“He is His Own Worst Enemy…”–Antagonist Part 2

Part of why I am writing this series on the antagonist is that most new writers don’t understand 1.) how vital the antagonist is, 2) how to properly use the antagonist and 3) often cannot spot an antagonist if he were dressed like a Vegas showgirl holding sparklers (okay, maybe that last one was just me).

As we discussed last week, the antagonist is the engine of our story. No antagonist, and no story. The main antagonist, I like to call the Big Boss Troublemaker. Read last Monday’s post for more. The BBT Antagonist is who or what upsets the course of the protagonist’s life and sets the story in motion, dragging your protag over the main narrative points until he is tenderized enough to stand on his own two feet and fight the Big Boss Battle at the end.

Ah, but some of you are going to try to cheat.

“But my protagonist and antagonist are the same. He is his own worst enemy…”

Yeah…um, no.

Hey, I tried it too. Then Bob Mayer popped me on the snoot and told me to “Give.” Grudgingly I spit out my half-ass attempt at an antagonist and curled up in my crate to think of a new antag.

The funny thing was I had been on the editing side for YEARS. I, of all people should have known better. The problem was that I understood my craft on a gut level. I didn’t understand it in a “nuts and bolts” fashion…which is why I began this blog almost two years ago. I have read almost every top craft book from the best teachers in the industry and I use Monday blogs to share what I have learned on my own journey of Death Star Fiction Editor to Fiction Author.

Back to the cop out, “Oh, she is her own worst enemy….”

Yeah, sorry. That is a character arc, not an antagonist.

Virtually any protagonist who displays a character arc is his or her own worst enemy in the beginning of our story. The Inciting Incident is whatever action the BBT Antagonist takes that sets the story in motion. It is through this journey of escalating conflict that our little protag will hopefully—with the help of mentors, allies and lots of soul-testing conflict—pull his head out of his a$$ and stop being a moron long enough to triumph at the end.

In the beginning of the new Star Trek movie, Captain James T. Kirk is a power-drinking adrenalin junkie who gets in fights and is wasting his brilliant mind and talents. Without the Inciting Incident—the fight at the bar with members of Star Fleet Academy—he would have continued drinking and racing around on his crotch rocket until he was just an old guy with male pattern baldness driving around with his growing beer gut stuffed in crotch rocket leathers.

Not pretty.

Who is the antagonist? Well, the BBT is Nero. But in the scene after the bar fight, the antagonist is actually Captain Christopher Pike who throws down the gauntlet that will forever change Kirk’s life. Pike challenges Kirk to actually make something of himself and to use his God-given talents for something better. Come to Star Fleet Academy.

 Come join Star Fleet. I dare ya! I triple-dog dare ya!

How is Pike the antagonist? Because his wants are in direct conflict with Kirk. Remember Bob Mayer’s Conflict Lock (for more, seriously go buy Bob’s book):

Kirk wants to power drink and feel sorry for himself and jet down a road to self-destruction on his shiny bike.

Pike wants Kirk to sober up and channel his destructive behavior into something productive–like living up to his father’s legacy.

Captain Pike is the character that induces CHANGE…ergo, the antagonist.

Without this CHANGE, Kirk cannot face off against Nero at the end.

I know that every time we talk about the antagonist, we get the “Oh, but my character is her own worst enemy.” Okay, we know that. That’s called arc. But unless your character is a loser at the end of the book, too, there is an antagonist driving that change.

In the beginning of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, the Hobbits are their own worst enemy. Merry and Pippin are like trying to take Gilligan on a covert Special Forces operation to take out Bin Laden.

Half the tension of the first movie comes from Merry and Pippin nearly getting everyone slaughtered. They steal from the farmer, and while running, send the whole crew tumbling down the hillside practically into the path of the Dark Rider. Then at the Prancing Pony, they all but hang a bull’s-eye on Frodo.

When they escape intact from the trauma at the inn, these two idiots get the “bright” idea to light a fire to make a late night snack, basically sending off a beacon to the bad guys. Samwise is right there enjoying the campfire with them. And, yes, bad guys do show up and are really grateful for the fire to lead them directly to their target. Frodo is nearly killed when he is stabbed in the shoulder with an enchanted blade.

Merry and Pippin, in effect are not only allies, but they’re antagonists, too because it is their antics that stand in direct opposition to Frodo and Samwise achieving their goals (stay hidden from Sauron and make it safely to Rivendell). It is also their shenanigans that will eventually harden Frodo and Samwise.

Naïveté is a luxury Fordo and Samwise can no longer afford in this threatened world. They cannot be innocent and naïve little Hobbits if they hope to make it to Mount Doom. If they are going to sneak past the Black Gate, they cannot be the type of heroes who light a fire to have a snack.

We see their character progression in the final scene of the movie (which ALWAYS makes me cry, btw). The four Hobbits—Frodo, Samwise, Merry and Pippin—are sitting in the tavern having a beer. In the background the happy, childlike Hobbits dance and sing, unaware of the darkness that nearly won. Merry, Pippin, Samwise and Frodo now are battle-weary war veterans, and it is clear from the grief etched forever in their features, that they sacrificed their innocence so the other Hobbits could keep theirs.

Tolkein layers antagonists brilliantly. Let’s revisit the action I mentioned a minute ago. Right after the turning point into Act II:

Frodo and Samwise want to make it to the Prancing Pony to meet Gandalf.

Merry and Pippin want to escape from an angry farmer.

Result: These two goals are in conflict. Frodo and Samwise end up rolling down a hill with Merry and Pippin nearly into the path of the BBT (Sauron’s) emissary…the Black Rider.

Sauron is not corporeal BUT we face off against his emissaries over and over until the climactic scene. The heroes fight Sauron over and over through other scene antagonists like the Black Rider, the Uruk-Hai, Saruman, etc. This story is like a giant chess board. The goal for the Hobbits is to topple the Black King but to do this, they must outwit, outmaneuver, and defeat the pawns, rooks, bishops, knights…peeling back the layers of the BBT’s defenses.

This applies even in the world of literary fiction. To make things easier, I will go with a movie example.

One of my favorite movies of all time is that Academy Award-winning drama Gran Torino with Clint Eastwood. Clint plays Walt Kowalski, a Polish-American factory worker and Korean War veteran who is recently widowed. Walt is not a nice person. He is angry, mean, bigoted, and holds everyone at an emotional distance. We find out over the course of the movie that this is, in large part, due to the guilt he feels for the things he had to do in Korea.

Walt is forced to ally with someone he hates in order to take out a gang that is terrorizing the neighborhood. This battle will force Walt to face the darkest aspects of his character.

For instance, he must come to grips with the self-centered brats he fathered by being emotionally absent.

But back to the main plot…

By Walt allying with Thao (Toad), his emotional walls must be broken down in order for Walt to take out the entire gang at the end of the movie. The sacrifice Walt makes at the end would not have happened had Walt not changed from the mean-spirited self-centered racist he was at the beginning of the movie. How do we know Walt has triumphed against himself? His selfless action at the end. The people he despised at the beginning are now his only family, and he freely gives up everything to save them.

The gang, however is the BBT. Had they not started picking on Walt’s Korean neighbor, Thao, it is likely Walt would have died an angry bitter man with lung cancer and not a friend or a loved one in the world.

Our protagonist may be his own worst enemy, but even in literary pieces there will be an outside force that drives change (BBT), and there will be a final event to demonstrate this change is complete. Your character might be an alcoholic on a road to redemption, but there is an outside story that drives that change, and a BBT who started it all.

I know that makes your mind cramp, but if your protag is a self-destructive alcoholic, his Big Boss Troublemaker is whoever takes away his booze.

Not only will you have a BBT, but likely there will be a series of antagonists to keep the momentum going and force the change. If your protag wants to drink, then the person who throws a bucket of ice water on him and drags his sorry tail to AA is your antagonist…because their goals conflict.

There will also be a scene at the end to cue us the change is complete. Ie. Alcoholic father walks his daughter down the aisle at her wedding (a wedding he was banned from attending in the beginning by the BBT ex-wife).

A character analyzing his emotions and indulging in lots of flashbacks is therapy…not fiction. Great fiction has forward action and is comprised of a series of events that force the protagonist to change so he can triumph at the end.

So does this help you guys understand the antagonist better? Have questions? Comments? Any recommendations? What are some dramatic movies you love and who was the BBT?

I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of March, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end on March I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.

Happy writing!

Until next time…

In the meantime, if you don’t already own a copy, my best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books.

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  1. #1 by Gigi Salem on March 21, 2011 - 2:51 pm

    Thank you so much for this. I understood on some level what you were saying before about there needing to be an antagonist, but couldn’t understand as well how that works with a Man vs. Self story. Now, I think I have a much better grasp on the concept.

  2. #2 by nuatexperiment on March 21, 2011 - 3:00 pm

    How would you define the antagonist of the original Japanese “Shall We Dance?” (I haven’t seen the American version, and if you haven’t seen the original, minus 500 cool points.) The way I perceive it, the BBT is more the Culture as a whole: anti-individualism, slightly warped emphasis on “honor,” etc. Each individual scene has very clear antagonists (some of the best character work ever), but the BBT, or the “Big Bad,” as Whedon calls it, doesn’t seem to be an individual person or group. Thoughts?

    • #3 by Author Kristen Lamb on March 21, 2011 - 3:12 pm

      The culture can be the BBT…but will be represented by proxies. I haven’t seen the movie you mentioned, so I will use other examples.

      In the book “Winter’s Bone” the antagonist is this backwoods hillbilly culture that is basically Redneck organized crime. It is represented by a series of proxy antagonists, each one bigger and more complex than the previous. When an antagonist is an idea or a culture, it still MUST have characters that represent it. Our protagonist fights physical representations. Otherwise, the story becomes a series of bad situations, which are not conflict.

      Even in “The Perfect Storm” the BBT was Pride and Greed which was brought out via the storm. There was conflict. Some men on the ship thought the storm was too big and wanted to give up the haul of fish. Others focused on greed and in their pride thought they could outmaneuver the storm. If the antagonist was only a storm, then we would have had a 2 hour movie of just wind, rain and waves. But we didn’t. We had the fighting among the men and wondered if they would risk the trip or not. Of course everyone dies and that is probably why I didn’t care for the book or the movie.

      But think about the movie “Footloose.” Who is the real antagonist? Baptist fundamentalism that forbids dancing….BUT this antagonist is represented in a series of escalating proxies. How do we know the protag has won? At the end there is a dance.

  3. #5 by Adam Lefever on March 21, 2011 - 3:06 pm

    Great stuff, Kristen. You had brought this idea up before (“worst enemy”) but this post articulated it very clearly. Thank you for the insight!

  4. #6 by Hilary Clark on March 21, 2011 - 3:07 pm

    Thank you. Your posts are always so clear and really help me to understand concepts.

  5. #7 by Patti Mallett on March 21, 2011 - 3:20 pm

    The whole antagonist thing has been tying my head in knots. I need to read this a hundred more times and, hopefully, that will sear this information on my brain. Thanks!!

  6. #8 by Natalie C. Markey on March 21, 2011 - 3:21 pm

    Great post Kristen! I often forget that the antagonist doesn’t HAVE to be the evil bad guy! And great contest, I’m game!

  7. #9 by Jess Witkins on March 21, 2011 - 3:23 pm

    Wow, this cleared up a lot about antagonists. I was looking at it so black and white before, but the examples you gave were all very helpful in how to craft well developed conflict as well as antagonists. Thanks again Kristen!

  8. #10 by Sonia M. on March 21, 2011 - 3:31 pm

    I hadn’t thought of the antagonist as whoever is in conflict with the protagonist’s goals. Makes for a richer understanding. Thanks!

  9. #11 by Savannah Chase on March 21, 2011 - 3:39 pm

    Thank you so much for this fantastic post..Tons of great info…

  10. #12 by Anne R. Allen on March 21, 2011 - 4:44 pm

    Great post about one of the toughest aspects of writing fiction. Thanks.

    BTW, I linked to your blog and gave your book a plug in my blogpost yesterday. Not because of a contest. Because you’re good.

  11. #13 by writerwellness on March 21, 2011 - 5:25 pm

    And the forward action caused by the BBT contributes a great deal to the change in the protagonist. Character arc, too!
    Joy

    • #14 by Author Kristen Lamb on March 21, 2011 - 5:28 pm

      Exactly! Without the BBT, the protag will never change.

  12. #15 by Michelle Massaro on March 21, 2011 - 6:48 pm

    This is something I have wrestled with for a long time with my book. Can God be an antagonist? I am stumped on this with my plot. Who is my BBT? It’s a faith and surrender journey.

    Could God perhaps be the protag, and my MC be the antagonist messing up what God wants to do in his life by the poor choices he makes?

    This is hard! But your article here is awesome as usual. Thank you!

    • #16 by Author Kristen Lamb on March 21, 2011 - 8:06 pm

      I can’t tell by what you have given me. If God is driving the change, then likely He is doing it through proxies. Like Sauron used proxies. (Sorry, God, for comparing you to Sauron). But if you think of it, he is a noncorporeal antagonist so he will need to us proxies. Help?

      • #17 by Michelle Massaro on March 21, 2011 - 9:58 pm

        Okay I don’t want to hijack the comments but I do want to learn how to apply this to my own MS so I hope it’s alright if I post more. MC loses his faith after his wife dies. He goes on a self-destructive rampage, all the while hearing and ignoring God’s voice calling him (I show this in dialogue form, not just conscience). Discovering a prostitute beside him after a binge results in repentance/cleaning up his act, and then warm fuzzies abound for awhile. Meets a new love, la la la. Till prostitute shows up pregnant with his child, testing his faith again. There’s more plot from here out of course, as MC and Love Interest handle the situation, but MC makes it his goal to cling to his faith whether or not it means losing his fiance. I’ve struggled with identifying the antagonist as well as MC’s Ultimate Goal since they should go hand-in-hand. I know the prostitute is antagonistic but she isn’t the BBT. I’ve gone round and round and can’t put my finger on it and would LOVE help from someone who “gets” this so intuitively. Here’s hoping! =)

        • #18 by Author Kristen Lamb on March 21, 2011 - 10:11 pm

          It depends on the story, but a mentor character might be useful. Think of a drunk that goes to a priest every time he screws up. The priest serves as a grounding to that other life the addict seeks. Also other self-destructive people can be useful in driving that kind of character’s arc. I would recommend watching the Sandra Bullock movie “28 Days.” Bullock plays an alcoholic who gets in an accident while driving drunk. The judge gives her a choice of rehab or jail and she picks rehab. It is interesting how the addicts (current and former) drive her to sobriety…even if it is because they show her her own sickness.

  13. #19 by kadja1 on March 21, 2011 - 7:15 pm

    Thank you for clearing this up. It helps me out immensely…I loved that Star Trek movie and the things you pointed out about Pike in it! I never thought of it like that. I really wish they would make a movie on Sarek, though. I agree with Ben Cross that there is a whole untold story that could be done with that particular character based on what we DO know of him.

    I am going to keep a copy of this so that I can kick myself in the pants again and again on my re-writes! Thank you Kristen! :-D

  14. #20 by Toni Zuma on March 21, 2011 - 7:51 pm

    K — You couldn’t have picked a better movie than Star Trek to illustrate this lesson. (Loved it!)I feel some knots untangling, but this will take some work. My brain and my book thank you! TZ

  15. #21 by patriciacaviglia on March 21, 2011 - 7:51 pm

    What a great post! I find I have so little time to study fiction writing although I should. I am mostly learning through experience. Due to my school-of-hard-knocks acquired knowledge, I am re-writing my first already published novella with a focus on telling it better, if that makes any sense. This post has clarified some issues for me. Thank you, Kristen.

  16. #22 by Piper Bayard on March 21, 2011 - 8:44 pm

    Great blog, Kristen. Like you, I couldn’t tell an antagonist from a Las Vegas showgirl. In my own defense, I’ve known a lot of showgirls, and they were 90% antagonistic on some level. Thank you for sharing your extensive talents.

    • #23 by amyshojai on March 21, 2011 - 9:15 pm

      Shiny objects always distract me, too, Piper. *s*

      Love the blog as always. Taking LOTS of notes!

  17. #24 by Jenyfer Matthews on March 21, 2011 - 9:21 pm

    I thought I understood your point last time, but this post really drove things home. I love that you can find a BBT in Footloose :)

  18. #25 by Michelle Massaro on March 21, 2011 - 10:23 pm

    Can’t nest my reply to #18 but in response to your latest answer (thanks btw!), who would the BBT be in that scenario–that Sandra Bullock movie for instance? The priest and the AA peeps would be side antags right, like Merry and Pip? But the BBT still eludes. Okay, I’m shutting my trap after this now for real, lol. Thanks for the lesson and the replies, Kristin!

    • #26 by Author Kristen Lamb on March 21, 2011 - 10:33 pm

      The BBT is alcoholism, but is represented in the proxies. Situational antagonists would be anyone who comes in conflict with her goal of drinking. Alcoholism/addiction is the BBT. Her addiction is what must be faced and conquered. The main antagonist would be the judge who hands down the sentence–rehab or jail. IOf Bullock’s character cannot win against her addiction, the judge will send her to jail. Remember the story’s main antagonist sets the story problem in motion. Had the judge not intervened, Bullock would drink herself into a coma.

      The priest could be a mentor character, but mentors often push protagonists to do what they don’t want to. Think Mr. Miagi in “The Karate Kid.” The kid sees no point in waxing the cars and sanding the planks. He is openly defiant of Mr. Miagi. But Mr. Miagi is the mentor-antagonist. He is forcing the character change that is crucial for the kid (protag) to take out the bully at the competition (BBT).

      Every scene has an antagonist. There has to be conflict in every scene. But the antagonist is like a hat that many characters get to wear. There is only one BBT…but allies, mentors, love interests, etc. can all serve as scene antagonists. Whoever is standing in the way of the protag’s goal for the scene is the antagonist.

      When you have a Man against himself story, you need to figure out WHAT it is about himself that he is fighting and then assign proxies. In “28 Days” she was agains addiction…but her boyfriend and friends and other addicts all served as a face of her BBT–Alcoholism.

      That help?

      • #27 by Michelle Massaro on March 21, 2011 - 11:00 pm

        You are so kind to take so much time and trouble for me, Kristin! It helps me understand the concept, yes. But I’m afraid I still am fuzzy with my own story. I’ve always considered my prevailing theme to be surrender (to God).

        I understand the scene-by-scene stuff–antag/protag (conflict), but still haven’t pinpointed the Big Goal or the BBT in my manuscript. Unless God is the protag and the MC himself (or his weakness of faith) is the BBT. Because in the end he is ready to trust God no matter what happens in his life rather than let the “how could God allow…” question to stumble him.

        Is a series of proxies a replacement for a BBT? Is losing to the the Antag actually a way to win?

        Something to ponder. And you’ve certainly got me pondering a lot today! I’m guessing someone would have to know my whole synopsis to sort this one out, and I feel I’ve taken enough of your time today. Sorry! But thank you for the insight and the teaching. Hopefully others were helped by me raising my hand in class. =)

  19. #28 by C.G. Powell on March 21, 2011 - 10:35 pm

    Nice break down….I love those movies!

  20. #29 by HaleyWhitehall on March 21, 2011 - 10:51 pm

    i look forward to reading more of your antagonist series. I am interested in how to write the antagonist when it is not a person. Sometimes the antagonist is something like society or harsh weather. I have yet to find good information addressing this issue. I love your posts. I learn so much from them. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    • #30 by Author Kristen Lamb on March 21, 2011 - 11:01 pm

      Even if the BBT is society or the weather, there will be human proxies. I used the example in the comments earlier about “The Perfect Storm” and “Footloose.”

  21. #31 by Lisa Nowak on March 22, 2011 - 1:44 am

    Interesting. I always thought an antagonist had to be a “bad guy” who was purposely trying to thwart the protagonist. And since in a lot of books there isn’t one clear-cut bad guy, I figured in those books the protagonist was his own worst enemy. After all, there are a lot of books who don’t have a killer on the loose, a bully, etc. My own YA novel is this way. But looking after reading this, I see my protagonist actually has a series of antagonists as his goals change. His uncle (who later becomes his best friend) his mother, and his uncle’s girlfriend all challenge him at some point.

    At first I thought you were going to say having him be his own antagonist wasn’t enough, and I’d have to completely re-write the story, throwing an obvious bad guy in there. :)

    • #32 by Author Kristen Lamb on March 22, 2011 - 2:18 am

      It still isn’t enough. You need a clear BBT represented by proxies. “Bad guys” are only a type of antagonist (villain). But your protag needs a representative of whatever it is that he is struggling against or it is just a book that is a series of bad situations. We need a Big Boss Batte or the story is incomplete. In the Big Boss Battle the BBT is defeated…kind of hard to do if a kid is fighting himself.

      In the movie “28 Days” Gwen Cumming (played by Sandra Bullock) is up against alcoholism. Addiction is represented in a series of proxies… other addicts. Gwen’s boyfriend Jasper is a proxy of the disease and a mirror of who she has become and her value system (or lack thereof). The Gwen that is able to walk away from her party-life boozing boyfriend (Big Boss Battle) is not the Gwen who took off drunk in a limo at the beginning of the movie. She has changed. But along her way were people who represented both paths…people consumed by their addictions to the point of death vs. those who were clean and sober and knew how to live without booze. She is continually presented two choices and the story question is. “Will Gwen triumph over her addiction and choose a life of sobriety?” Of course in the “final battle” she can’t be fighting a mirror…so she must go up against Jasper. Will she slip back into that life and it cost her freesom and her relationship with friends and loved ones? OR will she break free and choose a sober life?

      Of course each story is unique, but my experience is that many new writers do the “he is his own worst enemy” stories because they didn’t understand the antagonist properly from the get-go.

      Antagonists are not necessarily bad guys, they just stand in opposition to the protag. If the protag wants the girl and so does another guy, it doesn’t make the other guy evil. If our protag wants to win the gold medal, we know only one person can get the gold. The other contestants aren’t “bad guys,” theya re just opposition.

    • #33 by HaleyWhitehall on March 22, 2011 - 4:08 am

      Okay. So if you write a story like “The Perfect Storm” do you have to have the BBT in mind or does it often naturally develop like themes in a novel? I’m wondering if I need to go back through my WIP and rewrite it to have human proxies.

      • #34 by Author Kristen Lamb on March 22, 2011 - 12:28 pm

        Read Larry Brooks, “Story Engineering.”

  22. #35 by Lisa Nowak on March 22, 2011 - 2:35 am

    If the kid’s problem is his temper, and the ultimate showdown is him choosing to use his other skills, rather than giving in to his anger, then he sort of is fighting himself, and he is defeating the BBT.

    • #36 by Author Kristen Lamb on March 22, 2011 - 12:26 pm

      You can do anything you want. I am merely giving advice for a solidly constructed story. People don’t one day change. There is an external plot that drives internal change, and there needs to be a Big Boss Battle with something external or you risk having a very unsatisfactory battle.

      If you watch movies where a kid turns away from gangs, there is always some main antagonist figure who is in a gang making it hard for the passionate English teacher to save the protag from a life on the streets. The final showdown is when the kid walks away from that life for good, no matter how he is threatened.

      Granted I haven’t read every book, but I just cannot think of even a literary piece that didn’t have a character manifestation of the inner problem. In “The Road” the character question is, “Will they maintain their humanity at all costs, even death?” But throughout the book, as father and son make their way to the sea, they run into many humans who have turned feral/cannibal. Real antagonists that represent that choice of doing anything to stay alive…it just costs your humanity.

      In fairness, I don’t know much about your story. If you shop it and an agent loves it. Great. If you have problems, then you have a likely starting point for revision.

      • #37 by Lisa Nowak on March 22, 2011 - 4:18 pm

        I think you’ve misunderstood me. I didn’t say the character suddenly changed one day. He takes 90,000 words to change, and the external forces that cause him to want to change are those mentioned above, his uncle, his mother, and his uncle’s girlfriend. When I initially responded to you, I was simply saying that I hadn’t considered that the definition of “antagonist” as defined in most books on writing includes people who aren’t necessarily mustache twirling villains, but instead can have the protagonist’s best interest in mind. At that point I wasn’t suggesting that there didn’t need to be an outside force causing the character to change. I’m not sure where you got that.

        As a matter of fact, I had an agent for a year and I got an offer from a publisher, but ultimately decided I wanted to publish it myself. I’m not sure why you’d assume I’m a beginner who hasn’t even shopped my novel.

        For the record, I don’t think a person needs to know all the definitions or understand all the jargon to write a good book. We internalize stories from early childhood. I would say the majority of authors do a lot of what they do by instinct, drawing on what we have absorbed. Later we may learn why we did what we did and find ways to do it more successfully. Or we may learn skills that allow us to fix what was missing or not working.

        • #38 by Author Kristen Lamb on March 22, 2011 - 4:35 pm

          Awesome news! Btw, I didn’t misunderstand anything. I knew you probably had it down, but I didn’t have a lot of information to go on, so all I can posit is a best guess from what I am given. If you have those external forces, then you did it correctly, which is evidenced by the fact that you are agented. If you look at my comment, I put that in my response. I said that if you had done it correctly, you would know by how others responded to your work…which is in the postive. so GREAT! :D

          But, in fairness, I didn’t know that you were agented and had very little to go off. I do have to expound on my responses in that there are many hopeful writers who are reading the comments for futher explication. So if I don’t qualify statements, I can create confusion for others.

          I knew what you were talking about and you are correct. That is a HUGE misconception. I was guilty. I heard the word “antagonist” and the mustache-twirling guy popped in my head.

          And yes, you are correct that someone doesn’t have to know all the jargon to write a good book, but training in our craft can only help us be stronger writers. Like someone can naturally have a great voice, but voice coaching might take that singer to a new level. Training in our craft also makes us more efficient in our work. Doing things by instinct can work, but training can make it work faster and better.

  23. #39 by Shari Green on March 22, 2011 - 3:26 am

    VERY helpful – thank you! I’ve often wrestled with defining the antagonist in my character-driven fiction. These bits in particular turned on a light for me: “who or what upsets the course of the protagonist’s life…” (my antagonist is a WHAT rather than a WHO); and “The Inciting Incident is whatever action the BBT Antagonist takes…” (I knew what my inciting incident was, but didn’t make the now-obvious connection between it and what must be the antagonist — which makes me feel a bit daft, but hey, live and learn, right?).

    • #40 by Author Kristen Lamb on March 22, 2011 - 12:33 pm

      There is no such thing as a character-driven piece. That is a myth (in my opinion). There is always an external plot. The only difference is the importance placed on the change. Is the character change paramount? Or is the situational change paramount. There is always an external plot driving inner change.

      In the drama “Gran Torino” it is the gang that forces Walter to care about his neighbors and ultimately chages who he is.

      In “Steele Magnolias” it is Shelby’s choice to have a baby despite life-threatening diabetes that starts the plot rolling and forces M’Lynn to give up trying to control everything.

      There is an external narrative that forces the character to grow.

  24. #41 by Marilag Lubag on March 22, 2011 - 5:54 am

    That explained it way better! So I’m guessing we need both an external and an internal antagonist to make our novels work? Thanks.

  25. #42 by Delorfinde on March 22, 2011 - 8:10 am

    Do you think it’s a bad thing if the BBT ends up turning, well, not good, but better? Like, they turn into a decent person because they realise what a beast they are.

  26. #43 by Gene Lempp on March 22, 2011 - 8:33 am

    Excellent post Kristen! The antagonist must always be external, even if the focus of the story is the change in a characters that fight themselves the forces that drive them to that change have to be external. Would an undisturbed alcoholic one day simply decide to stop drinking with no motivating reason? Probably not. However, having a daughter he loves ban him from a wedding (your example) could drive the change. So could having a major accident driving home from the liquor store, or a diagnosis of disease as a result of drinking, or being on the verge of losing ones job after showing up drunk one time to many. All these things can act as an antagonist (or the person carrying the news, i.e. a doctor, boss, policeman, etc).
    Great movie choices :)

  27. #44 by Naty Matos on March 22, 2011 - 12:21 pm

    Great post and great wealth of knowledge. I’ve been looking at my current project trying to figure out who the antagonist is, because I had the love interest and mostly internal “antagonists” and … my MC is her worse enemy…”being hit in the snoot”….ok ok…here it is! Back to work.

    Thanks for all this good information.

  28. #45 by PW Creighton on March 22, 2011 - 4:22 pm

    Wow, excellent analysis and very clever examples. I’ve heard the ‘self-conflict’ protagonist/antagonist so many times and this is a great means of addressing the fact a writer is just missing the tiny details that make for exceptional narrative.

  29. #46 by Jami Gold on March 23, 2011 - 3:20 am

    What a great way to look at the BBT in “own worst enemy” stories. I have a few of those hanging around here and this will be invaluable in making those work. Thank you!

  30. #47 by Aanna on June 9, 2011 - 1:27 am

    THIS POST IS AMAZING!!!

  31. #48 by Kyla on November 26, 2011 - 10:17 am

    Well, great post. I like making the protagonist conflict with his or her self, but I also like adding in a whole mass of other conflicting elements: the weather, wild animals, illness, conflicting characters, etc. Conflict is the fun part of a story, and I create a lot of it. It’s one thing I’m actually quite good at.

    But this was an interesting post, none the less. Thanks again for writing in such an easy to follow way, and have a great day! Happy writing!

  32. #49 by Anne R. Allen on November 26, 2011 - 12:56 pm

    Brilliant. Every first (& maybe 2nd and 3rd) time novelist needs to read this one. Creating a strong, believable antagonist is the hardest part of writing fiction. We don’t need mustache-twirling cartoon villains, but we gotta have something for the hero to fight against. LOVE this line about the Hobbits: It’s like “trying to take Gilligan on a covert Special Forces operation to take out Bin Laden.” ROFL.

  1. My Nemesis the Squirrel « The Quill, The Key, and the Compass
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