An enjoyable if not (quite) complete list from Jane Friedman’s blog: Adversaries in Fiction: Who Is Standing in Your Character’s Way?

Readers, fearful for the characters they love, grip the book tighter when conflict is close.

What will happen? Will everything be okay?

The more dire the threat, the more uncertain they feel.

Followed by a list of possible types of antagonists. This is a pretty long list, which I appreciate. Most important, it separates a lot of categories out from the “villain” category. I think that’s important. I often dislike villains — I almost always detest villain points of view. I like many other kinds of enemies, opponents, and antagonists, but outright villains, generally not so much.

So here are the categories given on this list. I don’t necessarily think all these categories work, but it’s nice to see a detailed breakdown of types of antagonists.


Rival — this strikes me as a lot like a competitor. If the author has set up a love triangle, well, I’m fairly bored with love triangles. If that’s the kind of rivalry that’s central to a story, I won’t say it can’t work for me, but the author has to do a better than average job with it or it’s a bit of a turnoff.

Antagonist (person) — I am personally most happy with an antagonist-to-allies story. That means I prefer a story where both the protagonist and antagonist are honorable or decent people. But hopefully without a tragic ending! I liked The Lions of Al-Rasan a lot, and I think it had the ending it needed to have, but oof! I wouldn’t be up for that every day of the week.

Antagonist (natural force) — I love a good struggle against the natural world.

Villain — meaning someone who’s pretty evil. Sauron. Saruman, for that matter.

Enemy — a personal enemy, which is perhaps a useful distinction from a villain, who might well be everyone’s enemy

Invader — I love this category! I’m really pleased to see it here. I think there’s a lot to do with this. Are the invaders villains? Not in their own eyes. Are they mean people? Not unless the author is heavy-handed. Which can work in some cases, but what I would greatly prefer is that the invaders be perfectly decent people, with a reason to invade that matters. I SO prefer setting the protagonist and antagonist at odds without making either of them evil!

Mind you, I’m aware that the Arobern in the Griffin Mage trilogy doesn’t have a great reason to invade. But to ME, he was never a bad person. I quite like him! I enjoy his ambition, particularly after that ambition has had a spike driven into it. His determination in the third book is the flip side of that ambition, and think what would have happened if he hadn’t been willing to take the risk of getting involved.

Frenemy — huh, not sure. I really don’t care for someone who’s sort of a friend but not really. Perhaps someone can think of an example that worked well. I honestly can’t, not at the moment.

Hater — someone who’s jealous, petty, backstabbing … ugh. I hate characters like this, pun intended, but the point is, I don’t generally want to read about characters of this kind in other authors’ work and I don’t much like to write them myself.

Bully — ugh, I don’t like bullies either. Except seeing them get knocked on their tails at some point in the story.

Meddler — tricksters can be fun.

Nemesis — probably you’d find this in a tragedy. Protagonist — hubris — nemesis — tragic ending. That’s all very fine, but I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to read a book like this.

Challenger — that’s going to blur with “rival” and “competitor,” it seems to me.

Supernatural force — the post is including supernatural enemies who are people, but I think that should be split off from supernatural forces.

In the Spiritwalker trilogy, we have the weird supernatural master of the Wild Hunt with his inhuman detachment and casual cruelty. He’s like a supernatural force more than a person. I have to add, he’s a lot like Lelienne from The City in the Lake. Creepy, opaque … you couldn’t write from her point of view. Her point of view is too impenetrable. Like Kate Elliott’s master of the Wild Hunt, I think she’s more like a supernatural force.

Come to think of it, so is MY master of the Wild Hunt in The City in the Lake, except he’s not an antagonist. Or not exactly.

It’s fun to note that along with the supernatural master of the Wild Hunt in the Spiritwalker trilogy, we also have

-the mansa of Four Moons House with his certainty that people of good birth, like him, should naturally be able to dispose of lesser beings like villagers — he is an antagonist;

-amjiata with his suave, sympathetic conviction that he should be emperor — he’s an invader;

-and of course the fire mage James Drake, who is really awful — a real villain.

The various antagonists of the trilogy are definitely a strength. So are the various secondary characters who support the protagonist. I really should re-read this excellent trilogy.

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10 thoughts on “Antagonists”

  1. You’ve said positive things about the Spiritwalker trilogy before. I’ve never read it, as I bounced off Kate Elliot’s Crown of Stars series somewhere around book three, Prince of dogs, and concluded she was not my cup of tea.
    If you do reread it I’d be interested in your take; maybe I should give her another chance.

  2. Competitor, rival and challenger sound like different flavors of the same dynamic. Maybe influenced by those ‘game’- based stories that are popular now, to distinguish between the ‘rival for someone’s hand’, ‘challenger for the crown’ and ‘competitors in a game’ roles?
    In the end it all comes down to them both/all trying to gain the single prize, without any personal (or general) animosity being necessary, just that only one of them can get it.

  3. I haven’t tried Crown of Stars. I keep meaning to, but now I’m a lot more likely to re-read Spiritwalker, so we’ll see.

  4. Crown of Stars is three times longer than it should be. Kate Elliot learned her lesson from that. Every other story she’s written–including under her real name, Alis Rassmussen, I can recommend whole-heartedly. And Spiritwalker is one of her best.

    As for villains and other bad guys, it is hard to beat Steles of the Sky. The Carrion King! The Ambitious Queen! And more!

  5. I read the Crown of Stars series even though I found it verbose and tedious; and called its heroine several kinds of stupid. I think I posted a cutting review of it on Goodreads or Amazon and avoided Kate Elliott for a while until! I saw the cover of Spirit Gate and read it because giant eagles! The Spiritwalker series is my favourite because of its imperfect protagonists and its plot that kept taking these strange turns. And Andevai.

  6. Kathryn McConaughy

    Re: frenemies – I agree that “friends but not really” sounds annoying. I always thought “frenemies” was more about “enemies but not really,” which I enjoy, but looking at these categories that might be rivals instead.

  7. This echoes back to your post about enemies to lovers, and the mention of invaders reminded me of the duology “Medair” by Andrea Host. Absolutely sympathetic invaders. I enjoy all of her work, but this is one of my favorites.

  8. Kate Elliott is so interesting to read. Sometimes she’s terrific, and other times she just wanders off and you wonder what on earth just happened? (Like where she went after Jaran). I agree, the Spirit Gate series is one of my favorites of her series, too- compelling for so many reasons.

  9. Oh! Invaders! Why didnt I think of this? KD Wentworth did the *best* alien POVs before she died of cancer at age 61. And “Course of Empire” shows her touch: by the end, you are rooting for Jao, even though they conquered the Earth. In the end, human resistance has forced “proper association.”

  10. Pete, well, I’ll be darned, there’s “Course of Empire” already on my Kindle. Thanks for the reminder, and I’ll go put it on my phone, where I’ll see it more often.

    And Medair, of course! It’s becoming possible to put together a REAL top ten list for enemies-to-lovers, with the Queen of Attolia and the Medair duology right at the top.

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