I’ve had the pleasure over the past few summers to teach at Duke Young Writers’ Camp. One of my favorite courses was a Dark Fiction class for middle grade students. It was an opportunity to walk young writers through fiction that really pushes the boundaries.
Unsurprisingly, many of my young writers go a little too far. One infamous story featured a villainous assassin targeting a list of grandmothers. It was a great opportunity to talk about the differences between villains and more nuanced antagonists. Getting that part of the story right can be so pivotal. Antagonists are counterpoints, creators of conflict, tools to sharpen our main character against.
With that in mind, let’s walk through a new method for keeping up with the antagonists in our stories. It’s a method I call the three rings of conflict. Please enjoy my elementary school level drawing:
- The Immediate Threat
Some of the best stories employ a revolving cast of immediate threats designed to test the protagonist. The immediate threat is the person or object in a given scene with whom our main character feels the most tension. Put simply, they’re the person who keeps our protagonist from getting what they want. Draco Malfoy comes to mind for this role.
The best part about our immediate threat is that they don’t even have to be evil. In Chamber of Secrets, Dobby ends up playing this role on several occasions. You could also argue that Hagrid is the immediate threat to Harry’s health as often as Malfoy. I’d be surprised if there were two consecutive chapters in the entire series that don’t involve someone causing trouble for our boy HP. Why? The presence of a threat creates conflict, and conflict moves the plot forward.
While these threats don’t typically evolve into overarching threats, they do grow in power or increase in danger as their relationship to the protagonist transforms. Consider Draco Malfoy, who begins as a petulant brat but inevitably transitions to potential murderer.
- Surprise Friends/Surprise Enemies
These shapeshifting characters often end up being the most dynamic tools in our antagonist arsenal. Give us the heart of gold character who ends up betraying everyone. Or how about a few of those stony characters with heartbreaking backstories?
I’ve found two distinct ways to use these characters. The first way establishes reader expectations and chooses a specific moment to subvert them later. This is a great tool for sharpening climactic moments, leaving the reader and protagonist equally shocked when a side character diverts from their expected path.
Another method is to use that character to draw tension out through ambiguity. Instead of delivering a single moment of revelation, have the character move back and forth throughout the novel. This creates an unsettled feeling in the reader and the protagonist.
- The Overarching Enemy
Last but not least, the final boss. This threat looms above all else. If you’re reading a series, this character might not actually appear on the page for several books. Voldemort’s first efforts are dark—certainly—but always tempered versions of the actuality. The cruel boy from the journal is just a glimpse of the true version that manifests later in the series.
But here’s the key: Harry spends time thinking about the overarching threat in every book. There are scenes breaking down the vaunted prophecy. Whispers of a return. If Harry’s not busy facing an immediate threat, he’s often wrestling with the threat that he’ll one day have to face. That slow-burning tension creates a huge payoff for the moment where we finally encounter Voldemort. Our fear—and Harry’s fear—have both been brewing for several books.
So, how do you bring this method to the page?
That’s totally up to you. I draw a grid for each chapter and mark which antagonists appear in which sections. Keep in mind that you do occasionally want scenes without an antagonist. After all, sometimes our characters deserve to have an ice cream party that’s drama-free. But most of the time, I can pinpoint areas in my book where the pace slows too much or the reader loses interest simply by finding the chapters where those antagonists are absent. Or perhaps in chapters where I’ve repeated the same threat too many times in a row.
I hope this acts another tool in your arsenal. As you go back to your stories, keep in mind the wise words of Wreck-It Ralph: “I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me.”