“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.
And now to answer your question: 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. In Moonstruck, for example, Loretta wants to live a safe life and Johnny wants her to live a life full of passion; Johnny wins and Loretta gets a better life because of that even though she loses.
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.