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?


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7 Strategies Villains Use to Trick Their Victims

Strategies Villains UseBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

In many stories, we don’t want to give away who the villain is right away. In other stories, we want the reader to know but our other characters not to. In either case, we need to drop subtle hints so that in the end, when everyone knows, it feels natural and organic.

In his book The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence, Gavin De Becker gives seven signs that tell us we might be at risk from another person. Con artists, rapists, or anyone who needs to bring down the guard of their victim for nefarious purposes will use one or all of these seven tricks against their victims.

Our readers might not consciously recognize these “tells,” but just like these signals should do in real life, they’ll make the reader’s subconscious recognize that something is wrong, that this character perhaps can’t be trusted.

Obviously, not everyone who uses one of these tactics is a villain. Context is important, as is whether one of these signals shows up alone or along with others on the list. However, everyone who uses these tactics is doing so with a goal.

Forced Teaming

The villain will use “we” or “us” statements to build premature trust. The keyword here is premature. You haven’t known them long enough for them to actually earn your trust, but when you feel like you’re in a partnership, it’s difficult to refuse the other person’s offers without feeling rude.

According to De Becker, “The detectable signal of forced teaming is the projection of a shared purpose or experience where none exists: both of us; we’re some team; now we’ve done it; how are we going to handle this?” (55).

Charm and Niceness

A talented villain rarely seems threatening at first. They’re charming and nice. They smile. And you let your guard down because of it.

“We must learn and then teach our children,” De Becker writes, “that niceness does not equal goodness. Niceness is a decision, a strategy of social interaction; it is not a character trait” (57).

Too Many Details

Most people who feel believed and trusted give only the necessary details when they speak. People who feel doubted add extra details to convince you, make you lose sight of the context, and, for strangers, make you feel like you know them better than you really do (and can therefore trust them).

Every type of con depends on distracting us from the obvious. – Gavin de Becker

While people can be telling the truth and still feel doubted, De Becker points out, “When people lie, even if what they say sounds credible to you, it doesn’t sound credible to them, so they keep talking” (58) after a person without a guilty conscience would have stopped.

Negative Labeling

De Becker calls this typecasting, but because it always involves a minor insult that the potential victim then feels the need to defend herself against, I think negative labeling is easier to remember.

The villain might accuse the woman of being a snob if she refuses to talk to him. He might tell her she’s too proud if she refuses his offer of help.

“You probably don’t watch the news.”

“I’m sure you don’t care about such-and-such good thing.”

It’s always a very minor slight, and his goal is to get her talking and defending herself. By doing that, he’s not only distracting her but also forcing her to engage with him.

Creating a Debt

De Becker calls this one loan sharking. The villain does something to help their potential victim. That small help—carrying a heavy bag, holding open a door, picking up something they’ve dropped—places their victim in their debt and makes it difficult for the potential victim to forcefully tell them to leave.

Unsolicited Promises

The unsolicited promise is the single best indicator that something is wrong. If someone makes an unsolicited promise, it shows they know you’re doubting them. Most people will miss this signal, but as soon as someone gives an unsolicited promise, you should ask yourself why you don’t trust the speaker.

Promises aren’t guarantees. With a guarantee, you know that if the speaker doesn’t follow through, you’ll receive compensation or the wrong they inflicted will be righted. Promises, however, “are the very hollowest instruments of speech, showing nothing more than the speaker’s desire to convince you of something” (61).

Ignoring a NO

I have a friend whose calls I’ll dodge if I know she’s going to ask me to do something I want to say no to. As awful as it sounds, I do it because she refuses to accept a simple no. She always wants to know why not and criticizes reasons she doesn’t think are good enough. She never accepts my no without an argument.

Although my friend isn’t a villain, she shares something in common with those who are. Anyone who refuses to accept a no is trying to control you.

The no’s a villain refuses to accept can be either verbal of physical. If a woman refuses to release her hold on her bag when a stranger offers to carry it for her, she’s showing him no.

When a villain ignores her no, two responses by her will mark her as an ideal victim. They’re both responses most polite women default to because of societal norms.

The first is to continuing to say no, with each refusal becoming less forceful, until she finally gives in.

The second is to negotiate. We use negotiation so regularly to soften our refusals that most women probably don’t even recognize it as negotiation anymore. De Becker’s example of a negotiation is “I really appreciate your offer, but let me try to do it on my own first.”

“Negotiations,” De Becker goes on to explain, “are about possibilities, and providing access to someone who makes you apprehensive is not a possibility you want to keep on the agenda. I encourage people to remember that ‘no’ is a complete sentence” (63).

If you missed the first post in my series on villains, you can read “How to Create a Truly Frightening Villain” here.

Have you read The Gift of Fear? Have you ever been in a situation where one of these tactics set off a voice in your head that told you to act?

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How to Create a Truly Frightening Villain

How to Create a Frightening VillainIn my first-year English class at university, we dissected John Milton’s Paradise Lost—an epic poem set in heaven, hell, and the Garden of Eden during the creation and fall of man. I didn’t keep many of my English “textbooks,” but I kept that one. It was the start of my love affair with villains.

I knew how Paradise Lost would end before I started reading, but Milton’s Satan still managed to plant that tiny seed of doubt. Here was a truly frightening villain. One with believable motivation, smart, charismatic, deceptive. Was I really sure that he wasn’t going to win?

That’s what you want your reader to ask themselves. Nothing will keep them more riveted to your book.

Today I’m starting my new series on villains with an overview of how to create a truly frightening villain.

Anyone Can Be a Villain

Often the first thing that jumps to mind when we hear “villain” is murderer, kidnapper, terrorist, or crooked cop. Technically, though, a villain can be anyone who has the potential to do serious harm to your hero. That can mean the husband stealer or the slanderer too. How much your reader wants to see them fail and get their comeuppance all depends on you. Just remember that sometimes the best villains are the ones we least expect.

(Unfortunately, even I have to admit that not every story needs a villain. If your story doesn’t need one, don’t add one in. He’ll end up more like Wile E. Coyote or the Prince from Shrek. Your readers will laugh at him, not fear him.)

Make Him Formidable . . .

The stronger your hero, the stronger your villain needs to be. Introduce doubt that your hero is going to win this one by showing how smart, resourceful, charismatic, or sneaky your villain is. Better yet, give him strengths that match your hero’s weaknesses. Your readers should develop a grudging respect for his abilities even if they can’t respect how he uses them.

Let your villain win as few rounds as well, forcing your hero to adapt and grow if she’s going to survive. A stupid villain who’s easily caught isn’t scary. Or memorable.

. . . Yet Also Relatable

No one is pure evil. Maybe she’s kind to animals or maybe he volunteers at a homeless shelter. Figure out your villain’s soft underbelly and you’ve not only added a new dimension to his character but also have something the hero can possibly use to defeat him. My co-writer Lisa Hall-Wilson once wrote a disturbing short story where her villain kept his step-daughter alive while murdering other girls. He felt that doing that proved he wasn’t a bad man. His kindness to her also led to his downfall, allowing her to eventually escape.

Aside from this, a really good villain should act like a darkened mirror, reflecting back the worst in ourselves and forcing us to face it. That selfishness, that jealousy, that desire to hurt…we’re all only a few steps away from it. We should relate to a good villain in the same way that we relate to a good hero. Both should make us want to be better than we are.

Give Him Strong Motivation

Despite what you see on Criminal Minds, most killers aren’t psychopaths, sociopaths, or suffering from a dissociative break. Criminal Minds has one hour in which to scare you, disgust you, and make you feel relief. A random killer who could target you next if he’s not caught works well within those restrictions.

In real life, most people are killed by someone they know. The killer has a good reason (in their minds at least) for why they committed their crime. To them, their actions are logical, perhaps even noble. Even if your villain isn’t going to be murdering or kidnapping, you need to know why she’s standing in the hero’s way. It shouldn’t be random.

Ask yourself some questions: Why is she causing trouble? What has brought him to this point? How does he justify what he’s doing? Why does she keep going even when she faces opposition?

The Anti-Hero: Taking the Villain’s Side

When we pick up a story, most of us have certain expectations about the main character/protagonist/hero. We expect him to be likeable and good. And instead, with the anti-hero, we step into the twisted mind of someone who could be the villain if we weren’t telling his story. For a classic example, think Victor Frankenstein.

You take a risk writing an anti-hero. Your readers might pity them, but they’ll never like them. If they see anything of themselves in him, they’ll be loath to admit it. For novels, it can sometimes be difficult to stay in the head of someone so disagreeable for hundreds of pages. But when they’re done well, they’re fascinating to read.

If there’s anything specific about villains you want me to cover, be sure to let me know in the comments (and sign up below to receive email updates so you won’t miss my answer).

What book or movie villain frightened you the most? Why?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue, Description, or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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