Multiple Antagonists

While getting feedback on one of my manuscripts in the past, a critiquer made the comment that in a middle grade novel there is only room for one antagonist. Yes, you guessed it. My novel, at the time, had two. They were not opposed to each other in their motivations, but they did have distinct purposes and each wanted something different from the main character.

At first I didn’t quite agree with the comment, but I decided to give revisions a go with this in mind, and at each stage in the revision process I agreed more and more with the critique (at least for my novel). Yet it still brings up the overall question. Are two antagonists one too many?

What are your thoughts? And do you think it matters MG vs. YA? Can YA have more than one antagonist? And how about series books where each individual book must have a plot and the overall series must have an arc of its own. Think HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE here (not the later Harry Potters). Voldemort was the antagonist in book one and in the series.


PJ Hoover has more than one antagonistic force working in her life. Yet she is not the protagonist of a MG novel and she is not in middle grade.

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16 responses to “Multiple Antagonists

  1. I really enjoyed this post. Very thought provoking . . . so I’ll share some of my thoughts.

    My understanding of an antagonist is one that opposes or contends with another.

    Since you mentioned HP and the SS, lets have a look. Yes, Voldemort was the “main” antagonist, but Harry also had Malfoy and Snape as constant antagonists in SS and throughout the series as well. They contended with him, opposed him, and made things difficult. Granted, they weren’t the main antagonist, and, therefore, might be considered more like obstacles, but I always considered them to be antagonists.

    And there are always obstacles to overcome so while they may not be considered antagonists, they are definitely antagonistic situations or things that oppose the characters.

    I have to wonder if we are limiting ourselves in our definition and understanding of antagonists?

    I love posts that make me think!


    • Great comment, Joan! I tend to think of Malfoy and Snape as, like you said, obstacles to overcome. I think thought Malfoy is an annoyance, he is not a serious major antagonist. In some of the later books, I would think Snape could have more argument as a major antagonist, but then anything could work at that point.
      Thanks for the awesome thoughts!

  2. I guess that depends on what you consider as antagonists. Capital ‘A’ antagonists, maybe yes, but anyone or anything that antagonizes or opposed our main character counts, right? In that way of thinking, the more things and people crossing him, the more tension and plot form. Looking back, I agree with Joan: there are the big guns, and then the little annoyances, just like life.

  3. Parker Peevyhouse

    I think there can be more than one antagonist, especially if they’re coming from different areas of the protagonist’s life (for example, Harry had to contend with Malfoy, a fellow student; he also had to contend with Snape, a teacher).

    But the same thing happened to me. I had, like four different antagonists in Last Midnight and finally ended up cutting it down to one. It was really hard, but it makes the dynamics much stronger between the protag and the remaining antag.

  4. Interesting question. Picking up on the HP thread, maybe another thing that makes the multiple antagonists work in the series is that they’re all tied together. While Malfoy, Snape, and Voldemort are all Harry’s foes, they represent different parts of the same evil (or, at least, in Harry’s mind). So in struggling against the multiple antagonists, Harry is still ultimately striving to defeat the one thing they all stand for.

    I wonder if the fact that it’s a series also makes multiple antagonists easier to handle; if there were so many in a stand-alone novel and they all had equal prominence, I imagine it would get a little crowded.

    • I think you are right on, Anna! They are all related and all basically on the same side of the force if you will. I do think that especially as the series progresses, the multiple in depth antagonists becomes much easier. After all, we don’t want Harry to fight the same vampire over and over again. Or wait, was that Twilight?

  5. Hmm. Good question. I tend to be suspicious of “rules” like this, because I think they can usually be broken if done well. That said, I’d say that multiple antagonists work best when they are all somehow connected (perhaps by motivation or mutual connection to the “main” antagonist as per the HP example)… the same way subplots should be somehow connected to the main plot.

    • Yes, Joni! I agree. The connection makes all the difference. It also makes me wonder about my own ms and if two would have worked if I had made them more connected. Sometimes, though, it’s just too hacked to change it at that point.

  6. Hmmm. Can you name any book with multiple antagonists? I’m trying, but I keep coming up with one main antagonist and then minor players, such as henchmen.

  7. I can’t think of a MG/YA book with two equal antagonists fighting against the protagonist for two separate reasons. I’ll bet there are great examples in literary fiction, where character is usually a main focus, but I can’t imagine that it’s something that works well for MG and YA fantasy. With the amount that needs to be done in them there’s not much room to pull off such a stunt successfully.

    That said, I’m all for taking risks and it only takes a great writer to pull it off. I don’t volunteer.

    • I tried to volunteer but got told not to, Liesl :)
      I’m totally with you that taking risks is a great thing to do, and I would love to see it done well in MG/YA.
      Thanks for the comment!

  8. Kathy

    I have two antagonists in my MG WIP. One is a fellow dancer to my girl protagonist; the other goes to the protagonist’s elementary school. The latter also targets the other main character, and his attacks spills over to my girl protagonist.

    If I remove one, then my whole novel falls apart. And it becomes boring to me. So I’m standing firm on keeping both in the novel — despite what some people have suggested (blending the two together).

    However my trouble becomes figuring out which to emphasize in my query, as they tend to be equal but different.

    • I so get what you mean, Kathy, but I do think it must be something that is flagged to editors and agents. I guess that is where the query can be so important.
      Thanks for the comment!

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