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John Truby's Theory of Opponents
If conflict is what drives our stories, it would seem to follow that antagonists are a writer's best tools to create that conflict and propel the story along. And yet tons of people, myself included, really struggle with writing antagonists that feel believable and interesting, who aren’t just mustache-twirling villains who are evil for the sake of being evil.
Julie D. mentioned John Truby’s ANATOMY OF STORY in her post the other day, and by chance, I recently read this craft book as well. While I agree that the examples felt dated and too homogenous, I overall enjoyed the read and ended up highlighting a bunch of stuff. One of my biggest takeaways concerned the crafting of believable, interesting antagonists, so I thought I’d distill a few of the main ideas here for the PubCrawl crowd!
Truby tends to use the word "opponent" rather than "antagonist." He writes: "A true opponent not only wants to prevent the hero from achieving his desire but is competing with the hero for the same goal." This took me by surprise, as I’d always thought of antagonists as wanting the opposite of the protagonist—for instance, in a typical murder mystery, the hero wants to catch the killer and the killer wants to escape. But Trudy framed it in a slightly different way: both the sleuth and the killer are competing for the chance to define the version of the truth that everyone will believe.
While I don’t think this framework fits for every story, I think it’s an interesting lens to use when articulating the various conflicts in your story. Some stories fit easily into this framework—the Fellowship and Sauron are competing to control the One Ring, the good guys so they can destroy it and Sauron so he can utilize it. With other stories, you have to zoom all the way out—Harry and Voldemort are competing for the chance to define the future of the wizarding world, whether it will be murderous and exclusionary or peaceful and open. But what I like about this framework is that it often forces you to flesh out your protagonist’s and antagonist’s goals in opposition to each other, and imagine how the story world would be different depending on how the battle tips.
I’m intrigued by this theory of opponents and have found myself mentally applying it a lot lately: in my own writing, evaluating submissions, or editing client books. When the tension in a story starts to slacken, my first instinct is to build in more conflict, but the how isn’t always clear. So I started looking at this task through a Truby lens—are the protagonist and opponent competing over the same goal? If not, how could the scene/section/story be tweaked so that they are? How can I force the characters to butt heads?
In applying this framework, remember that your protagonist can of course have multiple opponents—for instance, if our protagonist is an adventurous 12-year-old with secret superpowers, the supervillain who wants to destroy all life on Earth and her over-worried mom who won’t let her ride her bike alone are both opponents. Having a variety of opponents who all share goals with the protagonist will help you find ways to bounce your characters off each other to create conflict in each scene—for instance, both our heroine and her mom want her to be safe, but what Mom doesn’t realize is that in order to be safe, the protagonist must ride her bike alone to go after the supervillain so he doesn’t destroy the world. Meanwhile, the heroine and the villain are competing over the chance to decide whether life will go on.
IMO, it’s almost always more interesting to read about characters that aren’t just fighting against something, they’re fighting for something. Truby’s theory of opponents helps me translate that principle into plot—so that antagonists feel genuine and interesting, rather than just 2D obstacles thrown into the protagonist’s path. If you also struggle with creating convincing antagonists and maintaining lots of conflict, maybe give it a try!