Monday, February 13, 2023

There is No Bad Guy: What to do When Your Antagonist Isn't a Villain

By Janice Hardy. @Janice_Hardy 

All stories need an antagonist, but not all stories have a villain. 

The word antagonist usually conjures an image of a "bad guy," but that's not always the case. The antagonist in a story is simply the opposition to whatever the protagonist is trying to accomplish. 

A mother trying her best to stop a willful child from going down a destructive path is the antagonist to that child, same as a terrible storm is an antagonist to a hiker trying to reach safety on a mountain. 

An antagonist can come from any of the four basic conflict types, and they each focus on a different type of conflict opposition. We've discussed the person vs. self antagonists, and person vs. nature conflicts, so let's continue with the person vs. society conflicts.
The most famous person vs. society story is probably the short story, "The Lottery," by Shirley Jackson. A town is excited about the lottery about to happen, and it turns out that event is a random selection of a townsperson to stone to death. It's a gruesome look at how people blindly follow traditions, even when it's not in their best interests.

This harsh look at society is a key factor in a person vs. society conflict, because the point is usually to shed light on problems or injustices in our own society. 

A more recent example of a person vs. society conflict is the movie In Time. It's a world where people have been genetically altered to stop aging at 25, with a one year advance on their lives after that. To continue living, then need to get more time. They work and are paid in actual time (as in it gets added to their lives). The rich live for centuries, the poor struggle with just days (or less) left. The protagonist is a poor guy named Will who is living hour to hour so to speak.

It's a look at how the rich get richer while the poor struggle.  

Will's beef is with the society he lives in, not any one person. 

He just wants to live his life, and he isn't trying to bring down a specific person--it's the system he hates. The culture and ideals of the world he lives in make it impossible for him to be happy and enjoy his life. The system doesn't care one whit about him, so it's not personal or directed at him specifically. The broken system is the antagonist, but it's pretty much everyone's antagonist.

Will eventually decides to fight the system, and thus fight the society he lives in, and the rules of that society are the obstacles he has to overcome.

Just like a person vs. self conflict, a person vs. society conflict will have representatives for the protagonist to fight directly against. In Will's case, it's a timekeeper (a cop) who's just doing his job and trying to keep the system running. He has no personal stake in Will's problem, but he represents what's wrong and is the person getting in Will's way and helping to drive the plot and provide stakes.

(Here's more on what to do when your bad guy isn't a person)

Eventually things do get personal, and Will does find a bigger, more classic "villain" to focus on--a man with enough time to live forever, and the person who controls the time banks and the system itself. Bring him down, change the system.

This is a common element to a person vs. society conflict--changing the status quo. 

Whether or not it happens doesn't matter, it's the fight to do so that provides the goals and narrative drive. The Lottery is a good example of a person vs. society story that doesn't end on a happy note, and isn't trying to change anything. 

(Here's more on adding conflict to your scenes)

Like any good plot, there will be challenges to overcome in a person vs. society conflict.

To start, there's always a trigger for the protagonist to want to change society. No one wakes up and says, "I think I'll risk everything and try to change the world today." 

Something happens that makes the status quo unacceptable. (Your inciting event.) This will most likely be deeply personal and a strong enough trigger to make the protagonist act in ways they never would. Sometimes, the protagonist doesn't start out wanting to change the world, it's just their only way to survive.

(Here's more on crafting the inciting event)

The early problems and conflicts are typically examples of the system and why it's bad. 

Readers see how society and its rules hurt the protagonist, the detrimental effect it has on the people they care about. You'll also see society trying to reassert control any time someone steps out of line, which establish the stakes and consequences. You'll most likely have characters to fill the roles of society here, people the protagonist can spar against and fight.

Before long the protagonist typically finds the one person/thing that is the biggest symbol of the society they're trying to overcome (and the personal issues they're trying to resolve), or be the thing that will actually bring about change if destroyed or altered. 

There's a good chance this will happen in the third act, and drive the story to its climax. A good example here is Agent Smith vs. Neo in The Matrix. Not only is Smith a symbol of what's wrong, he's also unhappy with the status quo and blames Neo for it, adding a fun twist.

By the end of the story, the protagonist has either instigated a change (for good or bad), or has lost to the system. 

How far to either side that is depends on your story. You might blow society out of the water or you might have done just enough to start society on a path toward change, even if you failed. Repent Harlequin! Said the Ticktock Man is an example of this type. Sure, the hero "loses" but does he really? He does trigger a small change, which suggests things within that society will change. 

Person vs. society conflicts are probably the easiest conflicts after person vs. person, because there are so many ways in which the society can cause the protagonist trouble. There are tangible obstacles to overcome, established stakes, and a ton of thematic elements to work with. They're also a nice mix of the grand idea and the personal problem, which are a lot of fun to play with--especially if you have some heavy themes or issues you want to explore.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and explore the conflicts in your current project. Are there any ways you can use society to cause trouble for your protagonist? Would it benefit the tale you're telling? You don't have to add one, of course, but it could be a way to layer in more conflict if it fits your story.

How do you feel about person vs. society conflicts? What are some of your favorites? Have you ever written one? Have one in the works? 

*Originally published February 2012. Last updated February 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. Sabrina Alexander2/17/2012 9:47 AM

    When She Woke by Hillary Jordan is an excellent example. As you mentioned above, there are several representatives of the antagonist's (society's) struggle, though the change the protag makes is small at the end. It's easy to imagine the seeds growing to spark larger change. I found that a realistic and thought provoking ending.

  2. I think the lines between "man vs. society" and "man vs. man" can blur. In some fantasy books I've read, the objective is to bring down the tyrant who is the cause of the terrible societal problems (corruption, poverty, etc). In that case, like in this, the Big Bad Guy is a symbol for everything that's wrong with the society. However, it usually works in the opposite direction from what you described -- hero decides to take down Big Bad first and ends up solving societal problems, rather than hero sets out to take down society and ends up having to take out a Big Bad in order to do so.

    Hope that made sense/was relevant...

  3. Ooh, this is so great! It really helps me to think of villains in these four types of conflict, because my villains generally end up just like this: the antagonist to the protagonist, but not a true "Villain". Thanks for this!

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  4. Oddly, I think the story I have in the works is something that works it's way towards this. It's just a matter of self-discovery turned discovery of society then on to pitting the main character against the establishment.

    I'm a little nervous about it but working to see how it will turn out. Thanks for this post as it's pretty helpful as I begin the first revision of the first draft. I know I have a LOT of work ahead of me.

  5. Love these stories! Hunger Games comes to mind, even though there are plenty of villains in that story.

  6. Great wealth of info here, thanks!!

  7. Great post Janice! Going to link it to my blog.

  8. Great tips, Janice and I love the sound of that book too.

  9. Thanks all! I've been having fun with this series. I get such a kick out of examining the nitty gritty of writing (I know I'm weird)

    Laura, oh totally, and that's half the fun. My book was like that actually. A small problem that turned into a societal one.

    Julie, I almost used Hunger Games as an example. :)

  10. I feel the best story is when the antagonists goals are actually quite courageous rather than selfish. It create a character which not only questions the traditional novel, but can also create ways to connect to the protagonist. Alternatively a good antagonist is the one which you do not expect to be evil, in fact you saw him as a good guy right up to the reveal. A good example of this is Captain Aizen from Bleach. ( although that is a Manga)

    1. Those are my favorite antagonists myself. Even when they're evil, I like to see the reasons why and understand them.

  11. This is very helpful, thank you so much!

  12. Thanks, Janice! This couldn't have come at a most perfect time. I was dithering about my WIP's genre, but after reading your well thought out article the veils lifted in my mind. Heroine-v-patriarchal family it is! 😊

    But, I wonder if having two aspects is too much? I have a girl in a patriarchal family and their clan's society restrictions, but also she and her family are trying to fit in as immigrants to a larger society that excludes them.

    Would love to hear your thoughts. I need the two fields of antagonism, but which one needs to dominate? That's my dilemma. 😊

    1. Sorry for getting to this late...(so behind on comments!)

      Which one does the core conflict connect to? That would be the main problem. If it works, you could always make one the plot conlfict and the other the internal conflict/character arc conflict. Or maybe both are different aspects of the conflict, but the problem is something else.