Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Antagonists and the Source of Conflict

Writing Wednesday

When we talk about the fundamentals of writing, we often juxtapose protagonist and antagonist without any separate consideration of the source of conflict. Because the antagonist is often the source of conflict, particularly in realistic stories, this gloss is fine. But other times, the antagonist is motivated to oppose the protagonist by an external source of conflict.

It helps to be clear on the distinction between the antagonist and the source of conflict, and to understand the structural implications for stories where they are one and the same, and stories where they are distinct.

The antagonist opposes the protagonist by acting against him or her. In order to show and understand the conflict that drives the story, the antagonist must be introduced at about the same time as the protagonist.

The source of conflict is the person or agency that causes the antagonist to act against the protagonist, either directly through some sort of motivation (the bad guy sends his henchmen), or indirectly by creating the conditions that force the protagonist and the antagonist to compete (they must fight to the death in the arena).

Emperor Palpatine (Wikipedia)
For example, in a fairy tale, the minion sent out to slay the child of destiny and who tries but fails during the course of the book is an antagonist, while the evil queen who sent the minion is the source of conflict. Often the climax includes the revelation that the minion, whom we thought was pretty bad, is nothing compared to the queen.

You might argue that the source of conflict is the ultimate antagonist because many stories end only when the protagonist finally manages to destroy the source of conflict. If you want to think in terms of major and minor antagonists, that's fine.

But it's important to be clear on the distinction between the character who actively opposes your protagonists and the reason that character opposes the protagonist. The Emperor Palpatine was the source of conflict and Star Wars didn't end until he was destroyed, but it was Darth Vader who most actively opposed Luke and Han.

Image: Simon Howden /

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