Wednesday, October 25, 2023

The Faceless Villain: What to do When Your Protagonist Is the "Bad Guy"

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Not every story has a villain at its center—sometimes the problem is the protagonist.

For a lot of writers, the hardest-to-write conflict is the Person vs. Self conflict. Quite often, the antagonist is a physical being the protagonist can physically fight. But in a PvS conflict, there's no one plotting against the protagonist. The antagonist is something to overcome, such as depression, or grief, or a self-destructive streak that’s core to who the protagonist is and a flaw they need to fix by the end of the novel.

These stories are more challenging, but there’s no “Big Bad Guy” causing all the trouble.

But like any good conflict, even if your protagonist is dealing with a difficult personal issue, they'll still have an external antagonist to reckon with.

They aren't sitting in a room trying to will themselves not to be depressed/grief-stricken/addicted. That’s a boring story with no plot or narrative drive. Even in a PvS conflict the protagonist has goals and a plot.

(Here's more with What's the Problem? The Four Classic Conflict Types)  

Enter what Kristen Lamb calls, “the proxy antagonist.” This is the person who represents the personal problem the protagonist is dealing with.
  • If it’s depression, it might be a parent telling the protagonist that all they need is sunshine and positive thinking.
  • If it’s addiction, it might be a friend who likes to party and keeps dragging the protagonist to clubs.
  • If it’s grief, it might be a house full of memories that won’t let the protagonist move on, but a spouse won’t let them throw anything away.
For example, let's say your protagonist is struggling in her life, but isn't trying to seek help or acknowledging her depression. She's still going to have a goal of some type driving the story, even if that's to get everyone off her back and leave her alone. She’ll act in ways to achieve that goal. Something external.

The book isn't about "a woman who finds treatment for her depression." That's her character arc or the theme. The inner journey. What she does to deal with and treat her depression is the plot. If she's not doing anything but hiding in her room and ignoring the world while people try to help until she gets better, odds are you have a premise but no plot yet.

Regardless of the conflict type, all plots need goals so the protagonist has something to work toward. And someone or something is going to be in the way or trying to keep them from those goals.

Maybe it's Mom who doesn't notice she's hurting and makes the situation worse. Maybe it's friends who keep calling and she keeps blowing them off. Maybe it's someone who knows what she's going through and recognizes her “I’m fine really, I’m just tired” is all an act. Maybe it's her own behavior. Something.

If your protagonist knows she's depressed and wants to get better, then healing becomes the goal. But it still might not be enough, because with plots, you want a goal with conflict that creates stakes and rising tension.

Perhaps she wants to get better so she can go to her daughter's wedding, or see the Eiffel Tower. She wants to get better because...why? Even if it's "to get her life back" (a pretty common goal in a story like this), then what does that entail? What specifically needs to happen for that?

In this case, the depression itself is creating trouble in her life, but it's still not doing anything to directly oppose anything from a plot standpoint. It's a cause holding her back from what she wants for sure, but what does she want? And what are the obstacles to overcome that aren't “her depression.”

(Here's more with 7 Ways Your Characters Can Screw up Their Decisions)    

Something is in the way of her getting better. Getting her life back means getting treatment, reconciling with estranged loved ones, proving she can hold down a job. Whatever steps and events symbolize what "healing" means.

To heal, the protagonist will have things to do. Therapy. Medication. Lifestyle change. But the protagonist will also have issues the depression is causing. Her behavior will likely make her act in ways that lead her away from healing and her story goal.

Who is helping her engage in that negative behavior? Who is aiding her in her depression? Who represents “depression and the damage it can cause” in the story?

That’s your proxy antagonist, and the one working against what your protagonist wants and needs, even if they’re acting “to help” her.

It's Kind of A Funny Story is an example of a Person vs. Self conflict. The protagonist is depressed, is seriously thinking about suicide, and calls the suicide hotline. This leads to him checking himself into a psychiatric hospital to get well. His experiences in the hospital lead to his recovery, and he can get on with his life.

But that's not all the book is about. That would be boring from a fiction standpoint. There's a choice he has to make, a realization he has to have, sacrifices he has to accept. Hence you have plot, even though he’s struggling with a PvS conflict.

(Here's more with How to Use Conflict to Show Character Development)    

The story question driving the book isn't "will he get well?" but "Will he figure out the problem so he can get well?"

It's subtle, but it's the difference between watching someone go through a rough patch, and rooting for someone struggling with a problem and wanting them to win. The goal matters.

If your protagonist is facing a personal issue and not a flesh and blood antagonist, look for the things in their life that are affected by that issue. Find the goals and obstacles connected to it. Odds are the book isn't just a study of someone with X issue, but the things that issue affects and the choices that person makes to overcome or survive that issue.

(Here's more with The Inner Struggle: Guides for Using Internal Conflict That Make Sense)    

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and look at the characters in your story who help the protagonist “be worse” in some way. Who are the enablers? Who is leading them toward bad decisions and dangerous actions? Who doesn’t have their best interests at heart?

Do you write with Person vs. Self conflicts? What challenges have you faced, and what did you do to overcome them?

*Originally published February 2012. Last updated October 2023.

Find out more about conflict, stakes, and tension in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.

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  1. This is a really great post, Janice. I've not really looked at such plots this way. But now that you have me thinking, there are soooo many out there.

    The first that came to mind was the movie "Bucket List". The goal is to live life fully before cancer can catch up. But the goal for the protag was to see something truly magnificent and that was embodied in the goal of standing atop a mountain in the Himalayas. When that goal is unreachable at 2/3 of the movie, the viewer then thinks of that as only a symbolic goal. But to have the mountain return again in the end of the movie, gives the film a sense of accomplishment.

    I thought about my own WIP. I have several antagonists in the piece. But now that I think of it, the defeat of each represents victory, healing or other accomplishment as the protag proceeds toward wholeness and that "happily ever after."

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post. I know I'll be referring back to this in the future.

  2. Thank you for this. I was just discussing that my WIP doesn't have a physical bad guy, and trying to figure out how to have her battle the unseen villain. Thanks!

  3. This is a great post! my protagonist is facing an unseen problem (she's going blind) but what gets in her way is her unwillingness to change. She doesn't want to seek treatment and she's so unwilling to change and address her problems that she starts trying to control the lives of others around her who are definitely changing. Her goals are to keep the lives around her from changing because she thinks that will keep her life from changing. Of course, that doesn't work and by the midpoint she has to make some big changes/choices.

    wow. I needed to type all of that out in order to figure out if I am on the right track. I think so! Thanks so much for this awesome article.

  4. Great post! It's easy to forget to worry about plot when we're just worrying about the problem. Definitely 2 different things!

  5. Thank you so much for this article! The antagonist in my WIP is growth, the great change agent of all.

    Your insights will help me keep focused on the challenges of writing such a novel.

    Thank you again.

  6. Excellent points! I've read great books like this, and yes, there was more at stake than just "feelings." Thanks :D

  7. Thanks, you're right about emotions and non-human things can be antagonists. Good post about how to make the plot around them more substantial.

  8. Fantastic post, as always. It's funny--many of my favorite books are ones that deal with a problem emotionally rather than something physical, so now that you mention it, I can't help but realize and admire those who can write such a story and addict the readers to it. :)

    P.S. My word verification is "woreboo." LOL. Wore boo! Haha... :]

  9. What a great explanation of something that is often very hard to understand or describe. An external, flesh-and-blood antagonist is easier to understand and easier to beat in many ways. Thanks for this clear explanation!

    ...Now what happens when the protag has an internal AND external antagonist? ;)

  10. This is really great, thanks. My book has a faceless antagonist so I've had to make sure there are enough goals and obstacles to make up for it. I've been meaning to read It's Kind of A Funny Story so I should pick it up soon.

  11. Amelia, thanks! Good example of how antag symbols work. Antags aren't always a "bad" guy, but it's easy to think of them in only that way.

    Tasha, most welcome! Love when a post hits right at the perfect time for someone.

    Candace, happy to help. Just going through it sometimes can clarify what you're trying to do.

    Janet, great line, I love that.

    Mary, most welcome, and good luck with your novel!

    Julie, emotions play such a strong role in novels, but it's the reasons for those emotions that make it all work.

    Heather, thanks!

    Julianna, hehe great word. Sounds like a supernatural creature. "beware the woreboo!" Emotions hooks us, no doubt about it. But there's always something external that triggers those emotions. Even if it's subtle (and those are the really impressive books)

    Laura, you have a great story! Tastes will vary here, but I try to have both in every story, and also make sure they conflict in some way. If something is keeping your protag from what the want both internally and externally, then you have all kinds of things you can play with for deeper plots. Solving the external obstacle might conflict with that inner goal and vice versa. I can expand on this more if you'd like.

    Ghenet, it' s a great book, especially if you're writing that type of story. and best of luck with yours!

  12. Hey Janice, loving this series!!! Did I miss the part where you teach you in your spare time? Because you totally have a talent for making the abstract more clear! Thanks for all you do. I appreciate you! (And your posts! hehe).

  13. Excellent post. Some new writers make the mistake of thinking an antagonist must be a mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash character. It can often be a disease, a cultural institution or society itself.

  14. Thank you so much for this. I was certainly stuck in my story. I have not written for weeks because nothing I was writing was being truthful to my characters. So, I let it go.

    Then I stumbled upon your blog. Your guidance triggered lots of ideas and I began taking notes (when I should be working on my day job, lol). I was able to flesh out the goals, the character arc and the overall story question! I had a vague idea about where I was going before, but now...while it's not crystal clear it for darn sure feels more like I have an accurate road map.

    You're a gem!

  15. DB, thanks so much :) I did teach for a few years, and this blog is the extension of that.

    Anne, exactly :) Often harder to do, but sometimes more fun and better for the story.

    Yolanda, that's awesome! It always makes my day when I hear the blog helped a fellow writer (which is the whole reason I do it). Best of luck on your story!

  16. Thank you for this post! Now if only I can figure out how to incorporate this into a query. I've got the character, the goal, and the obstacles, but I'm still getting feedback like "the stakes aren't high enough" and "who's the bad guy?" Do stakes always have to be life or death?
    In my story, the superficial goal is to save his sister, who's been kidnapped and is about to be married. I've been getting feedback like, "Why doesn't the sister just marry her kidnapper?" ...Seriously? Do I need to spell it out in the query?
    The ultimate problem, though, is that the protagonist is controlling, and it's driving his family away. Likewise, I'm getting feedback that the stakes aren't high enough.
    Should I just ignore this feedback?

    1. The stakes don't have to be life or death, though they're usually life changing to the character. If failing to resolve the problem or achieve the goal doesn't have meaningful repercussions, the stakes can feel low.

      If readers are saying that, odds are it's not clear enough yet why marrying the kidnapper is so bad. That would also connect to the low stakes comment. Try showing why these things as so bad and how they will affect the protagonist's life--and why he'd want to avoid this fate.

      If it's one person in ten saying that and everyone else thinks the stakes are clear and high, then yes, you can ignore that feedback. Some people just don't get a book sometimes. But if you're getting the same feedback from multiple sources, then there's still an issue to resolve with the query.

  17. Thanks Janice, this is fantastic. The novel I'm planning right now is a man vs self themed story. The external goal is what I've been missing, and now is the focus of my planning.

    Thanks again!

  18. Wow! This is exactly what I was searching for! My protagonist is struggling with undue guilt rooted in the past and he's angry because he lost his family to a simple accident. It just happened. There's no bad guy to hate or to blame.

  19. This is awesome, my character is struggling with trust in order to move on with her life. Her past comes back to bite her, but in the end it's not actually the trust that created the problem. Rather, her newfound trust rescues her from the situation.

    1. Thanks! Sounds like a fun internal conflict to play with :)

  20. Sounds good! I'd love to read her story. I always told my girls that, sometimes there's no bad guy. No boogeyman. That's a harsh reality because that means there's no one else to blame or to he angry with.

    1. So true, and a good lesson in life and in fiction.

  21. This is a great post. Thanks for republishing it! I think internal conflict is one of the things I struggle with most in characters. I know it's a valid premise, but how to show that is a different matter. I'm going to reexamine my characters now, k, thanks, bye!

    1. Janice Hardy10/26/2023 8:39 AM

      Thanks! It's always tough, especially in more plot-centric stories. I treat it as external conflict is what makes the goals physically harder to accomplish and internal conflict is what makes them emotionally harder to accomplish.