Questionable: Can a Love Interest Be an Antagonist?

K asked:
“I have a question about villains – and layering them so that they engage with each other and the heroine. Some say the hero (love interest) is the main antagonist, others say there needs to be a stronger antagonist because he’s not one by the end. What say you? What have you found works the best?  Do more antagonists pop up as you write? How do you like to layer them? Do you have a limit/rule that you like or use?

Let’s start with the basics.

The protagonist (not the hero) of a story owns it; her need to reach her goal and the actions she takes to get there are the reason the story moves forward.  

The antagonist (not the villain) of the story shapes it; his efforts to block the protagonist and reach his goal determine the story’s path and the escalating conflict. 

Example: Without the antagonist, Indiana Jones would say, “Oh, there’s the Ark of the Covenant” and go pick it up. Because Belloq the Nazi archeologist has it and keeps blocking him, Jones has to go find Marion, travel to the Middle East, battle snakes (he doesn’t fall into the snake pit, Belloq pushes him in), and hitch a ride on a U-Boat before he can rescue the girl and the world. Without Belloq, there is no Raiders of the Lost Ark.

So you need one protagonist and one antagonist per story, or your plot ends up being a lot of cats running around, barging into each other.  The antagonist can have minions, witting or unwitting, but there has to be one Big Bad to guide them all with his master plan.  Same with the protagonist who can have friends and partners and teammates, but she alone has the goal that fuels the plot.

I’m going to repeat this because it’s important: The antagonist is not the villain, he’s just the character who pushes back against the protagonist, who is not the hero. Giving a moral dimension to those character roles as you think them through can skew them into cartoons. Nobody gets up in the morning and says, “Today I’m going to be an evil son of a bitch.” Don’t give that attitude to your antagonist because it’ll flatten his characterization.

As to whether the hero, which you’re collating with “love interest,” can be the antagonist, that depends on the story. I wrote about this over on Writing/Romance, so here’s a link to a more detailed explanation: https://writingandromance.wordpress.com/2015/10/26/conflict-in-romance-plots/

The short version of that post is, if your plot has the love interest character blocking your protagonist from her goal, then the love interest is the antagonist (see Moonstruck).  If your plot is the protagonist vs somebody else, and the love interest comes in to help her fight (see Charade), the love interest is not the antagonist.  It’s much easier to write a romance where the antagonist is not the love interest because a good climax has the protagonist utterly defeating the antagonist or vice versa. That’s a bad start to a relationship unless the defeat in some way sets the other character free.  Again, there’s more on that at the link.

The key to deciding protagonist and antagonist in your story is to jettison the value labels–heroine, villain, love interest–and think in term of character functions.

• Whose pursuit of the goal drives the main story? That’s your protagonist.

• Whose pursuit of a goal blocks the protagonist’s pursuit and shapes the plot of the story as she or he pushes back? That’s your antagonist.

Or even simpler, who, if you removed him or her from the book, would cause the conflict to collapse? In Nita, I’m finding it pretty easy to delete Mort. I could even lose Nick, and Nita would still be dealing with Lemmons and rotten rangers. But if I took out the Cthulhu character, Nick wouldn’t come to Earth and there’d be no supernatural crime for Nita to investigate. There’s my antagonist.


16 thoughts on “Questionable: Can a Love Interest Be an Antagonist?

    1. Yep. Mark was there as a subplot, but that was a these-people-need-to-set-each-other-free plot.

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      1. For a while I thought it might be Bill since he is the one who sets everything in motion (hiring Charlie, taking Allie off the prime-time program, and generally directing the plot) but I did not know if he would be central enough for the antagonist.

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        1. Go back to protagonist/goal = story. Allie wants to produce an outstanding radio show. She loses Mark’s show, but she’d have gone to one of the other DJs and made them stars and Bill wouldn’t have been in her way. The only way Allie doesn’t get what she wants is if Charlie refuses to be a star. Charlie just wants to fix Bill’s problem and get the hell out of Dodge. The only one who can stop him doing that is Allie, or his strong attraction to her. They’re protagonist and antagonist.

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  1. Hmm. If I’m remembering Charade correctly, Audrey doesn’t really know if she can always trust the love interest, though. The big reveal at the end gives her more info on him, but up until then her lack of certainty adds to the overall conflict (for her at least). Which adds a whole other layer to the story I think. Not always easy to pull off in the writing but nice bonus if it works. Can’t remember what I thought of it on my first viewing, though–been a while since then, lol.

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    1. The key is, who if removed from the story would cause the conflict to collapse?
      It’s not Cary Grant, it’s Walter Matthau. Without Walter, nobody gets killed and Reggie isn’t threatened.

      4+
  2. There’s something to be said for how a lot of TV shows these days start with the protagonist and their ex.
    Rather than the first season featuring their meet-cute and falling in love for the first time, it lets there be preexisting history and unresolved conflict which they have to work through, culminating in a reconciliation.

    There’s also the fanfic-catnip of fake dating variants, wherein the couple is publicly allied but secretly antagonists, until they aren’t.

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    1. It’s your book, you can have anything you want.
      But if you want a focused narrative, you want one protagonist. Otherwise you’re telling two stories at once, so every time you get a narrative push started, you have to switch stories and start the push over again. Plus readers are going to like one of the stories better (different readers will like different stories) and find the other story annoying. “Why are we reading about Jane; bring back Joan.”
      But mostly, a two-protagonist story would be a bitch to plot; here’s Jane heading toward her goal, whoops here’s Jane’s antagonist blocking her as he goes for his goal, now they’re locked in conflict, whoops here’s Joan working toward her goal, here’s Joan’s antagonist blocking her goal, now they’re locked in conflict, oh, wait, there’s Jane . . ,
      Give one of the protagonists a subplot that intersects and complements the main plot in some way. Stick with one protagonist.

      3+
      1. This explains why I am not thrilled with some of Charles de Lint’s work. He has a story with about 5 different protagonist who are mostly pursuing the same goal. And each has their own chapter. I find that I am skipping whole chapters because I am more interested in another characters story and I know the other protagonist will weave back in so I don’t bother with what they are up to. Although with the last two books of his that have done this, I have stopped reading him.

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      2. How do you work out a plot with another author? I just read Dogs & Goddesses. All three heroines are up against the same protagonist. So you’re doing multiple protagonists and you have different authors writing them.

        By the way, I’m rereading Dogs & Goddesses while I ride the stationary bike. I have to remember to return the book to the bathroom afterwards so my husband can read it while he’s spending time in there. It’s not as complicating as plotting, but it’s a bear.

        5+
        1. 1. Decide on who your protagonist will be, what her/his goal is, and how she/he will relate to the other collaborators. It’s a good idea to pick one as first-among-equals. We didn’t on Unfortunate Miss Fortunes, can’t remember if we did on Dogs and Goddesses, Bob always said my protagonist should be first (more women read than men).

          2. Decide on your common antagonist and how he/she thwarts the protagonist goals.

          3. Decide on the climax with all three together defeating the antagonist.

          4. Block on the turning points, the events that change the story in a new direction. They don’t have to be the same scene for the all three protagonists (or however many you have), but it’s one turning point, so one event that turns all three protagonist plots.

          5. When you have enough written, meet in a great apartment in the Village in NYC with a lot of post-its and block out the plot, one color for each protagonist. Do not kill the collaborator who says, “I don’t know what time of day it is, why does it matter?”

          6. Keep that master plan in mind, checking with other writers if you have to change it. Share every damn scene you write.

          7. Combine all the scenes. Read through. Despair.

          8. Rewrite, confer.

          9. Rewrite, confer.

          10. Rewrite . . .

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      3. What I currently seem to have is two protagonists working towards mostly overlapping goals, with one antagonist blocking both of them. Or rather, I have two viewpoint main characters and I’m waiting to see where they take me. Discovery draft. I guess I’m just wondering if this is going to lead to problems, but now is probably not the time in the writing process to question it too hard.

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  3. Thank you for making sense of it!

    I love how you understand story so well, that you can explain something complicated it in a single sentence. 🙂

    ‘The key is, who if removed from the story would cause the conflict to collapse?’

    Your examples are really helpful. I hadn’t realized it was Walter Matthau in Charade that would make it all collapse. But that makes so much sense now!

    Thanks again for answering questions.

    😊

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