Conflict ahead sign

Let’s talk believable antagonists and realistic sources of conflict.

I’m not going to get into the four types of conflict, or six, or however many it is now. I am going to talk about creating a believable antagonistic force, rather than one of those cardboard caricature, source-of-all-evil bad guys.

The concept of a having one person be the source of all of a story’s conflict has always seemed overly simple to me. Either the antagonist has help, or the protagonist’s problems are going to be disappointingly simple to solve. A lone enemy, unaided, is easy to overcome.

Think of it like this: the problem is not just the workplace bully who harasses the protagonist and takes credit for their work. The problem is the institution that says “we didn’t find any evidence” because they didn’t investigate, and “it’s just your word against his” after letting the protagonist know that they’ll be fired if they submit physical proof.

The problem is not just a violent partner; the problem is a police force that responds late if at all and a court system that views domestic violence as a crime no more serious than public intoxication or jaywalking. The problem is a society that whispers “violence just means they love you” and “what did you do to make him so angry?” and “at least he didn’t kill you.”

The problem is not just a supervisor who puts the protagonist in situations that trigger their PTSD; the problem is a company that says “suck it up or get a different job.” The problem is a society that says “get help,” but also “that will definitely bar you from working in your chosen profession, or indeed in any profession you’re even remotely qualified for.” The problem is a corporate culture that sees the mental health of their employees as an acceptable sacrifice in the pursuit of higher profits.

One nemesis can be dealt with. If nothing else, the world is a huge place and the protagonist can always run away. A story needs something more relatable than one bad guy who’s somehow the source of all evil in the hero’s world.

Once they’ve created a realistic evil for the protagonist to battle, the author’s job is to figure out how to give their protagonist a happy ending– or at least a resolution– in a world that often has none. Is the brave hero ever going to escape poverty, debt, corrupt enforcement, or corporate rule? In our world, oftentimes the only way out is death.

It’s a difficult quandary to resolve, and I’ve seen a lot of half-baked solutions. The monolithic mega-corporation or empire that has survived for eons, but suddenly trips over its metaphorical shoelaces and falls apart. The bad guys who suddenly realize they were wrong and start being decent human beings. The hero who pushes a button on some incredibly convenient device and removes the source of all the story’s conflict.

I challenge my fellow authors to write more believable conflicts, and to have the courage to follow them to their realistic conclusions. In a world where the deck is hopelessly stacked against most of us, we are desperately in need of science fiction that pulls no punches and refuses to gloss over the grimness of reality in pursuit of an easy ending. We can’t fix something we refuse to see.

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