“Robert McKee talks in his amazing book Story (which I highly recommend) about the Principle of Antagonism. He says: “A Protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.” That’s a pretty wild statement! Especially since many of us writers have been taught for years that character development trumps everything else. Heck, there are entire websites dedicated to helping writers develop realistic characters! We make notes of what they eat, what they’re scared of, who their parents were, even when they go to sleep every night.”
Friedman goes on to say, “think about antagonism as any force that pushes back against your hero. Anything that gets in your hero’s way—whether it’s external or internal—is an antagonist. Audiences don’t want their hero to spend six chapters relaxing. Audiences want their hero tested, prodded, hurt, damaged, frightened, confused, and—above all—struggling.”
If the protagonist isn’t variously perplexed, uncertain, challenged, injured, or off on the wrong tack, readers will get bored. In murder mysteries, the main character’s early assumptions often turn out to be wrong–or, at least, incomplete when new evidence or new murders come to light.
These roadblocks are what keep readers turning pages, while they also develop the character as we see how s/he copes with them. We might also say they add realism because mysteries are seldom solved the moment they’re discovered. As authors, we need to challenge our protagonists–but carefully so that readers won’t think we’re tossing in every negative thing that comes to mind.
Make the problems believable within the scope of the story.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” available on Nook, Kindle, paperback, audiobook, and hardcover. There are three more books in the series.