Is Your Novel a Spineless Weakling?

Now that NaNoWriMo is behind us, it is time to take a hard look at the 50,000 or so words we wrote. Is it really a story? Or is it 50,000 worth of organic goo that we can maybe perhaps grow into a story? Maybe some of you didn’t participate in National Novel Writing Month, but you are working on a novel. Maybe you have finished a novel and can’t understand why you’re getting rejection after rejection. Perhaps you desire to write a novel, but have no clue where to even begin? Where do professional authors get all their ideas?

All in due time…

Three years ago, I left my home critique group even though I had been president for three years. Why? My home critique group placed too much importance on reading pages. My opinion? Beautiful prose does not a novel make. Is prose important? Absolutely. But it isn’t the most important. We can have prose so lovely it makes the angels weep, yet not have a story. Sort of like, I could have the flawless skin of a twenty-year-old super model, but if I don’t have a skeleton? I’m dead meat. Same with prose and novel structure. Novel structure makes up the internal support structure, and prose fills it all in and connects everything and makes it look pretty.

I broke away and, with help from a few close friends, created a new kind of critique group that we named Warrior Writer Boot Camp in honor of our favorite mentor NYT Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer. When creating WWBC, I wanted to create something with the capacity to look at stories as a whole and judge the “big picture.” The first lesson all writers receive upon entering my critique group has to do with the antagonist (the spinal column of your story) and that’s what we are going to talk about today.

Why is the antagonist so important? No antagonist and no story. I think most craft books make a critical error. They assume us noobs know more than we do. Most new writers don’t understand the antagonist the way they need to. We have some hazy basics from high school or college English and then we try to go pro. Then it takes years of trial, error, rejection and therapy to see any success. Um, yeah. Bad plan. The antagonist is critical, and is often one of the most troublesome concepts to master. No worries. I am here to help.

What happens when we don’t have an antagonist?

I teach at many writing conferences and see all the nervous writers, eyes dilated and skin pasty with panic. They are waiting for their agent pitch session and it takes every bit of courage they have to not throw up in their shoes. Ask them what their stories are about and 99% of the time I get fifteen minutes of convoluted world-building and a character cast that would rival Ben Hur.


The writer generally didn’t understand the antagonist when she wrote the book. So, since there wasn’t a clear-cut antagonist with an overall plot problem, what we have left is a bunch of literary Bond-o (extraneous characters, world-building, extra sub-plots and gimmicky twist endings).

This is one of the reasons many writers find it easier to do brain surgery on themselves with a spatula than to write the novel synopsis or the query letter. They can’t boil down the plot into one sentence because the plot is so complicated even they barely understand it.  Been there, done that and got the T-shirt, myself.

When helping writers plot, I often suggest that they write their ending first. Many look at me like I just asked them to reverse the earth’s orbit around the sun. Why? They don’t have a clear story problem to be solved. Yet, when we look at it, what is any story’s ending? The solution to the problem created by the antagonist. That is the climax.

All of this angst with pitches and queries and synopses can be traced back to one single problem. There is no antagonist or there is a weak or unclear antagonist. How does this happen? I feel there is a huge logical fallacy to blame.

For those of you who have slept since high school, a logical fallacy is an argument that mistakenly seeks to establish a causal connection when dissimilar objects or events are compared as if the same.

In English?

All apples are fruits. An orange is a fruit therefore all oranges are apples.

What does this have to do with today’s topic?

Most writers mistakenly believe this:

All villains are antagonists, therefore all antagonists are villains.


The antagonist seems to be a real sticky wicket, especially for new writers. Hey, I’ve been there. It is easy to see how there could be confusion. Villains make no bones about the mischief and mayhem they seek to create. Nobody doubted who the bad guy was in The Dark Knight. Joker will live on in infamy as one of the greatest arch-villains in movie history. Yet, villains are only one kind of antagonist. So if the antagonist isn’t merely a villain, who is he?

The antagonist is merely whoever drives the conflict.

All stories are the antagonist’s story. Why? Because without the antagonist, there is no problem. The protagonist’s happy joy-joy life would go on as normal. If there is no problem, then there is no need for our protagonist to rise to the occasion. The antagonist represents this dire change that must be set right by the end of the book. Great fiction actually uses many antagonists. Let’s take a look.

Different types of antagonists:

The Core Antagonist—The Big Boss Troublemaker

All stories MUST have a core antagonist, what I like to call the Big Boss Troublemaker. The BBT has a plan that disrupts the hero’s ordinary life and that plan is the overall story problem. Big Boss Troublemakers need to be corporeal. Antagonists are tremendously complex, and thus, in my opinion, the most interesting. Even if the overall antagonist is disease, nature, war, weather, the antagonist will almost always be represented by a proxy. Humans tend to be concrete thinkers, so tangible antagonists generally work best.  In fact, I’ll wager that many stories that seem to have non-corporeal BBTs actually do. Let’s take a quick look.


The Perfect Storm—The antagonist is not the storm. Rather it is the captain who, out of greed and pride, makes the decision to endanger the crew to save the haul of fish…and everyone dies, which is probably why we should avoid weather/nature as an antagonist.

In fairness, how many best-selling books involve a hero pitted against bad weather chapter after chapter? We can’t control the weather so how can we conquer it? Can’t make heroes with bad weather. Well, maybe someone can, but my advice is to steer clear.


Steel Magnolias—In the movie Steel Magnolias the BBT is death and disease. Who is the main antagonist? Daughter Shelby. Shelby has life-threatening diabetes. Had Shelby decided to adopt, there would be no story. It is Shelby’s decision to get pregnant despite the risks that creates the story problem for the mother (Protagonist) M’Lynn.

See, corporeal.


In the movie Footloose, who is the BBT? Religious fundamentalism that forbids dancing. Who is the main antagonist? The town preacher who is out to get the city boy (protagonist) who wants to hold a school dance. The preacher represents the BBT—religious fundamentalism that forbids dancing.

Protagonist against Herself

Oh, but my protagonist is her own worst enemy. Yeah, no. Therapy is not fiction. Need an outside BBT.

In the movie 28 Days, Sandra Bullock’s character Gwen Cummings is an alcoholic. Alcoholics do not generally believe they have a problem. Most do not wake up one day and say. “Wow, I really drink too much. I need to quit.” There will be an outside force that creates the problem and drives the change. In this case, Gwen gets a DUI. The judge orders her to court mandated rehab. Who is the BBT? Alcoholism. Who is the antagonist? The judge. If he hadn’t sentenced Gwen to rehab, she would still be drinking. If Gwen fails, then this same judge will send her to prison (stakes). If Gwen finally sobers up, she will defeat the BBT, Alcoholism. But, she must face-off against the judge’s challenge first and prove she can sober up.

Every story needs a Big Boss Troublemaker. If your BBT isn’t corporeal, then your story will need a corporeal proxy as shown in the examples. Existentialism doesn’t make for great fiction. Navel-gazing is therapy, not fiction.

Employing Scene Antagonists

Once you have a clear Big Boss Troublemaker and a story problem, then you can begin plotting. Ah, but how do we ramp up the tension? We use scene antagonists. Every scene must have a clear goal for our protagonist…and he can rarely if ever succeed until the end. There must be obstacles and very often those obstacles will be other characters that your protagonist calls “friend.”

Think of your favorite cop shows. I love Law and Order Criminal Intent. The detectives are after the murderer (BBT), but the Commissioner just called and they’re chief has his panties in a twist. How many times have you seen a police chief kick a detective off a case because of the political heat? Is the police chief a villain? No, but he is an antagonist because his wants stand in direct opposition from what the protagonist wants…finding the bad guy and brining him to justice. This creates dramatic tension. Will our detectives risk career suicide and find the killer? Conflict now comes at the audience from two fronts—long-range (BBT) and close-range (scene antagonist).

After you write your first draft, I highly recommend looking at every scene. Write what the goal of the scene is on an index card. Who stood in the way? Allies should rarely, if ever agree. If they need to escape an island, the hero will want to take a boat and an ally will insist they take a plane. Some of the best conflict for your story will actually come from your protagonist and his gaggle of allies.

The Pixar movie Finding Nemo is an excellent movie to study this. Watch Marlin and Dori. Dori provides far more conflict to the overall story than Darla the Fish-Killer. Darla (BBT) merely creates the overall problem and sets the stakes and the ticking clock. Darla the Fish-Killer is the BBT because if she’d wanted a puppy for her birthday, there would be no reason to find Nemo. He’d still be safe at home. Yet, aside from a couple of short scenes, we never really see Darla. Lovable ally Dori is the heart of most of the conflict.

Marlin wants to give up when the one clue to finding Nemo drops into a trench.

Dori wants to Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming and go after the clue.

Marlin wants to avoid the whale.

Dori calls out to it.

Marlin wants to give up.

Dori won’t let him.

Antagonists are at the core of all great stories, whether those stories are for children or adults. The bigger the antagonist, the bigger the problem and the greater the stakes. Failure must be catastrophic for the protagonist, or he can’t rise to ever be a hero. Some great books I recommend are Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches by Jessica Morrell, and The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.  I also highly recommend taking one of New York Times Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer’s on-line worskhops. They are $30. Aside from these resources, watch a lot of movies and pay attention to who creates problems and how they do it. Take notes. Study. Learn. That’s the great part of being a writer. Stories are our business, so watching movies counts as work.

So what are your thoughts? Comments? Questions? Feel better or do you need a paper bag (just put your head between your knees and breathe :D).

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of December, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of December I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!

Last week’s Winner of 5 Page Critique is Carolyn Neeper. Please send your 1250 word Word document to my assistant Gigi at gigi dot salem dot ea at g mail dot com.

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books!


8 pings

Skip to comment form

  1. I finished a novel for NaNo and I’m hoping through some basic editing that I can get it ready enough for people to beta read it for me, see if I actually have anything more than some lovely scenes that don’t flow together.

    I love these tips and I’ve been working through it to see if there really is an antagonist throughout (I think there might be) AND trying to boil the plot down to a sentence or two.

  2. I’m querying my finished MS and trying to dive into a second. The BBT is clearly defined, but I’ve been stalled on a couple of scenes, and this post will really help me. Looking scene for scene for an antagonistic force is a great way to ramp things up and get my plot straightened out.

  3. What better way to keep the writing tight than to look for the antagonist of each and every scene. Like others who have posted here, I too am going through and editing with the antagonist in mind.

  4. As usual, you get right down to the nitty-gritty. Thanks.

  5. Great post for those that completed their NaNo novel. I got some progress on my WWBC story through NaNo, but you’re right, not all of it is great plot, just lovely prose. I like the way WWBC is set up and can’t wait until the holidays are over so I can get back to my normal schedule and check in on everyone’s project again. It’s a great learning process and I appreciate everyone’s questions and ideas so much.

    THANK YOU!!!

  6. I have a navel-gazing addiction. Truly, my characters are all sorts of nuanced and follow the first few crumbs on their paths of self-discovery *so* obediently and then…nothin. Lots of internal monologue, lots of angst, lots of telling. Nothing happens in act 2. They might as well be sitting there knitting, waiting for act 3. Yawn. Why is nothing happening, why is this plot not moving, why is this pleasant to read but has no sauce?
    No corporeal antagonist. Not a baddie but a fleshed someone that puts it on the line, forces my sighing, introspective characters to stop staring at the pretty scene outside their window and just act. I remember the villain doesn’t equal antagonist lesson…now that you bring it up. Hey, those English classes were *cough* a few years ago.

    I always worry that I take away the right lesson as intended by the post, but this is what I got today. Major help, Kristen. Really – huge, epiphany-level help. Reading this brought five months of meandering writing into focus. Feeling like I’ve put on writing bi-focals. Many thanks for this one!

  7. That was an excellent blog post. I tweeted it to my followers.

  8. Here you go,..

  9. As always, you have such a great way of putting the information out there so that it makes total sense. I can’t wait to print off all your lessons and use them as I write.

  10. I have three layers of antagonists.

    I have 3 actual bad guys, who all get theirs in the end.

    I have human trafficking, that they all engaged in, that drove them, that affects every scene and character in one way or another.

    I have the grievous choices my protag makes, when first faced with a decision between order and chaos.

    They are all connected, and the resolution to it is quite a shock.

    I imagine that some will say that this points to my genius of being able to layer and tie in the elements, villains, and resolution. Some, however, will probably try to say that my structure is no good and my BBT lacks clarity. I would suggest that it is possible to entwine external forces, internal self-examination, and actual villains as a trio of antagonists that offer a far more complex menu of high stakes and big battle climaxes. I have only gotten good feedback so far.

    I guess history will be the judge. It will soon be ready for release.

    Good post, Kristen, thank you. I did hit 53K words for November. What a ride. This story is about 100K all together.

  11. Excellent advice, Kristen. Many parts of writing are counter-intuitive. The hero is best found through the antagonists. The beginning is best found through the ending. Trying to design a story from the “start” to the “end” is like trying to see the future, while seeing it from the “end” to the “start” is like recalling a memory. Which seems easier?

    Snyder and Morrell’s books are excellent resources (have both on my writing shelf), Vogler is on my Christmas list and am looking forward to seeing what gems await there.

    • Jim Murray on December 5, 2011 at 1:07 pm
    • Reply

    Great KICK IN THE PANTS for me! I’m 70% through my thriller novel and I seem to have lost my way. I’ve lost a clear sense of how to resolve the overall conflict and to “get” the BBT after resolving many of the intermediate conflicts. I’ve decided to take your advice in this blog and write the ending to get me grounded again in the overall story. That scares me to death, but I’m going to just jump in and do it.

  12. I just finished reading a novel that was ho-hum because the story seemed to all be happening in the protagonist’s head. *yawn* I wanted bigger conflict, more intensity, higher stakes. I’m revamping my own novel now with these thoughts and much of what you saw above. I have a proxy antagonist of sorts, and I’ve decided he needs to push the main character much harder. Thanks!

  13. i LOVE THIS. thank you Kristen for another valuable piece. I find that its the antagonist that makes most stories/movies interesting and I for one, particularly enjoyed writing/creating the one in my latest book, more than I did the protagonist, lol. I also like it when the antagonist is complex enough to have ‘good’ in them. they too can struggle with decisions of right/wrong and perhaps even make that final choice to switch – like Darth Vader at the end of Star Wars. I also recommend writing the last scene, the ending of a novel first. Once thats done, the rest of the book gets written to match it. My antagonist died at the end of my first book and so now, Im having a hard time with Book 2 because I have not yet clearly defined a new kick-butt, cool, awful, intriguing, new antagonist.

  14. Another really helpful post on the toughest part of writing narrative. Narrative nonfiction needs a spine too, which is why so many memoirs fall flat.

  15. Thank you Kristen for ripping this apart and breaking it down so simply. I love the BBT analogy. I only wish that I had read this before I started, but that’s okay. I understand it now. And my story is so much better because of it.

    I’m looking forward to working with Donna Newton. She’s a real stinker, I mean doll. I think the WWBC way rocks! 🙂

  16. Thanks for the clarification on antagonists. I wondered why, even though I have a clear villain, my tension kept coming from secondary antagonists – or buddies that argue. I wasn’t sure how to categorize them until now! Thanks!

  17. I put my novel on the shelf for a couple of weeks and am not letting myself tweak anything right now, but these are great ideas. I have a BBT, and some corporeal antagonists, but I confess to liking novels which explore the inner world of the protagonist. Thrillers, Romances and Mysteries tend to feel too much like the same thing over and over.

  18. Absolutely fantastic! The BBT and antagonist points have been hard for me to completely wrap my mind around. I love your using Nemo to explain them. I didn’t really think of Darla as the BBT before or Dori as the antagonist. Thank you!

  19. I struggle with this exact issue. My Nano book from last year had a cardboard antagonist. Snidely Whiplash-type, mustache and all. I’m still trying to make him a living, breathing character. Have read Blake and Vogler, but not Morrell. Love the title of that one and will be checking it out. Thanks, Kristen!

  20. Great post thanks. I really enjoyed it very much. You have excellent content on your blog.

    Love writing? We would love for you to join us!

    Content Writers Wanted

  21. I just discovered your blog a couple weeks ago and also began reading your book “Are you there blog? It’s me Writer.” I have to say posts like this and the first few sections of your book and just exactly what I needed! Thank you!

  22. I really like this post. My issues is my antagonists are overshadowing my protagonists. I’m actually toning down some of the bad guys/gals actions so the main part of the story isn’t watered down.

    I read so many books where you want people to be less nice and more real. It would make a better book.

  23. Kristen, Perhaps it was the picture of the cat at the top of the post, but most likely it was your go-getting language, that prompted me to push the ‘pay’ button and buy your book “We are not alone”. Reading it now on my Kindle and feeling glad to have found you. Cheers, Lyn.

  24. Great post! My WIP at the moment has some of the antagonists on the same side of the war to my protagonist. They want the same outcome (defeat the BBT) but want to go about it in different ways. At the end I get rid of all the others and my protagonist has to face the BBT alone and not only has to defeat him, but decide how. Fun times!

  25. This is so informative. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  26. These are all good points.

    In my opinion, the real conflict of my current project are the core duo. They’re opposites, and the narrator is struggling to unravel the other. Of course, this leads to some breakdowns that I’m going to work hard on in order to shock the readers.

    • on December 5, 2011 at 11:07 pm
    • Reply

    So many good points. I tweeted your blog

  27. A great blog for writers on antagonists

  28. I can’t hear this enough. I’m writing an historical fantasy about Dhara, the young woman who marries the prince who will become the Buddha. Before I started reading your blog, I would have said that the BBT is Dhara herself, her misuse of her great mental powers, her inconstancy, her tendency to fall off the razor’s edge she’s walking.

    But I hear you, ‘therapy is not fiction.’ It’s a challenge to make the BBT corporeal.

    If I understand you correctly, the antagonist can change as the story goes on, right? During her own yogic training, the antagonist is her guru Mala; when she marries good guy Prince Siddharth, his wisdom and patience drive her nuts, not to mention she’s in love with his best friend Chandaka; and also, uh oh, she’s pregnant and how is a baby going hold her back on her spiritual quest?

  29. Reblogged this on Jynnipher Olbert and commented:
    A very interesting post about antagonists. It has me thinking about mine. Do you know who yours are?


  30. Thanks for a fresh reminder of how important the antagonist is. Blake Snyder goes to the top of my long to-read list and Jessica Morrell sounds like a must read too.

  31. This is great! It reminds me of what James Scott Bell teaches…that antagonists don’t have to be evil villains. They just need to be the protagonists’s opposition. Thanks!

    • Yolanda on December 6, 2011 at 4:01 pm
    • Reply

    Awesome!! My novel was stalled and I couldn’t quite figure out why. This article just showed me what I need to do. I have been spending too much time trying to develop the Protag and his crew and not enough time on the BBT and his crew. This is brilliant! Thank you Kristen.

    • Eric Mosley on December 6, 2011 at 8:32 pm
    • Reply

    Watching movies is doing work? Sweet!

    I love this blog!

    • Lisa J Donaldson on December 7, 2011 at 6:58 am
    • Reply

    Really useful blog thank you, and what a fab prize just for spreading your terrific advice! #winwinsituation
    Will RT on all social media – hope that qualifies me to go into the hat x3 :-))

  32. As I am very new to writing I have found all your blog’s so very interesting.I use your advice as much as I can. I needed to understand about protagonist and antagonists, in the stories that I am writing. Some of my stories are written in a local dialect (yorkshire) as I am from York England UK. but because of the blogs I can still use that information and translate it into my stories.
    I just really want to thank you so much and keep them coming.

  33. You explain things so clearly in your examples and still I have trouble applying it to my own work.. sigh…

    1. I totally hear your pain. Some things will just come with practice. That is why watching movies is so helpful. Works those plotting skills if we dissect over and over and over.

  34. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Amazing info and just what I needed to read.

  35. This was a very useful post for me to read today as I am in the planning stages of writing my first fiction book. When I do make a start, I’ll already have two books out but they’re both memoirs. I know memoirs have to be written like fiction but my third book is already making me feel nervous!

  36. I love the idea of having the antagonist in buddy plots like Finding Nemo. It lets characters play off of each other more.

  37. Yeah, I’ve heard that best friend stories usually have the best bud as a major antagonist. I think I read it in The Anatomy of Story, by John Truby.

    Anyway, great post. I happen to agree with you, about story building being much more important than beautiful prose. Most every writing book you find seems to go on and on about how to do the latter, but skips over the former. It’s very frustrating.

    I also agree that not enough emphasis is placed on the importance of antagonistic characters in what people write, but I can’t say that reading this article has helped me unduly. I’ve always understood antagonists, villains, and conflict almost too well. Bringing all of that into a mature, focused whole (in essence, writing a story) is another matter altogether, but I think I’m making inroads toward accomplishing it.

    Thanks for the wonderful advice, and I hope you have a great day! Happy writing!

    • lynnkelleyauthor on December 12, 2011 at 9:14 pm
    • Reply

    This is such a helpful post, Kristen. I love how you say the allies shouldn’t agree. That’s good news for my YA. The MC’s best friends are at odds with her constantly. Just like real life teen girls, so it wasn’t too hard to figure out, but I did have an agent tell me that she’d like to see the friends being nicer to the MC! Thanks for this post.I know I’m on the right track.

  38. Whenever I write I have a ton of Antagonists but never any BBT and when I do develop them they always feel weak and tired. I somehow always manage to get through 2/3s of a plot before and concrete info on the BBT appears.

  1. […] Kristen Lamb tells it like is when it comes to plot structure and prose in Is Your Novel a Spineless Weakling? […]

  2. […] Lamb gave us another FAB post on amping up our stories by working hand-in-hand with our antagonist. I loved how she gave concrete examples of different types of antagonist. It really helped me sink […]

  3. […] From Kristen Lamb: Is Your Novel a Spineless Weakling? […]

  4. […] Is Your Novel A Spineless Weakling by Kristen Lamb. […]

  5. […] with the main goal of getting to the shed on Mount X, ergo he is the antagonist. Refer to last week’s blog for clarification. His refusal to be on board with the party plan is what injects genuine conflict […]

  6. […] Lamb wrote about it here. I agree with what she says, especially when she says that the antagonist is the hardest concept to […]

  7. […] I first read Kristin Lamb’s wonderful blog about building a stronger novel, I’ve put finishing touches on one novel and completed a […]

  8. […] Lamb wrote about it here. I agree with what she says, especially when she says that the antagonist is the hardest concept to […]

I LOVE hearing your thoughts!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.