A friend of mine asked if books always have to include a ‘bad guy’ or if the antagonist can just be ‘life happening’. That made me wonder if the underlying question isn’t actually more along the lines of defining just what an antagonist is.
I know there are genres out there where antagonists are still villains, still the black hats out to destroy the world. But for the most part antagonists these days have to be as multi-layered as everyone else. Believable, in other words, as most of us already know.
But at it’s most basic definition, an antagonist is the one who causes conflict for the protagonist. And that could be anyone. In some ways it almost needs to be all the characters. I think each one should provide some sort of conflict (internal or external). Their purpose for existing in the story must tie into the plot. Even the friend, or supporter, or lover of the protagonist must in some way add conflict. Think about it. How boring would a secondary character be if all she did was be the ever-cheerful, ever-supportive best friend?
And of course the antagonist can be non-human. You have the solitary survivor of a plane crash trying to make it through the bush in Alaska and she’s the only human in the book. But her antagonists are hungry wild animals, nature, her own fears, her own lack of knowledge, etc.
Each antagonist creates something the hero must overcome, adapt to, survive, etc. In that sense, going back to my friend’s question, I suppose depending on the story, the antagonist could be ‘life happening’. Depending on how that was written. If it’s someone simply dealing with the stresses of long grocery lines, though, those conflicts are going to get mighty boring.
Because us readers want someone to root for, and that means needing someone to root against. Or something to root against. No matter what type of fiction we read, I think we all want to see someone win and someone lose. How they win, or how they lose will depend on the genre, story, market, etc.
And hey, let me just tip my black hat here before I stroll away. Because at the even more basic layer, the author is the biggest antagonist of them all. Think about it. Aren’t we always looking at ways to screw things up for our hero?
What do you think? Does a story always have to have an antagonist? And how do you define one?