12

In genre fiction, the antagonist is usually either known throughout the book or revealed before the end, so that protagonist and antagonist can battle it out during climax.

What I am wondering is, how can a story work out, if the antagonist remains unknown? That is, the protagonist works towards his goal against an opposed force, the source of which is never revealed.

Think of the Lord of the Rings without anyone knowing of Sauron and what he wants. The hobbits and Gandalf would be unable to form a coherent plan. They wouldn't know the goal of their opponent, his weakness, the purpose of his actions, the relationship between him and the Ring. They would flee the Nazgul, seek information and allies, just as they do in Tolkien's novel, but they would have to figure out a solution by trial and error. Maybe they would come to the conclusion that they have to destroy the Ring, and maybe they would manage to do it in the right manner, but all the indication they got of their success would be the letting off of Saurons attacks. Much like the draft stills once you close the window, but you never get to see the source of the wind.

How would one pull that off? How could that be an interesting and satisfying read despite the lacking climactic battle?

And more to the point: What story would we tell? In The Lord of the Rings there is a conflict between two identifiable forces. There are many interpretations, e.g. that Sauron and his forces represent Nazi Germany, or industrialization, or just plain Evil, but despite the final meaning being open, the two forces are unmistakeable and the story tells of their conflict. In a story without antagonist, there would be no conflict, as a conflict needs two or more goals to be pitted against each other. In a story without antagonist, there would be no opposing goal. Even the protagonist does not have a veritable goal except to end the disruption.

The Lord of the Rings without an antagonist would lose both the Lord (the antagonist) and the Ring (the goal of the antagonist) from its title and with it the essence of its story. It would no longer be a story of two opposing forces, but a story of – what?

I guess it would be a story of whatever goes on inside the heroes. It would be a psychological novel. Or it would be a story of a society that has to deal with desaster. It would be a social or political novel. How could it remain fantasy?

Finally, are there examples of novels (or films) where the antagonist remains unknown, so that I could look at a working example?


The reason I ask this question is that I am always dissapointed when the antagonist is revealed in a horror or fantasy novel. When, as a teenager, I watched the old black-and-white Fankenstein movie, there was a strong sense of mystery and suspense, until Boris Karloff appeard. Immediately the wonder of the movie was lost. Special effects have gotten better, but still the same happens to me: as soon as I see the Alien, it appears banal and unterrifying and – as if the movie makers felt the same way – the movie turns from suspense to action.

I have always wondered how you can uphold the mystery. How the supernatural, the terrible, the strange, can remain what they are. And I think the only way is by not revealing them, by having them remain unknown and unknowable (which, I believe, is one reason the judaeo-christian God is such a powerful idea).

  • what about the movie The Blair Witch Project? I think that might qualify as "the antagonist is not revealed." – Lauren Ipsum Sep 4 '16 at 13:00
  • @LaurenIpsum Interesting, yes. But that movie sort of ends with the climax (the death of the film students), the plot is cut off. there is no, well, "resolution" isn't the right word, but a dénouement, a post-climax moment where the detective has to deal with the fact that the murder cannot be solved or where the victim escaped and has to deal with the fact that they will never know what hunted them and if it will come back. Something like that. – user5645 Sep 5 '16 at 5:20
  • Doctor Who has some great examples such as Midnight or Listen. In the latter, we don't even know for sure whether the antagonist exists (nor does the Doctor or his companion). – J.G. Jan 7 at 21:39

10 Answers 10

7

Not every novel has an antagonist. Basic story structure is about desire and the things that frustrate desire. The thing that frustrates desire does not have to be a person -- an antagonist. In many cases, what frustrates the protagonist is their own pride or an anonymous social structure. Who is the antagonist in Pride and Prejudice (other than the titular emotions), Cannery Row, Brideshead Revisited, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, or Death Comes for the Archbishop?

Maybe the reveal of the antagonist, in genre fiction particularly, proves disappointing (which I agree it often does) because it is at that point the we realize that the protagonist is not going to be pushed the limit, and particularly not to the great moral challenge which I believe is the heart of all stories.

Ultimately, every hero's greatest antagonist is their own weakness. The greatest obstacle they must overcome is within themselves. Some device is needed to bring them to that point, but if the villain does not live up to the task of bringing them there, they are a disappointing villain. The author's real mistake, though, was probably in the penning of the hero rather than the villain. The villain disapoints because the hero does not have a satisfying story arc.

  • I wasn't thinking about a story without an antagonist, but about one in which there is an antagonist but he is not revealed. Think of an abduction. No ransom is asked for. The protagonist tries to free himself. And he escapes, simply by breaking out of the room he was locked in and without having to overcome the abductor. And the abductor disappears without ever getting caught or his identity and goals being revealed. There is an antagonist, and there is a dramatic story, but there is no climactic battle and no "resolution" of the mystery. The danger just passes. – user5645 Sep 5 '16 at 5:51
  • 3
    Well, "the danger just passes" pretty much says there is no story here, doesn't it? Unless the physical danger presents the protagonist with a moral danger which does not just pass but which comes to a climax within. And perhaps the anonymity of the antagonist is part of the moral danger. There are certainly stories in which the source of the challenge to the protagonist's moral order is not revealed. Metamorphosis springs to mind. The conquest of the antagonist is symbolic of the conquest of self, and identity of the antagonist is certainly not required for that. – Mark Baker Sep 5 '16 at 11:42
  • 2
    @what while "the danger just passes" certainly will not create desired tension, there are ways of doing so without revealing the antagonist behind an evil plot. In your example with abduction there is still struggle, obstacles your protagonist must overcome in order to free himself; the danger does not pass by itself, it is defeated. The movie Cube (I think there was a sequel, too) is an example of nearly exact scenario. I do not even remember who the antagonist was (some evil government organization?)--it was all about the struggle to escape from a deadly environment. – Lew Sep 7 '16 at 20:41
5

I think it was Mark Twain who said, "Truth is stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense."

What your question describes is what a lot of real life is like.

Very often, especially in politics and medicine, the problem people think they have to solve (and who/what is to "blame") is really just a symptom of some much deeper issue which is unknown because of ignorance, deception, or even just from having a world-view/paradigm that isn't powerful enough to encompass the true situation. Maybe it's something which hasn't been discovered yet.

We are all to some extent in this position. Nobody knows everything. Nobody consciously understands everything that makes them who they are.

People just know something is wrong and that something has to be done about it. Something is better than nothing.

Within this limitation, there are still heroes, villains, and great stories.

When a hero wins "the battle", a great deed has been done, but if what is gained doesn't solve the underlying problem, then "the war" remains.

This doesn't make the story less interesting, less compelling, or even less true. It doesn't invalidate all the transformations the hero underwent in achieving his/her goal.

It's just more like real life where progress is incremental rather than absolute. And lots of people act with the best intentions, but flawed understandings.

Happily ever after doesn't exist in the real world. We have to deal with things being better or worse than they were before we acted.

A simplistic example:

A person becomes ill and goes through a healing journey and becomes much better (possibly including moving away from the place where they got sick), but never finds out that the reason they got ill was the factory upstream dumping pollution into the water. Beyond that, they never find out who made the decisions which caused the dumping.

There are stories like this in the news all the time.

It's more satisfying if the conflict is totally solved, but it's more realistic if it isn't.

Someone can be just as heroic fighting the wrong problem as they would be fighting the right one. It just tends to be more tragic if the reader realizes it was the wrong problem.

Conspiracy theories and stories built upon them often feature unknown villains or vaguely defined ones who never come into view.

They're compelling because they make us question our views and, even if the real villain is never confronted, defeated, or even identified, some bad things that the villain originated do come into view and may be overcome or stopped.

  • Nice nice. I like that. Thanks. Have to let it sink. – user5645 Sep 7 '16 at 7:51
4

The problem with not putting a name or face to an antagonist is that you're not allowing the reader to feel as if the protagonist is achieving anything. If the antagonist is defeated without ever being revealed, then it strips the feeling of accomplishment and justice being served to the evildoer who deserves it. If this is the effect you're trying to achieve then that's great, but it's very difficult to get a feeling of accomplishment when you're not sure what it is that you've accomplished.

If you have a definite person or organization that is the antagonist in your story, then your protagonist will want to put a name or face to them, that is what humans do. We need to try to know or understand what we are facing or it is much more difficult to overcome it. So whilst the enemy might be Joe, CEO of the Illumninati, the protagonist may not know that particular person, but will likely still understand that they are facing the Illuminati as a whole.

If the protagonist cannot put a name or face to their enemy, let's use your example of Sauron, then the antagonist in their story will not be Sauron to them. It will be Saruman, or Gothmog, or any other lieutenant that they know or face. If Sauron is not known to them, then he would not be their enemy, they would instead name the person they understand to be in charge of the evil in Middle Earth as their ultimate opponent.


The biggest problem usually in fiction with making the reveal of the villain is that the villain in person is not the thing to be afraid of. It's usually their influence over others, or their power to convince others to do evil, that is their real strength. Whilst Hitler was the ultimate enemy of the Allies in World War 2, I doubt anyone would have been overly scared to take him on 1-on-1 for a chance to end the war.

So when the heroes meet the villain in person, the reader understands that the biggest threat is already over. They have usually overcome much more difficult obstacles in order just to face their opponent, so the actual final showdown is less of a climax than beating their true difficulty was, which is the villain's command of every obstacle and enemy that the heroes have faced so far.

Sauron is actually probably the best example of what you are looking for that I can think of in fiction: They know who he is so can put a name to their ultimate enemy. He is incredibly powerful, but his power comes from the fear and control he has over his minions. At the climax of the story, that is what is overcome, as the company face off against his army that he has built through fear of his power, whilst Frodo literally fights to overcome the influence of the Ring in the final moments.

  • Thank you, that is almost helpful :-) You put your fingers on all the right places. But how do you pull off a story in which there is no feeling of accomplishment because the protagonists are not sure what it is that they've accomplished? A story in which someone gets submerged in events and spit out, none the wiser? – user5645 Sep 5 '16 at 10:30
  • 2
    @what I would concentrate on individual stories. Why are the protagonists doing what they're doing, if not for the greater good? For their families? For money? For simply doing the right thing? There are thousands of soldiers in wars that fight for something they may not understand or even know of, but each of them has their own story and reasons for continuing. Maybe they're a mercenary fighting to earn money to pay off debts, and the antagonist to them is the debt collector, rather than the opposing army. He can hear rumors of the effect his role had in the greater war, but it's not his war. – Mike.C.Ford Sep 5 '16 at 11:31
  • Okay, so no matter how not-theirs that war is, it will always become a reflection of their own person and circumstances and they will fight their inner demons as projected into the sitation they find themselves in. Thanks, that was helpful. – user5645 Sep 5 '16 at 12:08
2

This seems to be a case of leaving unanswered questions, or a sense of mystery in the story.

It is quite possible for this to happen. I recall that the books A Series of Unfortunate Events quite often left that sense of mystery, pretty much right up to the end.

In the case of an individualized antagonist, it is also possible to accomplish. The cunning and nefarious mastermind who always escapes, leaving behind little evidence, would be a prime example. Agents may be caught and unmasked, plots upset, plans foiled... but if the villain always gets away and remains mysterious, yes, it can be done.

The cartoon Inspector Gadget also toyed with this idea. You never see the face of the villain, he always gets away. Technically though the villain is "known", at least to the audience, in that example.

While there needs to be a mechanism to reveal information, and also hallmark the acts of the villain, for example, a trademark of some kind as a symbol denoting that "the villain was here"; there is no reason that the villain HAS to be revealed, or ever even shown.

2

Have you looked into Kafka's work, espcially Metamorphosis and The Trial? I think there's an adjective for what you try to achieve, and it's "kafkaesque".

Apart from that, I'm not sure how satisfying a story could be without a clearly defined antagonistic force (or one that is so well hidden it is hard to point a finger at it). As you point out yourself, stories are driven by conflict. The antagonist is the embodyment of the mechanism, force, literal person that tries to keep the protagonist from reaching its goal. If the reader doesn't know the antagonist -- I don't think the protagonist needs to know it(1) --, he will have a lot of trouble following the story. The best example I can think of is Chris Nolan's movie Inception: Cobb has a clear goal almost from the start of the movie. His antagonist are the "projections" of Fisher's mind -- subconscious defensive systems that try to keep intruders out of Fisher's head. When they sense that something is messing with Fisher's thoughts, they attack. While this is a great antagonist and makes a lot of sense in the framework of Inception, I didn't get it when I first saw the movie. The result was this: I saw a lot of battling and a lot of opposition to Cobb's goal, but I didn't get where that was coming from. I was confused. I enjoyed the movie enough to watch it again and get the whole concept of projections, but when I left the cinema, I was kind of dissatisfied. I wouldn't be surprised if there's people out there, who put Kafka's Trial down for the exact same reason. Not having an antagonist that the reader can understand and pin down leaves us confused. We might be aware of what the story is about, but we don't understand why the protagonist can't reach his goals. At some point, we get frustrated -- and might even stop reading.

t;dr: While it's not necessary that the protaganist is aware of the antagonist force, the reader should know it, even if it's abstract. Otherwise, s/he might have difficulties following the plot.

P.S.: Another thought: What if Fate is the antagonistic force? Fate is so abstract we can hardly grasp it. Yet, an entire school of Greek dramatists did nothing but write dramas about how Fate is inevitable.

P.2.S.: Concerning fantasy and horror: Yes, horror, for me, too, works best if I don't know what's going on. (Think of Stranger Things. At sime point, the Demogorgon just stopped being scary, because it was so unrealistic, and at that point, the whole series lost its appeal to me.) However, if I still don't get it at the end of the movie, I might have been scared like never before in my life, but I won't take any satisfaction from the experience. Rather, I'd be pretty grumpy, because I have suffered for no apparent reason (and probably won't be able to sleep for a week because I can't figure out why all the horror happened, and could it happen to me?). While this happens in real life, I don't think this is what we expect from storytelling. When I read a book or watch a movie, I want to take some emotional message from it, such as: Growing up is messy. Some marriages can't be fixed. Dropping out of college is not the end of the world. Family supports you, even if you're not a beauty queen. If I don't get this message, I might have been entertained (or scared), but the story probably won't stay with me. (Yes, I'm aware that's personal taste.)


(1) Example: A coming of age story. The story goal is for the antagonist to grow up. For the protagonist, it is very unlikely that s/he will ever be consciosuly aware of an antagonist, because s/he doesn't set out to "grow up". Nobody does. It's something that happens to you, and usually you don't even know what being "grown up" means until you realize that you're part of a social structure and cannot continue to live an insular life. The reader, on the other hand, is very aware of the antagonistic force -- say, selfishness and unawareness of others, innocence maybe, however you define that or "childhood" in general, as opposed to being "grown up".

A beautiful example is Hirokazu Kore-Eda's movie I wish (Kiseki) that reminded me a lot of the Stephen King adaption Stand by me. It centers on Koichi, a 12-year-old that wants to reunite his broken-up family. When he hears that two bullet trains passing each other at full speed for the first time grant a wish to the person who sees it, he sets out with a few friends to watch this magical moment. His wish is: Let the volcano Sakurajima next to my new village errupt really badly so that nobody can live there anymore. Then, he thinks, his mother will go back to his father in Osaka and he can be with his entire family again. It's a very selfish wish but something that a child is apt to do. Maybe you can guess how the movie ends. (It's really evident from the beginning, but still so beautiful to watch.) -- So, in Kiseki, what's the antagonist? Sure, Koichi encounters trouble: He loses faith, his younger brother is not really on board with his plan, he doesn't have the money to buy train tickets, the kids don't know where to spend the night. That's all problems, but not really the antagonist. The antagonist is Koichi's wish that cannot be granted, not even by a mircale. He suffers from his longing for his reunited family and must accept that his life has changed. Once he has achieved that, the movie is over. BUT: Koichi doesn't know that. And yet, the movie works -- because the audience knows the source of the conflict.

1

People are normally 'fighting' against forces that don't exist, almost all 'knowledge' is fabricated guesswork at best. We invent reasons for things internal and external and fiction is a partially honest embodiment of that.

Storytelling rules are one such fabrication, the reality of many stories is that they go from word to word, moment to moment, objective to objective, interaction to interaction, and only have plot because the author feels there should be one, yet carrying the plot is so often where otherwise good prose falls down.

What is a plot? It is a project that one believes to exist engineered by characters that certainly do not exist, even if your estimation of them fits well enough for your purposes.

Fictional antagonists are a reaction in the mind of the reader to the words on the page, built largely by implication. The implication can be more or less explicit.

A Novel opens with a character being told a story with plot, protagonist, antagonist etc. The novel continues with a story of events, perhaps a war, the protagonist gets swept up in it, spending most of it as a refugee travelling across the continent dealing with looters and gangs and profiteers, avoiding the army whilst the remainder of her family try to teach her all manner of things but no longer possessing the books or the tools they find it as difficult to teach as she does to learn, our protagonist imagines she is Gara, fleeing the evil god Whatshisface, never realizing she's had a psychotic break.

A Novel opens with a character reading a news story about a russian spy poisoning some apparently random people, on the radio on the way to work there's a piece about how trump colluded with russia to influence the presidential election, at work that day she gets an error message written in cyrilic commented code when an in-house developed app crashes. She asks the guy who wrote it about the russian language in the cafeteria three days later, after the IT team haven't responded to her request for help. He seems nervous.

On a hunch, she has a look at his projects folder and finds more russian! loads of it! She votes democrat at the midterms. Damned russian spies, they're everywhere!

Sorry, I got carried away. Anyway, point is people invent imaginary antagonists that don't exist all the time. An antagonist that doesn't exist can never be known.

1

It is possible to accomplish this by divorcing the identity of the antagonist from their presence.

If the antagonist has a presence (leaves notes, origami figures, small unicorn statues, a symbol, an ink pen, a minifig, passes cryptic messages and taunts through other characters, or whatever) in the story, then their impact will be felt, even if the story never confirms the identity.

"Who" can remain mysterious, if they even exist at all, but the impact of the antagonist needs to affect the emotions of the readers in order to be effective as an antagonist.

0

As Mike C. Ford has stated in his answer, a story without a protagonist leaves the hero without an accomplishment.

Usually, the accomplishment in a story is achieved through a choice the hero must make, between two equal options: the hero must give up one thing to gain another. This choice is forced on the hero by the antagonist: you can save your parents, but if you do, I will kill the girl. Of course the hero will eventually overcome the antagonist and save both his parents and the girl (at least in Hollywood) or loose both (in literary fiction), but before that he must make the choice that will enable him to overcome the protagonist. His choice between two evils will change him and equip him with the ability that he lacked.

In a story without an antagonist, the demand to choose is still presented, but the hero does not make that choice. The antagonist disappears, leaving before the hero could have made the choice and overcome his weakness. The end is open and the audience is left to consider what choice they would have made.

0

Generally, the answer to a "can I do this" question is usually, "yes, it just introduces extra challenges." In this case, you won't have the typical advantages of a story with an unmasked antagonist. So what are those? It builds audience engagement, by personifying the opposition, and it grants closure, when the antagonist is defeated.

If you can find other ways to build audience engagement, and to provide satisfying audience closure at the end, then yes, you can definitely do this. Of these two, the harder one will be providing closure. How can the characters and the audience be sure the threat is over? So you'll either need to build a story where closure doesn't require seeing the antagonist OR where closure is not an expectation.

0

TLDR: Yes, but give us someone we know whom the hero can defeat.

Let's go to TvTropes and Star Wars for this.

Let's define some terms first.

In a story there are very commonly two antagonists, the Big Bad, and the Dragon. I think Star Wars is the best stereotypical example of the characters. The Emperor is the Big Bad, and Darth Vader is the Dragon.

Here are some things that define the two. The Big Bad is evil to the core. He is the reason bad things are happening. He is the brains. He may be strong or weak, or maybe just strong in his home base. Maybe he can't leave his home base. The Big Bad may be frail and not be able to act for long periods of time.

The Dragon has some honor. The Dragon does not have the weaknesses of the Big Bad. He may be weaker in theory, but is much better suited for going out and harrasing the hero on the hero's terms.

And we are back to the question. You can hide the Big Bad, but in that case you most likely need a Dragon, and you can't hide the Dragon. Star Wars, the first movie (Hope Awakens) is a great example of this. We see the Emperor in a hologram for a moment. That scene does not need to be there. We can just know that Darth Vader works for someone. We can get a feeling of how evil he is just based on Vader.

So when you create a narrative just make sure that there is a Dragon. Let the protagonist battle him. The protagonist can then achieve his goals. IS it to survive and escape? is it to save the word? is it to get the girl? It does not matter, at some point the Dragon and the Hero can come head to head (or not) and the hero can use his heroic strengths to exploit the Dragon's tragic weakness. We can also know that the Big Bad orchestrated the conflict. He planned it, he did things to help the Dragon, and then he dissipated back into the shadows before the hero ever found out who he was. The story will be satisfying as long as the Dragon lies bleeding.

And maybe we will learn about the Big Bad in part two?

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy