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August 3, 2017

Antagonists: What Is an Antagonist? — Guest: Kristen Lamb

Little boy with a sneaky expression and text: What's Your Story's Troublemaker?

If you’ve been following my various health issues, you know that an antibiotic-resistant bone infection disintegrated part of my jaw last July, requiring emergency surgery. You might also know that over the past year, my surgeon and I have been trying All. The. Things. to beat this infection and rebuild the bone.

Well…the new bone “failed” the test this past week, and we’re not sure if it’s an issue of the infection still hanging around or if the bone’s just not as healed as the X-ray makes it look like it is. *sigh*

So I’m going to be spending most of this month overly medicated again, as I go through another round of antibiotics and add in mega-doses of bone-strengthening ingredients. If the bone still fails the next test in a few weeks, we’ll be ripping out all the work from the past year and starting over for a third time. *weeps*

That all means that I jumped at the offer from Kristen Lamb—all-around awesome person—to share some of my favorite posts of hers from over the years. Yay!

Years ago, her posts helped me understand antagonists and villains (and how they’re not the same). So with her permission, over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing her insights on antagonists: what they are, why they help define our story, how to strengthen them, etc.

Please welcome Kristen Lamb! *smile*

*****

The Engine of Fiction:
Meet the Antagonist

One of the major issues with first-time novels is that the young writer fails to understand what a novel really is. All great stories are about one thing and one thing only—problems.

More specifically? Every good story has one core problem in need of being resolved. Granted, there will be many other problems along the way, but they are the setbacks and are all related to solving the core problem.

The trouble is that many of us got our “author training” in school, which really is no training at all. That purple prose that scored us an A on our college short story won’t get us far in the world of commercial storytelling.

Additionally, pretty prose might be fine for keeping a five page or ten page short story interesting, but it falls apart under a body as weighty as a novel. The new writer often senses this, so will work in navel-gazing and inner demons and then random bits of stuff going wrong and, instead of a well-structured story where tension and drama flow organically? We end up with melodrama.

Our “novel” then devolves into Days of Our Lives where nothing is really happening. Conflict is manufactured instead of inherent. “Bad stuff” is happening because the writer needs it to, not because “bad stuff” was inevitable.

How do we fix this?

Antagonists Give Structure to Conflict

The antagonist is a highly confusing topic. Hell, it confused me for years which is why I came up with my own term, which we will discuss today. Remember we said every story must have a core story problem?

That core story problem is created by the antagonist.

Conflict is the core ingredient to fiction, even literary fiction. Conflict in any novel can have many faces and often you will hear this referred to as the antagonist.

Antagonists are the engine of our story, yet have many, many faces. Click To TweetThe antagonist is absolutely essential for fiction. He/she/it is the engine of your story. No engine, and no forward momentum.

Like cars, plots need momentum or they are dead. The antagonist provides the energy to move the story forward. Yet, the antagonist has many, many faces, and that is what trips up most new writers.

Think of your antagonist like ice cream—infinite colors, flavors, and complexities. The antagonist is not always evil. Yes, villains are always antagonists, but antagonists are not always villains.

Villains are only a flavor of antagonist, much like chocolate is only one flavor of ice cream. And, even in chocolate, there are still limitless varieties. Guess what? Same with villains. We’ll talk about them later.

BBT: The Main Antagonist behind the Core Story Problem

This series is to explore the many facets of the most important element in fiction. Today, we are going to begin with what I call the BBT–or Big Boss Troublemaker.

Why? Because the term antagonist confused the hell out of me for years, so I simplified things.

The Big Boss Troublemaker is whatever creates our story's core problem. Click To TweetNo BBT and you have no story. The BBT is not always bad or evil. The BBT simply creates the core story problem in need of being resolved. Your opposition is the most important ingredient for a great story readers will love.

The Big Boss Troublemaker is whoever or whatever causes the protagonist’s world to turn upside down. The BBT creates the core story problem. The BBT is also who or what must be present at the Big Boss Battle (Act Three).

The lead up to the show-down with the BBT is responsible for creating our story tension. Will the protagonist evolve and triumph, or will he fail?

What Are Some of the Faces the BBT Wears?

In commercial fiction, it is generally easier to spot the BBT:

  • No Sauron and no need for the Hobbits to leave the Shire.
  • No Darth Vader, no reason for Luke to leave Tatooine.
  • No Buffalo Bill, and Agent Starling is left doing paperwork.

This might seem simple enough, but time after time I get new manuscripts where there is no core story because there is no BBT. I get fantasy or science fiction manuscripts with a lot of fancy world-building and magic and bad stuff happening, but no core party responsible for a singular problem….so it all just fizzles.

Even in more literary works there is also a BBT, and that BBT must have a face despite all we heard about man versus man, man versus religion, man versus nature, man versus society, etc. in school.

When the BBT is not corporeal? This is when things get tricky. Humans don’t do so great with existentialism, which is why we then need the proxy.

Let’s explore these…

What’s the BBT with Man Against Society?

Whatever larger idea your protagonist is battling, that idea will need a manifestation. For instance, in The Hunger Games trilogy, “the system” is represented by Snow. The story is not over until Snow is defeated and his defeat marks the system’s defeat.

In The Help, the BBT is racism, but it is manifested in the white socialites who mistreat the maids (i.e., Hilly Holbrook). “Racism” is defeated when the socialites are defeated.

What’s the BBT with Man Against Nature?

Some new writers take this as man fighting bad weather, but really? Who wants to read about bad weather for 300 pages? Often these stories are not about the weather at all, but rather what the weather reveals in people.

For instance, In The Perfect Storm, was the storm really the BBT? Or was it merely the impetus that brought forth the real BBT…pride which was manifested in the captain, Billy Tyne?

The fishermen are suffering. They are on the verge of losing homes and marriages because of their dire economic situation. The captain decides to do one final fishing voyage even though it is the most dangerous time of the year. When the fishermen go out, they land the catch of a lifetime, but the refrigeration system breaks.

They are faced with a choice. Let the fish rot and then it was all for nothing. Or they can risk everything and take on the perfect storm (pride).

In my POV, the story is never man against nature, it is man against himself and nature is simply the catalyst.

What’s the BBT with Man Against Himself?

No one wants to read a book of nonstop navel gazing. Thus if your character’s worst enemy is himself/herself? You need a proxy.

The BBT will represent the particular aspect you are seeking to destroy and then the BBT will have a face.

For instance, in the movie 28 Days, the BBT is alcoholism, but it is represented in the proxy Jasper, the hard-partying boyfriend who fuels and normalizes Gwen’s addiction.

Gwen is her own worst enemy. She must defeat her own alcoholism. But this will be manifested when she can finally see herself as an addict and walk away from the life of addiction (where Jasper is its representative).

We could go on forever on this topic, but we won’t. Just pay attention to your favorite stories and see if you can pinpoint the BBT and then notice how it is always the protagonist-turned-hero who will face off with him/her/it at the end.

BBT Rules—Break These at Your Own Risk

Rule #1: BBT (or a proxy of the BBT) Must Be Introduced in Act I

No leading us on for 50 pages before we get an introduction. BBT is responsible for Inciting Incident.

Rule #2: In Romance, the Love Interest Cannot Be the BBT

Romance has rules and this is a big one. Now, in romance, the love interest will take on the role of antagonist in scenes, but they cannot be the BBT. Why?

Because the BBT must be defeated in the Big Boss Battle, and utter defeat isn’t exactly grounds for a lasting relationship. Romance is all about the HEA (happily ever after)

Feel free to break this rule, but I will warn you that when the BBT is the love interest, it is no longer a romance. It becomes Women’s Fiction. *wink*

Rule #3: BBT Must Be Defeated in Your Book

There has to be a Big Boss Battle in your story or the story problem is not fully resolved. A lot of new writers are “writing a series.” And, oh, but Such-and-Such dies in book 12 of my series. Nope. Sorry. Try again.

Unless we're writing a cliffhanger, our story resolves with a Big Boss Battle. Click To TweetThere are two types of series. One type is connected only because of the protagonist. Detective books for instance (i.e., Harry Bosch books). In these, it is pretty easy to see that the BBT must be defeated in each book.

The second type of series is connected through a singular story, but the thing is, each book will have a mini-BBT that marks the culmination of that part of the story. So I get it, your “Sauron” is not defeated in Book One, but that doesn’t absolve you of the Big Boss Battle for that book:

  • (Book I) BBT–>
  • (Book II) BIGGER BBT–>
  • (Book III) EVEN BIGGER BBT—>
  • (Book IV) HOLY MOLY! AN EVEN BIGGER BBT!!!!

In the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, each movie had it’s own BBT. In The Fellowship of the Ring, the movie wasn’t over until the showdown against the Uruk-Hai, who is actually a minion of Saruman (The Two Towers), who is a minion of the Big Guy himself…Sauron (defeated in The Return of the King).

Each movie has a Big Boss Battle against that movie’s BBT. If we panned back, each movie would make up one Act of a larger 3 Act whole.

Okay, well that’s enough for today. Need to stop before your brains all explode and then you have to clean up your keyboard. The antagonist is tough, and hopefully this series will break its complex nature down in to bite-size, manageable pieces.

*****

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 two taught by Kristen:

And find all current WANA International classes here!

*****

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

I often use the Big Boss Troublemaker label in my thoughts to focus on a story’s core problem. The term Troublemaker means quite literally that our story is about whatever is causing trouble for the protagonist, and Big Boss forces us to think about the main thing causing that trouble.

Some of my stories feature “villains” who don’t appear until near the end of the book. On the surface, that looks like I’m breaking Rule #1, but that “villain” is just a personification of the real trouble that’s evident throughout the story.

By understanding what the core problem of our story is, we’ll have a better grasp of what conflicts we should focus on and which conflicts might be distractions. When everything in our story exists for a purpose, our writing—and our storytelling—will be stronger. *smile*

Have you ever struggled to understand your story’s core problem? Do you know who or what your story’s BBT is? Does your story break any of Kristen’s rules? If so, why do you think it works? (Or do you worry that it doesn’t?)

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What do you think?

14 Comments on "Antagonists: What Is an Antagonist? — Guest: Kristen Lamb"

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Deborah Makarios

Hang in there, Jami! No prizes for guessing the BBT you’re up against at the moment, but remember we’re all cheering for you!

Gabriella L. Garlock

So sorry, Jami! Take care and feel better and get better.

Kristen, you’ve done it again! Thinking of my antagonist as a proxy makes it a lot easier for me to finally commit to making it a person. I always thought I’d lose my “spec fic” theme and allegory, etc. if I did that–so I’ve resisted. As a result, it’s been difficult to locate the central conflict whose resolution would end the book.

And just to save other college writers some time, YES! Kristen’s absolutely right, a career in academic publishing does NOT necessarily translate to instant understanding of how to write fiction novels. Get over it! To get past it. I’ve happily accepted it since the moment I committed to my first NaNo story: I’m down here in the learning trenches with the young folk and having a blast. And learning to work hard again, starting from scratch.

Glynis Jolly

We are all rooting for you, Jami

This post came just when I needed it. I am writing about a protagonist who is going to be doing battle with herself. In other words, she is, of sorts, also the antagonist. I was trying to figure out how I could end the story. Kristen has given me the answer.

Clare O\'Beara
Clare O\'Beara

I agree that an antagonist can be a proxy or personification of an issue.

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[…] time, we explored with Kristen what antagonists are, and specifically what a story’s main antagonist is, what she calls the Big Boss Troublemaker […]

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[…] week, we started by exploring what antagonists are, and specifically what a story’s main antagonist is, what she calls the Big Boss Troublemaker […]

Sieran
Sieran

This was really interesting! Especially that the BBT needs to have a face, even if it’s something as abstract as colonialism. Hmm, I’m not sure I quite agree with Rule #2 for romances, though! I have read a number of romances where the main antagonist was also the love interest, and the protagonist and antagonist got to be together happily ever after. They weren’t cheesy or forced romances either. They felt realistic and inevitable. These romances also count as enemies-to-lovers, which is one of my favorite story tropes ever. The latest romance I’ve read that was like this, was a retelling and sequel to Peter Pan. Peter is the protagonist and Captain Hook was the main antagonist. Peter and Captain Hook fall in love and live happily ever after. Maybe it sounds super weird and contrived how I described it; but the book told this romance in a way that was convincing, sweet, and touching. 🙂 I’m not saying that everyone will like this type of romance, though, but I adore this type of story. 🙂 It’s right up my alley!

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[…] weeks ago, we started by exploring what antagonists are, and specifically what a story’s main antagonist is, what she calls the Big Boss Troublemaker […]

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[…] weeks ago, we started by exploring what antagonists are, and specifically what a story’s main antagonist is, what she calls the Big Boss Troublemaker […]

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[…] what antagonists are, and specifically what a story’s main antagonist is, what Kristen calls the Big Boss Troublemaker (BBT) […]

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[…] What is an Antagonist? […]

doug johnson
doug johnson

Hope you are doing better and get well soon.

The article is great and very helpful. The only other comment I have is (and it’s probably a dumb one) is whether you could have a PDF or Word download available of the article. I like to save these kind of articles and file them away to use as a resource when I’m writing. Thanks!

Adan Ramie

I’ve read a lot of explanations of antagonists before, Kristen, but this one is superior to most of those! Even after writing hundreds of short stories and several full-length works, I still couldn’t have explained it this well. Thanks for a great guide!

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