Antagonists vs Conflict
I recently read an article which claimed to list six different types of story conflict.
It described ‘conflict’ as ‘struggle’, which is similar to how I’d describe it. However, it went on to list six types of antagonist, not six types of conflicts.
Antagonists and conflicts are not one and of the same thing.
So what is the difference between antagonists and conflicts? What are the six kinds of antagonist?
What exactly is an antagonist?
Simply put, the antagonist is the main character’s enemy. This doesn’t necessarily mean the antagonist is ‘the bad guy’; there are plenty of stories in which we
support both protagonist and antagonist (eg Game of Thrones) and
Preter the antagonist to the protagonist.
A story’s main character is not always the good guy.
‘Antagonist’ does not necessarily mean ‘the evil one’ or ‘the enemy’; it simply means ‘the opposition’.
The Oxford Dictionary’s definition of antagonist is ‘a person/thing that actively opposes or is hostile to someone or something; an adversary’.
You’ll find, more often than not, that the antagonist actually causes the protagonist’s number one conflict.
Every novel needs one, whichever form it takes.
What is conflict?
Conflict is not x vs y. Conflict is the barrier blocking x and y from reaching their ultimate goals. Let’s take the TV series, Black Sails as an example. In this series, the pirates are the protagonists and the ‘good guys’, while the English government are the antagonists and the opposition.
This story is captivating because it is entire made up of conflict after conflict. The pirates have to jump through hoop after hoop to get what they want. Their goals clash and cause struggle, opposing plans, and disagreements.
If you’d like to read more about, check out my article: The Importance of Conflict
While the antagonist is the opposition to the protagonist, conflict is what arises between the two.
So what are the main types of antagonist?
Person vs person.
This is the most common form of antagonist. The story has a protagonist who has an enemy; the antagonist.
The main conflict is not the fact that they are enemies, but the fact that their individual goals directly affect the other’s.
Eg Harry Potter vs Voldemort.
Harry’s goal is to protect his friends so he must destroy voldemort. Voldemort’s goal is to have power over all, but he must kill Harry to achieve it.
Their goals clash and cause conflict.
Person vs Nature.
Consider the film The Day After Tomorrow. The antagonist in this film is the dangerous weather conditions. This antagonist can’t be an enemy because it has to intentions; no initiative or plan. But it is the antagonist because it is hostile - it is what the characters must battle to reach their goals. The antagonist here, the weather, causes the conflict - the struggle - which is to keep warm and find medicine. Essentially, the antagonist is causing a conflict between life and death.
Person vs the mind.
The internal workings of the mind can be the antagonist; most commonly found in films about insanity. A film in which this form of antagonist is used is Black Swan. The antagonist here is the mental pressure the protagonist is under to perform well. This causes conflict: protagonist vs madness.
Person vs society.
A perfect example for this is The Hunger Games. Katniss, the protagonist, fights the capitol, the antagonist.
Societal antagonists are found in political stories: Nineteen Eighty-Four, Divergent, The Handmaid’s Tale.
Katniss Everdeen’s conflict is between her sense of moral justice against the capitol’s behaviour and her desperate need to keep her friends and family safe.
Person vs the supernatural.
This is most commonly found in horror stories.
The supernatural antagonist tends to be a ghost or a beast of some kind - be it a vampire, a werewolf, a demon, or a witch (and so on). The conflict tends to be fear - the protagonist must get past their fear in order to be rid of the supernatural force.
However, an intriguing example can be found in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy’s antagonist is the supernatural vampire and demon. Her conflict is morality. When she begins to befriend and learn to love vampires, can she believe them all to be monsters? Her morality frequently gets in the way of reaching her goal: to kill vampires and demons.
Person vs modern technology.
A common technological antagonist is the robot.
In this case, the technological antagonist isn’t necessarily evil, but always manages to turn on humankind in some way.
Consider Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Is Hal evil for what he/it did? No. The robot was simply following protocol.
The film I. Robot is a good example of the robot who fights back. In fact, this antagonist is on our screens right now in the TV series, Westworld.
The conflict, here, is born out of a question that we, as humans, haven’t answered yet: are robots alive? Do robots have rights? Should robots have free will?
This uncertainty causes a conflict between our need to feel safe and our belief that everyone should have equal rights.
These are the most basic (and common) kinds of antagonist. I’m sure there are other kinds out there. Give them a go in your own writing.
Remember: to make an antagonist engaging, they have to cause a conflict for the protagonist and they have to stand in exact opposition to the protagonist.