Who's Your Most Important Character?

So who is your most important character? If you can read titles, you've probably figured out the answer. Of course, the important question is actually why?

First, let's get the fluff out of the way. There's a tendency I've noticed in guides to sort of fluff things up and really drag out the word count. I don't have patience for that. There isn't going to be anything here I don't think might be genuinely useful for people. I value your time--and, if we're being candid here, my time--more than that. There may, at times, in this guide be some repetition in the spirit of making each blog post mostly independent, but I'll try to keep that under control.

So let's get down to the proverbial brass tacks. I decided to write this guide because I feel this is one of the biggest challenges facing new writers, and my goal is to create a guide to help anyone who reads it past this with minimal time and effort.

So, who is your most important character? That's a really good question, right?

It seems like it ought to be your main character your protagonist. The truth is, however, that your hero never be any better than the obstacles they face. in truth it's something that even affects us here in the real world, right? You never get to be the dragon slayer unless there are dragons.

If our hero is only as good as the challenge they rise to, then what sort of antagonist can we give them? What can we allow them to fight that will let them be the best protagonist they can be?

Fortunately, we have options. There are four main types of antagonists: internal, external, direct, and indirect.

I want to step aside here and say these classifications are fairly arbitrary. We don't have to divide them up this way, but we do need a common starting point from which to have this discussion.

So really the first thing that we have to ask as writers is, Who is our antagonist? If anything, the antagonist should be created before the hero; create the problem, then create the solution to it. Just like the real world.

Internal Antagonists

Internal enemy or internal antagonist is, of course, inside your protagonist. To put it another way, it is the realization of the truism I am my own worst enemy. Every single protagonist should suffer from this particular sort of enemy/antagonist to some degree. No one is perfect and so no hero is perfect, and, besides, perfect heroes are boring. They are boring, and they will ruin an otherwise good story. This is one of the mistakes that writers make, particularly starting out.

A protagonist without any internal antagonists is what writers call a Mary (or Marty) Sue, and you really don't want one of those. As with anything, these sorts of characters do make it into successful literature now and then. Consider Lee Child's Jack Reacher or Stephanie Meyer's Bella for reference.

What sort of internal antagonist can you give your protagonist?

I'd recommend a number of them, of varying severity and obviousness, and we get into that in the Internal Antagonist standalone post, for now we just need to lay out the concept.

So then really what we're looking at here is a chance to let our characters develop and grow as individuals or as some people like to call it a story.

External Antagonists

External antagonists are in many respects the easiest to think of, and certainly the easiest to create, because they're what everybody already thinks of when we talk about antagonists, right? This might be the Evil King or something of the sort, but really, it's just whatever's standing between your protagonist and their goal.

Without getting too far into it, external antagonists are external forces working against the protagonists. These can take many forms, from villains, to weather events, to the other sports teams, to the government, to the rebel alliance. The defining factor for any external antagonist is simply that it is something outside the hero's control that is acting upon them in a way that is not, as far as they know, beneficial to themselves.

Of course, in the greater scheme of things, some things that or someone that our protagonists think are working against them in fact end up helping them. Twists like this can dramatically enhance reader engagement with a story. When people go on an adventure with you, which is what's happening when they're reading your story, they don't really want to know where they're going to end up at the start. They probably want to guess, they might even be happy when they guess right, but they don't want to know. What a story is, in many respects, is a map to an adventure, and if they already know the map the readers have no reason to care about the one you created for them.

Direct Antagonists

Direct antagonists can be internal or external but a defining feature of the direct antagonist is the day or working purposefully against the protagonist. The direct antagonist exerts their antagonistic force, the vector if you will, directly against your hero.

A book or story should generally contain at least one direct antagonist, although it is not absolutely necessary. The reason is simply that a direct antagonist is something that your hero can play off directly which allows you to develop your protagonist more fully and often in a more entertaining manner. it doesn't change the fact that as in real life, in the story, you may well find that indirect forces are more than enough to get in your way or your protagonist way.

Sometimes we make allowances, where we break the rules in order to be entertaining, and this is one of those cases where, unless you're doing a very good job, you are going to have to make allowances and put in some sort of direct antagonist.

Indirect Antagonists

Indirect antagonists are any individuals or forces at work against your protagonist goals but not in and aware or direct fashion. in our own lives, here in the real world but nonfiction version of everything, but I have to the matter it is we really don't need people working against us most the time, in order to have challenges. In many cases our circumstances or the bank, or our own insecurities, or our tendency to procrastinate will be more than enough to create real challenges between us and achieving our goals. This is true most of our protagonist in most stories.

For that reason, is often a good idea to include one or two or several indirect antagonist work against your protagonist.

Hybrid Antagonists

We'll dive into this deeper in a later chapter, but right now those of you who point out that an antagonist can fit more than one of these four archetypes simultaneously are, of course, right. These four divisions are largely artificial, and I've created them not to be impenetrable boxes between these concepts in your mind, but so that we can apply them as relevantly as possible to the general concepts we're discussing.

The Combined Antagonist

There's no reason that our protagonist should only have to face one type of antagonist. If possible, they should face every type of antagonist, and, ideally, several of them. This goes back to what I was saying earlier Our Heroes are only as good as the enemies they face, the challenges they overcome, and what they go through to do so.

Each of these four types of antagonist can be combined or hybridized and has many subdivisions within it which I will delve into further in future installments to this series.

The Next Step

Every good guide, or bad guide for that matter, begins with an attempt at a common understanding. I bounced back and forth between wanting to dive into each type of antagonist and really pick them apart, but I think it would be more fun and draw more people in to take a look at some of the most common mistakes people make when creating antagonists. 

In the meantime, who was your favorite antagonist, and why? Movies, TV, books, they're all fair game!