I’m not a fan of planning things out in minute detail. If I do that, by the time I get to the writing, I’m already bored of the story. It’s never worked out well for me before.
But I was looking at the basic notes and the first few chapters of my story the other day, and I realised that I didn’t really have much in the way of antagonising forces.
As someone once said – the cat sat on the mat is description. The cat sat on the dogs mat is a story.
So if conflict makes a story, then does it follow that there must be an overarching antagonistic force? I’m not necessarily talking a blood and bones individual antagonist here. For example, look at Harry Potter. The main antagonistic character is Voldermort – but he doesn’t truly show up until the last chapters of the first two books, and doesn’t even make an appearance in the third.
Instead, often what Harry is fighting for is to be accepted. That’s all he wanted from his adoptive family, that’s all he wants from school and friends. So anyone making him stand out, either by antagonising him, or making him out to be bigger than he is, or forcing him to be a hero, is a driver of that antagonistic force.
Voldermort is part of that. So is Draco, and Snape, and Ron’s jealousy. Individual antagonistic events, but they’re all connected by this. As the books go on, Harry’s motivations change – revenge, anger, love. While there may be many antagonists, they all contribute to the antagonistic force that he is pushing against.
So without an overarching antagonistic force to push against and worry at my main character, I had antagonists, but they were all over the place, and thus, they didn’t have much of an impact on my character. They may have been hard for him to defeat, but they didn’t force him to change, or weigh him down mentally.
I finally figured out that it was because they had no connection to each other. These events were just the shit he had to get through on a weekly basis. Difficult, yes. Memorable, no.
So I had to think about what my character wanted – to become a doctor and serve his community. Great. But why did he want that?
He wanted that because his brother had bled to death in his arms and he was sick of the fate that was granted to those in his community. So what did he want? He wanted to cheat fate.
And then, suddenly, all my antagonistic forces tied themselves together. Still the same events and people, but if they reminded my MC of the fate he was trying to avoid. They hammered home the message that he would never get out, that his fate would follow him everywhere, stop him from getting his love interest, stop him from achieving his freedom from his fate. As such, these events had a much greater impact.
As individual events, they made things difficult for him. But unless one totally defeated him (in which case it’d be the end of the book), they weren’t going to effect much. They were basically scenery. Interesting scenery, but scenery none-the-less.
Tied together, they not only made things hard for the MC, but they shaped the story and how it evolved.
So if you don’t have one individual making things hard for your MC, figure out what your MC wants, not just on the surface, but really wants. Your overarching antagonistic force will be that which is in conflict with that foundational need. If you can then adjust all the forces that work against the MC so they reflect, in some small part, this overarching antagonistic force, your conflict will have a much greater impact on the reader. It’ll be like he’s being constantly hammered by something that doesn’t want him to succeed, rather than just having hammers thrown at him.
There is a difference – one is personal, the other is just part of the landscape. And while both are interesting, the personal always has a better effect.