I'm fleshing out a novel which seems to have enough going on without adding an antagonist. In reality, my main character is her own antagonist. She is warring with herself, battling feelings of guilt after the death of her grandfather and must work through this in order to move on. I've read the thread on writing a book without an antagonist but it seems to be suggesting that it only works in short stories, which is not what I'm going for.

There is a romantic sub-plot, if that helps any. Perhaps I should switch to the romance being the main idea to fix this?

  • I think you're mixing up protagonist and antagonist...
    – Kate S.
    Commented Aug 27, 2011 at 22:21
  • 2
    Don't think you read the thread on books without an antagonist long enough! From my answer on that thread: "Yes, a book can work without an antagonist. For example, in "end of the world" disasters, the source of friction often comes from the disaster, and not an antagonist. (To use an example, while not a book but a film, think "Armageddon" as exhibit A.) Romance novels often don't have antagonists, either. The conflict could also come from inner conflict, such as drug addiction." Commented Aug 28, 2011 at 13:56
  • I do remember reading that Craig, however, none of the cited examples seemed to fit the situation of my story. As for the romance part, I really do want to keep it from leaping to front stage. On a different note, I would also argue that a movie has a distinct advantage over a novel in that it can carry a viewer farther without substance simply through it's visual nature (think sweeping vistas and artful cinematography). It seems unfair to use them side by side. Anyway, the father is an antagonist for the young couple, however minor, in that movie.
    – Inspired
    Commented Aug 29, 2011 at 16:38
  • These kind of self-conflicted characters talk to mirrors a lot.
    – user2470
    Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 17:15

4 Answers 4


You don't need an antagonist. You need some way to force the MC to confront herself. The usual way to do that is to provide an antagonist who presents exactly the right problem to force that self-confrontation. But that's not the only way.

A story is often three stories. The inner story is about how the main character is her own antagonist. The outer story is an important, meaningful problem on its own... but even more importantly it brings the MC to the point of confronting herself. The third story (typically a relationship story) provides yet another opportunity for the MC to see herself, and at the same time offers exemplars (good and bad) of various ways other people deal with similar inner conflicts. This relationship story is often where someone directly, pointedly, and correctly points out the MC's flaws.

It sounds as if your story doesn't provide that outer story, the one the brings the MC ever closer to seeing and confronting herself. That might work... as long as something brings her to that point.

One of my favorite stories is Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day. In that, I'd say that Stevens (the butler MC) is the main antagonist. There is another antagonist or two in the form of his boss's political friends, but the problems they create for him are few, and they are problems only because of his own choice to value his idealized (and obsolete?) sense of duty over fully expressing himself.

His main problem is how to address his growing mutual attraction with Miss Kenton. Again, the problem is entirely of his own making. She certainly isn't an antagonist in this.

All of these factors slowly but relentlessly drive Stevens into a corner (literally into a corner in a heartbreaking scene in the movie), where he must choose between the risk of human connection and the safety of solitude and duty.

So: You don't absolutely have to have an antagonist. But you will need some way to force the MC to confront herself.

  • 1
    I disagree about Remains of the Day. Miss Kenton certainly is an antagonist. She struggles to pull him out from behind his facade. The irony is that, in defeating her, he defeats himself. A brilliant book, by the way.
    – Robusto
    Commented Aug 29, 2011 at 14:06
  • You really put this in a way I could understand it Dale. The outer story is that she is left with the grandfather's estate and the choices she must make regarding it are what force her to confront her past and her feelings about it. The more I think about this though, the more I want to pull her father in as an antagonist in the story. After all, there must be a reason why a granddaughter receives full inheritance over a still living son. Thank you for clarifying the "3 stories" for me.
    – Inspired
    Commented Aug 29, 2011 at 18:32
  • Actually you DO have to have an antagonist. You just need to understand that the antagonist and the protagonist can be the same person. This is #3 in the classic list of plots: Man vs Man, Man vs Nature, and Man vs Himself. Every story must have some kind of opposing force or inherent conflict or there is no story, just a list. That conflict is TOTALLY possible to have entirely within one character. It has been done plenty of times. In that case, the main character is her own antagonist.
    – JBiggs
    Commented Jul 27, 2017 at 14:55

She is warring with herself, battling feelings of guilt after the death of her grandfather and must work through this in order to move on.

Fear, doubt, anger, blinding passion and just about any other emotion, especially if it is overpowering, can forge the foundation of an antagonistic force. I find I enjoy the sinister nature of this type of antagonist. Emotions are often the ultimate blind spot for an individual.

I find myself identifying with these characters. Who can't identify with internal conflict denying opportunities in life? I find it frustrating as a reader when the story is too internal and I get bored. If a character can push through her emotions to move forward and find resolution without boring me then I can enjoy this type of story.

This is not an uncommon theme in manga/anime. In those settings it is the relationships between the characters that provides the external perspective on the emotional state of the main character. You are often left completely without knowledge until the end of what the real internal conflict is, but you spend the entire series trying to figure it out. That makes it very engaging.

  • Thanks for the insight. Perhaps I should watch some anime...
    – Inspired
    Commented Aug 28, 2011 at 0:10
  • I'd recommend Honey and Clover - that's all about characters interacting with each other and warring with themselves. Ano Hana is another (beautifully written) one where all the conflict comes from the characters dealing with the past and how it's affected them - and the best thing is, it's short at 11 episodes.
    – Lexi
    Commented Aug 28, 2011 at 2:08

I personally think it should work, but I never seem to get a lot of support for this idea, so...?

For me, it works because I think of the protagonist as the main character, and the antagonist as being whatever gets in the protagonist's way. I really don't believe that the antagonist has to be a person. This is obvious in survival stories, where the antagonist is nature, or a disaster of some sort, but I think it also works in Romance, and in other genres.

Your protagonist has a goal, and there are things that must be overcome before that goal can be reached. That's your conflict and plot.

I think you need to be careful that there is external action in your story - having your protagonist sit there and meditate until she finds inner peace isn't going to be all that exciting. But if she's doing things, and through these actions achieves her goal - yippee, I say!

  • Yes, in my haste I did write protagonist twice. Gladly, you got my point. I am just getting used to this format here, please excuse me! Thank you for the advice, I agree. I have action outside the inner turmoil to be sure-I know I wouldn't want to read anything as depressing as an entire novel of a woman keeping herself from happiness and sinking into a depression. It's not my style! Thank you again.
    – Inspired
    Commented Aug 27, 2011 at 22:40
  • Exactly. An "antagonist" can be basically anything that gets in the way of the protagonist. Many of the best ones ever written were not people and sometimes, the protagonist is literally their own worst enemy.
    – JBiggs
    Commented Jul 27, 2017 at 14:58

I think it's perfectly valid to have the main character as the antagonist.

An example I read recently was If You Could See Me Now by Cecelia Ahern. The whole novel is about the main character overcoming herself and her past to move forward with her life. There is no other human (or non-human, I suppose) antagonist. The tension comes from whether the main character can get over her issues before changing circumstances mean that she loses what is important to her before she realises how important it is.

As for romance, that's the trigger the novel uses for her main character's self-discovery. It's important, but it's not the main focus. So I think it's also possible for you to leave it as a sub-plot if you think it works better that way.

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