Understanding Goal, Motivation, and Conflict: CONFLICT (PART 1)


By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been talking about goal, motivation, and conflict and how they work together to fuel your story. Today we’re moving on to the final of the three.

Conflict comes down to who is standing in your character’s way and what your character will have to endure to achieve their goal. Today I’m going to talk about the who.

Every story needs an antagonist, but not every story needs a villain. A villain is “bad.” An antagonist is just someone (or something) who’s standing in the way of your main character achieving their goal.

This sounds obvious, but there are, surprisingly, a lot of ways where we can go wrong with this part.

I’m going to give you the most important elements that you need to get right about the antagonist.

  • Our antagonist needs to be stronger than our protagonist at the start of the story.

If our antagonist isn’t stronger, then the story isn’t going to be very exciting. Our protagonist will succeed too easily.

  • Our antagonist’s goal needs to be in direct conflict with our protagonist’s goal.

Think about this like two people playing tug-of-war. There’s no way they can both win that match. Whoever pulls the other across the line first, wins. The other loses. We need the same win-lose scenario in our book. If we don’t have it, our conflict will be weak.

For example, if we’re writing a mystery, the protagonist wants to catch the murderer and the murderer wants to escape. Only one of them can succeed.

In Star Wars, Luke and Darth Vader were fighting over who would control the universe, the rebels or the empire. Only one of them can succeed.

  • Our antagonist needs their own equally strong motivation.

“Because he’s evil” is not a motivation. If we want to create an antagonist who’s more than a cardboard cutout, we need to understand why he’s fighting just as hard as our hero to achieve the goal.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Christopher Vogler, and he says “The villain is the hero of his own journey.”

Our antagonist is trying to do what they think is best in the same way that our main character is trying to do what he or she thinks is best. Even if they’re a true villain, they usually won’t see themselves as the “bad guy” because they can rationalize their actions, the same way we can often rationalize away our wrong actions if we’re not careful.

To your antagonist, it’s your main character who is the “bad guy,” the problem that’s standing in the way of achieving their goals, desires, and dreams.

What about society, nature, or self as the antagonist?

You can write a story like that. Castaway with Tom Hanks or Andy Weir’s The Martian both have nature or an environment as the antagonist. Those stories are much more difficult to write though.

Understand you’ve created an additional challenge for yourself, and make sure that you amplify your conflict. The risk with stories where the antagonist is the self, society, or nature is that there won’t be enough strong, urgent conflict on the page or that the conflict won’t be clear enough to understand and follow.

One thing that can often work is to choose a figurehead if your antagonist is self or society. Choose someone who will represent those antagonistic forces and give them a human face. Katniss in The Hunger Games was fighting against a decadent, oppressive society, but the human face of that was President Snow.

I’ll go over these external forces more in the next post where I talk about what your character needs to endure to achieve their goal.

Do you have other tips about antagonists or conflict that you’d like to share?


Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Description, Deep Point of View, or Internal Dialogue.

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