8 Ways to Antagonize Your Characters


What do you call two convicts in a dispute?

A conflict.

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HAHAHAHA, okay, now simmer down. I know that joke was funny but it’s time to get serious. Serious… about conflict.

As you know, conflict is essential to a good story. It’s the disturbance of the Force, or that whip on the ass of your hero that spurs him into action.

And we humanfolk luuuuuv it, especially when it’s happening to other people. Like Maynard James Keenan said:

Eye on the TV
’cause tragedy thrills me
Whatever flavour
It happens to be like;
Killed by the husband
Drowned by the ocean
Shot by his own son
She used the poison in his tea
And kissed him goodbye
That’s my kind of story
It’s no fun ’til someone dies

So how is conflict created and where does it come from?

To put it frankly, if conflict’s the whip, then you, my friend, are the slave driver. You gotta swish and flick that sucker! And here are a few ways how.

Your character has secrets. Reveal them!
We all have things that we’d rather keep to ourselves. Maybe it’s a mistake we’ve made or something we’re not proud of.

The thing about secrets is, they’re like little nuclear bombs. In the wrong hands, they can be devastating.

Knowledge is power, and when someone knows something you don’t want them to know, that gives them power over you.

In the first season of Downton Abbey, Lady Mary is involved in something that, if discovered, would make for quite a scandal. Conflict ensues when Mary’s secret ends up with the wrong people (one of these being the head of a major newspaper) resulting in blackmail, slander, and other wonderfully wicked things.

And they don’t even have to be bad secrets. Maybe your hero has no money but is too proud to ask for help, or she gets cancer and can’t bear the grief of telling her friends that she may be dying soon. In this case, maybe it’s not an enemy but a friend who spills the beans.

Spread rumors like jam on toast.
I hate when people gossip in real life, but in a book I gobble that stuff up. So your hero doesn’t have anything to hide? No biggie, your antags will just have to be more creative.

A small lie in the right ear can be devastating, just as a small match and a little wind can cause a great big fire. The quicker that fire spreads, the harder it is to put out. Add a few shady coincidences and even your readers won’t know who to believe.

Isn’t it the sweetest mockery to mock our enemies? – Sophocles
People are cruel, and in a world where sticks and stones get you thrown in prison, a few choice words can make for quite the substitute.

If you’ve ever been teased or witnessed someone else being teased, you know just how freaking awful it is. The more sensitive and relatable the issue, the more impact it has. Teasing someone about a big nose is one thing, teasing them because their dad died… that’s just wrong.

As hard as it is, tease your characters. Gang up on them, bully them, make them cry. It’s hard to do, but the payoff is worth it. Your reader will love your hero more and hate the villain worse than ever.

Humiliate them.
Similar to above, humiliating your character can go a long way. Be it the hero or the villain, use this as a tool to garner sympathy for your characters.

Give something to them.
Give your characters something they don’t want. Be it a baby, homework, or herpes.

Whatever it is, make sure it gets in the way of something your character wants. And bonus points if the thing weighs heavy on their shoulders or heart or mind (as these things tend to do).

Hey, Clark. You want a bonus check? How about a One Year Membership to the Jelly of the Month Club? or, Hey, Clark, guess who showed up for Christmas this year?

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Take something from them.
Remember in A Game of Thrones when Arya’s direwolf attacked Joffrey? Remember what happened next? Slight spoiler ahead. Arya had to chase her wolf away to save it from execution. Her friend was murdered by the Hound. And to top it all off, Ned Stark was forced to kill his other daughter’s wolf, Lady, to appease the queen.

If you really want to get your character’s goat, take the things they love. Your readers will love you for doing it. (Sick bastards.)

Damned if I do, Damned if I don’t.
Okay, I’ve already used a Downton Abbey reference but, man, this one is too good to pass up. If you’re not caught up with season 3, do not read this.

SPOILER ALERT!
In the middle of the third season, Lady Sybil Branson is about to give birth to the first grandchild of the Grantham family. During the birth, her family doctor, Dr. Clarkson, says that he believes she is showing signs of pre-eclampsia and urges the doctor attending her birth along with Sybil’s father to get her to the hospital. Sir Philip Tapsell, MD, being very prideful, ignores Dr. Clarkson’s warning.

When Sybil’s mother begins to panic, her father, Lord Grantham, must make a hard decision. Does he trust the family doctor and risk hurting the pride of the esteemed Sir Philip, or ignore Clarkson’s warning and risk his daughter’s life? The result, and here’s the spoiler, is that he sides with Sir Philip and Lady Sybil dies.

Lord Grantham is devastated, not only because he lost his daughter, but because he could have saved her. This consequences gives rise to new conflicts as his wife struggles to forgive him.

END SPOILER

The point I’m trying to make is that your characters should be faced with hard choices. What makes those choices hard is that there’s no winning either way. Something is gained and something is lost no matter which way you go, and conflict always follows.

And that’s my list. If you have anything to add – like better, more coherent examples – feel free to share them in the comments. But you don’t have to! I mean, it’s no skin off my back.

Nope, I don’t care either way…

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