Antagonists are such a pain. Why should a writer bother with one, or more? All they do is cause trouble!
Exactly! A story needs to have opposing forces, conflict, and struggle. Otherwise, it won’t be a story worth writing–or reading. Creating your protagonist (main character) and sending him on his merry way might be the easy part. Pitting someone or something against him (the antagonist) is another matter. Now that you know you need one, let’s explore some options. And just so you know, you can (and probably should) have more than one!
The Natural World
Let’s say you send your main character (MC) out into the world on some sort of quest or adventure. The weather may be picture-perfect as he starts out, but then it turns. The sky that was blue now has storm clouds building, the temperature drops, and there is nowhere to find shelter from the approaching storm. Does your MC mistakenly eat something that makes him sick? No food? No water? Can’t build a fire to stay warm? Wild animals circle and threaten to attack? At the expense of your MC, you can have great fun throwing roadblocks into the path of success.
Are there otherworldly threats that can harm/destroy your MC or make his quest unattainable? Can others read his thoughts and/or emotions? Is there a social structure that prevents him from getting where he needs to go and achieving his goal? Is there a traitor in his midst? Have fun exploring the possibilities of causing some major trouble for your MC!
Your MC may find that someone he considered a friend has betrayed that friendship for his own benefit or at some point shows their true colors. Perhaps a romantic partner has been unfaithful and lied to cover it up. Someone your MC depended on has suddenly gone missing, or worse.
Characters don’t always need to be human, so think about other aspects of your story. Has the city where your MC grew up changed from friendly and familiar to dangerous and hostile? Has a medication that has always been stable and dependable suddenly triggered an allergic reaction? Perhaps someone hacked into your MC’s bank account and cleaned it out. Maybe his car has been stolen or towed. The documents your MC needed have gone missing. A beloved pet hasn’t returned! About the pet I just mentioned… it seems a good place for a reminder that antagonists don’t always have to be bad. They just have to oppose or stand in the way of your MC reaching his goal.
Your Own Worst Enemy
Can an antagonist reside within the protagonist? At first, it sounds weird and creepy, but hear me out. Can the antagonist be an unfounded fear of something? Nightmares that can’t be explained? What about a bad habit that your MC is trying to overcome? Example: Your MC is pretty sure he has that smoking/drinking habit licked, then one evening it all comes crashing down. Has something happened in your MC’s past that makes it hard for them to trust again? Are they afraid of failing or succeeding, or both?
As a writer, you need to ensure your MC gets over/around/through the roadblocks you’ve put in his way in order to bring your story to a satisfying conclusion. Some, but perhaps not all. Antagonists come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Some will be overcome, and some may remain. That’s for you, the storyteller, to decide.