the romance is important, it’s not as important as you would expect in a romance novel, lol. There’s a lot of focus on the action-adventure, beating the villains and minions plotlines, and also lots on platonic character relationships (friendships, parent-child bonds, etc.). So the romance can be a bit pushed to the background…lol. So I think my romance couples are less antagonists to each other than in most romances, hahaha. Though they can still cause difficulties and frustrations for each other due to different goals, beliefs, value systems, etc. Like the heroine being annoyed that the hero is so cold and antisocial towards most strangers, lol.

Kim McDougall

I’ve been reading a lot about structure and plotting. Everyone says cut any scene that has no conflict. This can be confusing to a new author who doesn’t understand the scope of conflict. Conflict can even happen inside a character’s head. Thanks for a really clear definition here. Very helpful.


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