Writing an Antagonist: Who They Are and How They Work

Everyone knows that all stories need a hero. But we often overlook that stories need an antagonist, too. 

Think about it like this: every story needs conflict. A story’s not interesting if the hero gets everything they want without any resistance–we need tension, drama, stakes, and compelling characters to keep us invested the whole way through and make the hero’s victory worthwhile. These are the building blocks to writing a great novel.

Enter: antagonists. 

We’re here to talk about the opposition today! We’ll figure out what they are, how they function in stories, and give you some examples of antagonists you may have seen before. We’ll even get into some common misconceptions about them, so if you think you already know everything there is to know about them, stay tuned! 

antagonist

What is the best definition of Antagonist? 

An antagonist is a character opposing the protagonist. They’re the character presenting obstacles or challenges that keep the hero or main character from getting what they want. It’s really that simple! An antagonist doesn’t have to be the main villain of a story–there are usually more than one antagonists in any given story. 

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What is the role of the Antagonist? 

Your protagonist has their goal, whether it’s to get together with their significant other, save the world, or overthrow the government. Your anti-hero’s goal is simple: stop the protagonist from getting what they want. 

An antagonist might stop them in a million different ways, and it all depends on the story. In a romance, maybe the antagonist is a bitter ex-boyfriend who doesn’t want to see his ex-girlfriend happy, so he keeps trying to sabotage her new relationship. In a fantasy story, they could be an evil warlock bent on destroying humans for good. 

Like we mentioned earlier, the role isn’t always necessarily the main villain. Your main villain is almost certainly going to be an antagonist–if they aren’t doing anything to trouble your heroes, then they’re probably not a great villain–but anyone who gets in the protagonist’s way is technically an antagonist. 

Is the Antagonist the bad guy? 

So, when we were talking about villains, I listed some examples of antagonists doing some morally bad things. This is pretty typical–heroes are generally good guys, so a bad guy is usually going to be the one to get in their way. 

But this isn’t a hard rule. This character doesn’t have to be evil in a moral sense! If your protagonist is a villainous character who does awful things and the antagonist is trying to stop them, they’re still the antagonist–they’re just morally good or lawful. 

The thing to keep in mind is that bad and good are moral terms that describe the moral value of someone’s actions. The bad guys want to blow up New York, so the Avengers save the day. Dr. Doofenshmirtz wants to blow up the Tri-State area, so Perry stops him. Perry wants to keep the Tri-State area safe, and every single day of his life, Dr. Doofenshmirtz is one heck of an obstacle. 

But maybe there’s the Grinch looking to destroy Christmas. That’s not a super cool thing to do, and the audience knows it, but the Grinch is still our protagonist. We don’t want him to succeed, really, and we’re not rooting for him to rip up that Whoville fun–he’s our protagonist, but he’s not a good guy. Similarly, the Whos down in Whoville are impeding him, so they’re antagonists. They aren’t bad guys, but they are antagonists. 

What is an example of an Antagonist? 

We’ve defined character traits and explained what their role is in a given story–now it’s time to look at some examples! 

Disney Antagonist Examples

Lord Farquaad and Monsieur Hood from Shrek 

Shrek’s goal, from the get-go, is pretty simple and pretty obvious. He wants to be left alone in his swamp to hang out and be gross, and when a bunch of fairytale creatures show up on his land, this becomes impossible. 

It’s true that the fairytale creatures being there prevent him from achieving his goal, but they were sent there by Lord Farquaad–they didn’t come on their own accord. Lord Farquaad is the one kicking them off their own land, refusing to cooperate, and ripping the legs off gingerbread men–he’s the antagonist, not the creatures. He’s also the main antagonist, because he drives the central conflict of the film. 

We also have Monsieur Hood, who’s basically Robin Hood, and who wants to do some highway robbery while Shrek and the gang are coming back from their quest. Monsieur Hood is an antagonist, because he’s literally standing in the way of what our protagonists want. However, he’s not the main antagonist. 

Mother Gothel and the Stabbington Brothers from Tangled 

Disney is famous for its villains for good reason–they’re consistently well-branded and reveling in their misconduct, and it’s a blast to watch. Mother Gothel is no exception! 

Rapunzel wants to leave the tower, explore the world, and figure out who she is. Mother Gothel wants to keep Rapunzel in the tower, prevent her from exploring the world, and keep Rapunzel’s identity a secret. She spends most of the movie trying to hunt Rapunzel down and recapture her. She’s our main antagonist. 

We also have the Stabbington brothers, our secondary antagonists. They want revenge on Flynn for stealing the crown, and they join up with Mother Gothel to achieve this goal. 

Sauron, Orcs, Sarumon, Smeagol from Lord of the Rings 

Naming every character that could fit into this definition in Lord of the Rings would probably take a minute–Lord of the Rings is an enormous series with a half a billion characters. However, it’s a great chance to pick apart some antagonists and differentiate between main, secondary, and miscellaneous. 

Our main antagonist is Sauron. Defeating Sauron is our central goal–he’s doing the most to destroy our protagonists’ hopes and dreams and worlds. We also have Sarumon and Smeagol, secondary antagonists who work to prevent the protagonists from getting that one true ring to Mordor. 

We also have a sea of orcs. These guys are also opposite the protagonist, since they’re working to prevent our characters from defeating evil, which is their goal. 

Again, they’re not categorized as bad guys because they’re fighting for evil–our protagonists just happen to be fighting against that evil. 

Zuko from Avatar: the Last Airbender 

Zuko’s one of the best antagonists ever! Let’s talk about why. 

At the start of the story, his entire purpose is to capture the Avatar. The Avatar is our main protagonist, so this makes Zuko an antagonist. It’s pretty cut and dry for a while… and suddenly, the tables turn. 

Zuko changes his villainous ways, denounces his evil father, and switches sides in the third season. He joins the Gaang, and at this point, he stops opposing the protagonist. He’s no longer preventing Aang from achieving his goals–he’s helping him, which means he’s now a protagonist. 

Firelord Ozai from Avatar: the Last Airbender 

Unlike Zuko, Firelord Ozai sticks to being an opp the entire time. He’s driving the main conflict–his desire to take over and destroy the entire world is exactly what Aang spends the entire show training to prevent. 

Zuko provides an additional challenge, because he’s also trying to capture Aang, but he isn’t the one trying to take over the world. He just wants to get back on his dad’s good side. Ozai, on the other hand, is pretty hell-bent on world domination. 

More Antagonist Examples

Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman 

You might think antagonists don’t exist in literary fiction, but you’d be wrong! Antagonists get more complicated when it comes to more character-driven work. It kind of takes the nuance out of your complex coming-of-age narrative if you’ve got a cloaked villain stroking his beard in the background. 

Willy Loman is a great example of a protagonist who’s also an antagonist. He wants to fulfill the American Dream through his role as a salesman, but he’s also delusional. He’s insecure, he’s volatile, and throughout the entire play, he is his own worst enemy. He prevents himself from achieving his goals, and the drama from the play comes from watching him implode. The American Dream isn’t stable, and neither is Loman. 

In literary fiction, antagonists are usually kind of complicated. You’ll have the protagonist be their own antagonist, or have the antagonist be a misunderstood family member–when in doubt, ask yourself who it is that’s preventing the protagonist from achieving their goals. In Death of a Salesman, it’s Willy Loman. 

The School and Erasers from Maximum Ride 

Maximum Ride’s a book series about bird kids who escape their lab and wreak havoc on America, all the while struggling with their weird existence as bird kids. The lab is known as The School, and that’s our main evil force opposing the bird kids. 

The School constantly pursues the kids in an attempt to recapture them for further scientific tinkering. This creates the main problem the kids face throughout the series: they want their freedom, and the School wants them captured. These guys are our main antagonists. 

We also have Erasers, the goons The School sends to recapture or kill the kids. Erasers aren’t the ones creating that main conflict, but they are definitely posing a problem–these are secondary antagonists. 

Hades and the Minotaur from The Lightning Thief 

Hades stole a lightning bolt from Zeus, and Percy has to go get it back. Hades is our main antagonist in the Lightning Thief! You may have heard Greek Mythology buffs complain about how this series makes Hades into something of a villain, since in traditional Greek mythology, he’s really just hanging out. 

But, one more time: Hades isn’t an the main opposition in this story because he’s evil. He fits the trait because he’s got, and wants to keep, the thing Percy, our protagonist, needs to succeed in his quest. 

The Lightning Thief and the Heroes of Olympus series is full of fun secondary antagonists, but for an easy example, let’s consider the Minotaur. When Percy’s trying to get into Camp Half-Blood, the Minotaur is literally physically in his way, preventing him from achieving this goal. Bam, antagonist. 

Cersei from Game of Thrones 

Remember when I said that literary fiction can create some complicated antagonists? So can any genre, if the author plays their cards right. Cersei’s pretty obviously a villain in Game of Thrones–right? 

Well, it’s complicated. Game of Thrones is told from many characters’ points of view, and almost every character wants to end up on the Iron Throne, Cersei included. She prevents many of our more likeable characters from being on the throne and does a ton of awful stuff to prevent them from even getting close, which does make her an public enemy number 1. 

However, from her own point of view, she’s a protagonist. People like Margaery Tyrell and Ned Stark become antagonists, preventing her from keeping the throne. 

She’s definitely an anti-hero, but she’s also kind of a protagonist, which makes for a fun, complicated reading experience. 

Who is your favorite TV, movie, or book antagonist? Let us know in the comments below!

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A Beginner’s Guide to Writing Realistic Fiction

It’s no secret that right now, genre fiction has the spotlight. For years now, romance has dominated the writing industry in terms of sales, and sci-fi and fantasy have a grip on our media landscape. Some authors have found success in writing to this market and continue to build their audience. Every year we get a new slew of sci-fi blockbusters, high fantasy bestsellers, and YA fantasy making big waves in the art world. 

But honestly, that’s not for everyone. 

Some of us just want to write relatable and realistic fiction about regular people dealing with real issues without worrying about worldbuilding, fake languages, or mythical creatures. And there’s still a place for that sort of story! Writers like Donna Tartt, Markus Zusak, John Green, and Angie Thomas prove that the market for realistic fiction is alive and well. 

That leaves us with a few questions, though. What is realistic fiction, really, and how does it differ from other dragon-and-magic-exempt genres? And more importantly, how do you write it? 

In this article, we’re here to take a closer look at what realistic fiction is, what makes it unique, and how to go about writing realistic fiction of your own. 

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What is realistic fiction?

When we talk about genre, the lines can get blurry pretty quick. Even when we’ve narrowed a book down to a genre, subgenre can keep making it hazy. Does The Fault in Our Stars count as realistic fiction, drama, or tragedy? How do we even start to categorize works like The Secret History, which act as part murder-mystery, part thriller, part coming-of-age, and part realistic fiction? 

Well, the truth is, it depends on how you look at it. 

And when it comes to realistic fiction, it gets complicated. 

At the surface level, realistic fiction is defined as fiction which depicts events which might have occurred to real people in a realistic setting. Basically, if all of it seems like something that could actually happen, you’re dealing with realistic fiction. 

Hold on, you might be thinking: isn’t most fiction realistic fiction, then? What about all those genres like romance, thriller, or crime, where the events could realistically happen? 

Like I said before, these genre divisions aren’t perfect, and there’s some overlap. But other genres like crime, mystery, and romance have their own sets of genre conventions and tropes that readers expect to find. Romance, obviously, will focus on a romance between two (or more) characters. A story about a detective trying to crack a cold case is probably going to be shelved with mysteries at your local library. 

But that’s still pretty vague. Let’s get a little more into how we can identify realistic fiction and set it apart from other genres which use believable character archetypes, real-world events, and real-world issues. Along the way, we’ll pick up some tips for writing our own realistic fiction! 

What to include in realistic fiction 

Let’s look at some criteria for what we should include in realistic fiction. 

1. Contemporary setting

Realistic fiction should be contemporary to the time it was written. Events should happen either in the present or recent past–there isn’t a hard rule for this, but as a guideline, characters should be dealing with issues that pertain to the modern world. It should be relatable to the reader’s present-day problems. 

2. Believable events

Like we mentioned earlier, characters and events should be believable. This doesn’t mean boring! Lots of extraordinary things can conceivably happen to real-life people, and lots of seemingly everyday things can be described in extraordinary ways. 

For example, a realistic fiction book might describe a boy coming of age in a public school in Texas. Plenty of people grow up in Texas, so this isn’t necessarily extraordinary, but realistic fiction will take a closer look at this narrative and use it to explore real-world issues, family dynamics, et cetera. 

In other words, realistic fiction often makes art out of the everyday, mundane events around us. 

3. Contemporary issues 

Earlier, we talked about how plenty of genres involve stories that take place in our world and which involve believable events. However, the key thing separating realistic fiction from the rest of it is the subject matter. 

While other genres concern themselves with niche parts of the human experience, realistic fiction addresses contemporary issues. Coming-of-age is a pretty common touchstone for realistic fiction–after all, everyone grows up. Realistic fiction might deal with divorce, loss of a loved one, or social issues. 

The main thing to keep in mind is that these issues should be relatable to the reader and relevant to the world at the time of its publication. For example, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas addresses ongoing police brutality, drawing on real-life, contemporary examples to make the issues real and impactful for the reader. 

How can we apply this to our writing? Well, it sounds simple, but keep the subject matter relatable. We mentioned earlier that realistic fiction makes art of the mundane, and that’s true! It also makes art out of current events and contemporary issues. 

What’s a contemporary issue you feel passionate about? What’s a common experience that you want to shed an artistic lens on? To write a compelling realistic fiction novel, you want to find a contemporary experience and put your own unique spin on it. 

4. An everyday message 

If you’ve got a story that takes place in a believable setting with believable characters set in the real world with no fantasy elements, you’re probably working with realistic fiction. But it’s also important that the story has a message that’s pertinent to everyday people. 

This might seem obvious, but think about it–some sci-fi or thriller novels seem to take place in a world just like ours, but at the end, there’s a supernatural twist or a takeaway that’s a little out of this world. Especially in horror, the events are technically grounded in reality, but the takeaway might not be something applicable to day-to-day life. 

A book about realistic fiction might have a character learning to cope with mental illness or grieving the loss of a loved one. As I mentioned, it might be coming of age. This obviously isn’t an exhaustive list of the themes realistic fiction deals with, but they all have in common that readers can take those messages and apply it to their own lives. 

This doesn’t mean the messages have to be morally good, or that you have to be teaching your reader a valuable, applicable lesson! It just means that if you’re setting out to write realistic fiction and your main character ends up solving their problems in a dream state or using magic or discovering a secret society living underneath a mountain–I don’t know, could be anything–you’re probably working with another genre. 

What to avoid in realistic fiction 

So, we’ve talked about the elements you need in your realistic fiction book. Now that you’ve got a good idea of what realistic fiction is, let’s talk about what it isn’t so we can really complete our understanding. 

First and foremost: 

Realistic fiction is not literary fiction… but it’s also the same thing. 

You may have heard of ‘literary fiction’ or been forced to read it in school–what is it, exactly? Literary fiction is fiction that attempts to better understand the human condition. Literary fiction sets out to be capital a Art, the kind of stuff people get Pulitzers and National Book Awards for and the kind of thing critics fawn over forever. 

In other words, literary fiction has literary merit. But, it’s also often realistic fiction. 

The thing is, there’s a ton of debate about what deserves literary merit, what literary merit means, and who awards it. It’s limiting to say that only the books that receive critical acclaim have literary merit, and it’s limiting to imply that genre fiction can’t have literary merit. 

If you’re writing a realistic fiction book and you’re wondering whether it’s literary fiction or realistic fiction, the answer is that it depends on who reads it, what they think, and how they interpret it. In other words, don’t worry about it too much. Literary and realistic fiction are often used interchangeably, technically mean different things, and it doesn’t ultimately matter much. 

The really, really mundane.

Here’s the thing: your book shouldn’t be boring, regardless of the genre. 

Be Mindful of Your Writing Style

Yes, realistic fiction should deal with everyday, relatable issues. It’s the job of the author, however, to transform those issues into an interesting story for the reader. A book about a man who goes to work every day, participates in a totally normal marriage, and dies happy at seventy-six is technically realistic fiction, but it’s not compelling. 

In any story, there needs to be stakes. Just because there isn’t a political revolution or a dragon invasion or a zombie apocalypse doesn’t mean we can’t feel those stakes! Maybe your character is about to graduate high school and leave their long-term boyfriend. Maybe they’re in a tragic car accident and lose their sibling or parent. 

These things happen to people all the time, and they’re full of conflict and interesting story detail. Make art of the mundane, but don’t make your art mundane! 

Supernatural elements 

You might notice that some realistic fiction has a subplot that might be considered genre fiction. The Fault in Our Stars, for example, has a romance subplot, as does most contemporary YA and most coming-of-age. In stories like Turtles all the Way Down, we have a coming-of-age that’s mixed with a murder mystery. Why does that count as realistic fiction? 

The reason, simply, is that even with those elements, these stories are still believable stories set in realistic settings with takeaways that are applicable to the reader. The message of Turtles all the Way Down isn’t that Aza is a smart detective–the murder mystery isn’t the core dilemma. Growing up is the core dilemma. 

A hard rule, though, is that you absolutely should not have supernatural elements in your realistic fiction story. And if you consider the criteria we’ve discussed, this makes sense. How can a story have a relatable takeaway if the characters solved their problems using magic, or if they had some sort of divine intervention? 

Magic, supernatural creatures, fantasy settings, and that sort of thing have their time and place. And if you’re interested in writing about a world like ours with magical elements, maybe you’d be happy writing urban fantasy or supernatural pieces! But it won’t work for realistic fic. 

Examples of realistic fiction 

One of the best ways we can learn to write anything is to read. So where do we start with examples of realistic fiction? 

If you’re interested in YA or books dealing with teen issues, here’s a quick list of some famous books to get you started: 

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green 

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky 

Just Listen by Sarah Dessen 

It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini 

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo 

If you’re more interested in fiction that deals with more adult issues, here’s a starter pack for that: 

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng 

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple 

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones 

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet 

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Conclusion

You know what realistic fiction is, how to write it, and some great examples from a variety of authors to get an idea of how it’s written. You’re ready to go forth and write your own realistic fiction novel! 

Do you have any advice on how to make an engaging, interesting realistic fiction story? Do you prefer realistic fiction to genre fic or vice versa?

Strike up a convo in the comments below!

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