August 8, 2017

Antagonists: “He’s His Own Worst Enemy” — Guest: Kristen Lamb

Close of a man's eyes with text: Man vs. Self: Who's the Antagonist?

As I mentioned last time, the next couple of weeks will be difficult for me health-wise, as I go through extra medical treatments to attempt to salvage my rebuilt jawbone before my surgeon decides to rip out the last year of work due to instability. This week is especially being a pain, as I’m fighting a cold too.

(I know the antibiotics of my treatment don’t touch cold viruses, but it still feels wrong to have a cold while on beat-up-the-bad-bugs medication. Nothing like piling on… *sigh*)

To lighten my load, with her permission, I’m sharing some of Kristen Lamb’s insights on antagonists: what they are, why they help define our story, how to strengthen them, etc.

Last time, we explored with Kristen what antagonists are, and specifically what a story’s main antagonist is, what she calls the Big Boss Troublemaker (BBT). As she mentioned in that post, antagonists aren’t always a person or a villain.

Sometimes, we’ll say that a character is their own worst enemy, such as the “man versus self” story premise. However, as Kristen pointed out last time, those types of stories still use proxies of the BBT to provide a face for the opposition.

That can be a tricky aspect of antagonists and conflict to understand. So today, we’re going to dig deeper into this idea of man versus self to better understand the concept.

Please welcome Kristen Lamb once again! *smile*


Antagonist Proxies:
Characters Who Are Their Own Worst Enemy

As we discussed last week, the antagonist is the engine of our story. No antagonist, and no story.

The main antagonist, I like to call the Big Boss Troublemaker. Read last week’s post for more. The BBT Antagonist is who or what upsets the course of the protagonist’s life and sets the story in motion, dragging your protag over the main narrative points until he is tenderized enough to stand on his own two feet and fight the Big Boss Battle at the end.

Ah, but some of you are going to try to cheat.

“But my protagonist and antagonist are the same. He is his own worst enemy…”

Yeah, sorry. That is a character arc, not an antagonist.

Characters with an arc start a story as their own worst enemy. Click To TweetVirtually any protagonist who displays a character arc is his or her own worst enemy in the beginning of our story.

The Inciting Incident is whatever action an antagonist takes that sets the story in motion. It is through this journey of escalating conflict that our little protag will hopefully—with the help of mentors, allies and lots of soul-testing conflict—pull his head out of his a$$ and stop being a moron long enough to triumph at the end.

Inciting Incident Example: Star Trek Reboot

In the beginning of the first rebooted Star Trek movie, Captain James T. Kirk is a power-drinking adrenaline junkie who gets in fights and is wasting his brilliant mind and talents. Without the Inciting Incident—the fight at the bar with members of Star Fleet Academy—he would have continued drinking and racing around on his crotch rocket until he was just an old guy with male pattern baldness driving around with his growing beer gut stuffed in crotch rocket leathers.

Not pretty.

Who is the antagonist? Well, the BBT is Nero. But in the scene after the bar fight, the antagonist is actually Captain Christopher Pike who throws down the gauntlet that will forever change Kirk’s life.

Pike challenges Kirk to actually make something of himself and to use his God-given talents for something better. Come to Star Fleet Academy.

How is Pike the antagonist? Because his wants are in direct conflict with Kirk. Check out Bob Mayer’s Conflict Lock.

  • Kirk wants to power drink and feel sorry for himself and jet down a road to self-destruction on his shiny bike.
  • Pike wants Kirk to sober up and channel his destructive behavior into something productive—like living up to his father’s legacy.

Captain Pike is the character that induces change…ergo, the antagonist.

Without this change, Kirk cannot face off against Nero at the end.

Man Vs. Self: What’s Driving the Change?

Back to “Oh, but my character is her own worst enemy.” Okay, we know that. That’s called arc. But unless your character is a loser at the end of the book, too, there is an antagonist driving that change.

Antagonists force characters to change into non-losers by the end of the book. Click To TweetIn the beginning of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, the Hobbits are their own worst enemy. Merry and Pippin are like trying to take Gilligan on a covert Special Forces operation.

Half the tension of the first movie comes from Merry and Pippin nearly getting everyone slaughtered. They steal from the farmer, and while running, send the whole crew tumbling down the hillside practically into the path of the Dark Rider. Then at the Prancing Pony, they all but hang a bull’s-eye on Frodo.

When they escape intact from the trauma at the inn, these two idiots get the “bright” idea to light a fire to make a late night snack, basically sending off a beacon to the bad guys. Samwise is right there enjoying the campfire with them. And, yes, bad guys do show up and are really grateful for the fire to lead them directly to their target. Frodo is nearly killed when he is stabbed in the shoulder with an enchanted blade.

Merry and Pippin, in effect are not only allies, but they’re antagonists too because it is their antics that stand in direct opposition to Frodo and Samwise achieving their goals (stay hidden from Sauron and make it safely to Rivendell). It is also their shenanigans that will eventually harden Frodo and Samwise.

Naïveté is a luxury Fordo and Samwise can no longer afford in this threatened world. They cannot be innocent and naïve little Hobbits if they hope to make it to Mount Doom. If they are going to sneak past the Black Gate, they cannot be the type of heroes who light a fire to have a snack.

We see their character progression in the final scene of the movie (which always makes me cry, btw). The four Hobbits—Frodo, Samwise, Merry and Pippin—are sitting in the tavern having a beer. In the background, the happy, childlike Hobbits dance and sing, unaware of the darkness that nearly won. Merry, Pippin, Samwise and Frodo now are battle-weary war veterans, and it is clear from the grief etched forever in their features, that they sacrificed their innocence so the other Hobbits could keep theirs.

Tolkein layers antagonists brilliantly. Let’s revisit the action I mentioned a minute ago. Right after the turning point into Act II:

  • Frodo and Samwise want to make it to the Prancing Pony to meet Gandalf.
  • Merry and Pippin want to escape from an angry farmer.

Result: These two goals are in conflict. Frodo and Samwise end up rolling down a hill with Merry and Pippin nearly into the path of the BBT (Sauron’s) proxy…the Black Rider.

Man Vs. Self: Literary Fiction Example

One of my favorite movies of all time is that Academy Award-winning drama Gran Torino with Clint Eastwood. Clint plays Walt Kowalski, a Polish-American factory worker and Korean War veteran who is recently widowed.

Walt is not a nice person. He is angry, mean, bigoted, and holds everyone at an emotional distance. We find out over the course of the movie that this is, in large part, due to the guilt he feels for the things he had to do in Korea.

Walt is forced to ally with someone he hates in order to take out a gang that is terrorizing the neighborhood. This battle will force Walt to face the darkest aspects of his character.

By Walt allying with Thao (Toad), his emotional walls must be broken down in order for Walt to take out the entire gang at the end of the movie. The sacrifice Walt makes at the end would not have happened had Walt not changed from the mean-spirited, self-centered racist he was at the beginning of the movie.

How do we know Walt has triumphed against himself? His selfless action at the end. The people he despised at the beginning are now his only family, and he freely gives up everything to save them.

The gang, however is the BBT. Had they not started picking on Walt’s Korean neighbor, Thao, it is likely Walt would have died an angry bitter man with lung cancer and not a friend or a loved one in the world.

Our protagonist may be his own worst enemy, but even in literary pieces there will be an outside force that drives change (BBT), and there will be a final event to demonstrate this change is complete.

Man Vs. Self: Antagonists Drive Change

Your character might be an alcoholic on a road to redemption, but there is an outside story that drives that change, and a BBT who started it all.

I know that makes your mind cramp, but if your protag is a self-destructive alcoholic, his Big Boss Troublemaker is whoever takes away his booze.

Not only will you have a BBT, but likely there will be a series of antagonists to keep the momentum going and force the change. If your protag wants to drink, then the person who throws a bucket of ice water on him and drags his sorry tail to AA is your antagonist…because their goals conflict.

There will also be a scene at the end to cue us the change is complete. I.e., Alcoholic father walks his daughter down the aisle at her wedding (a wedding he was banned from attending in the beginning by the BBT ex-wife).

A character analyzing his emotions and indulging in lots of flashbacks is therapy…not fiction. Great fiction has forward action and is comprised of a series of events that force the protagonist to change so he can triumph at the end.


Kristen LambKristen Lamb is the author of the definitive guide to social media and branding for authors, Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World. She’s also the author of #1 best-selling books We Are Not Alone—The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer.

Kristen has written over twelve hundred blogs and her site was recognized by Writer’s Digest Magazine as one of the Top 101 Websites for Writers. Her branding methods are responsible for selling millions of books and used by authors of every level, from emerging writers to mega authors.

Website | Facebook | Twitter


Beyond Planet XKristen is also the founder of the WANA (We Are Not Alone) movement, the owner and operator of WANA International, a company dedicated to educating authors of the Digital Age. She’s also the creator of WANATribe, the social network for creatives.

WANA International is currently offering several writing-related classes, including one taught by Kristen: Beyond Planet X, Monsters & Chainsaws: Mastering Speculative Fiction

Find all current WANA International classes here!


Thank you, Kristen! And once again, I can’t express my gratitude enough for your help during these next few weeks!

I love how clearly you lay out these different faces of antagonism. It’s easy to focus on the villain-style of antagonists because they’re obvious, but the opposition that drives our story encompasses many different styles of conflict.

All that opposition adds up to change our protagonist into whoever they are by the end of the story. Conflict is good! Antagonists in all their shapes and forms force our characters to grow and create our story. *smile*

Does it make sense how any character with an arc starts the story as their own worst enemy? Are any of your stories a man vs. self premise? Have you figured out why the story is starting now (what forces them to confront their “self” issues)? Have you identified antagonists to act as the drivers of the character’s change?

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Excellent points. Even the protag’s friends can be antagonists who get the story going.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Yep, I have a protagonist versus his self, and an outcome which retains his identity while overcoming the hobbles.
Harder to do in a running crime series, especially when the protagonist has managed to reach a sensible age (for her) without developing any of those major character flaws like drug abuse, wanting to murder an errant lover, etc. At this point in a series, some writers just can’t make the story spark any more, so maybe they introduce a younger version of the same character – Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee being a good example from Tony Hillerman’s crime books. Junior is then free to cover all the same ground anew and make his own mistakes.
I agree that in The Fellowship of the Ring, we see the young hobbits as the naïve aspects of Frodo’s identity; while we also see in Boromir’s growing fascination with the Ring, a clear warning to Frodo not to take this road.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Wishing you well healthwise, Jami.


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[…] is their own worst enemy, such as the “man versus self” story premise, and then use proxies of the BBT to provide a face for the opposition. Kristen also gave us an in-depth example of how […]

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