Whether you’re writing a mystery or another type of novel, you need characters with competing goals to create conflict. Author Hallie Ephron stressed this point at ThrillerFest earlier this month.
Keeping tension strong and readers engaged requires more than one character who opposes your protagonist.
Yes, you need a strong antagonist (and/or a strong villain in a thriller, mystery, or suspense novel). But other characters also should have agendas contrary to that of your protagonist.
Echoing Ephron's advice, the first agent I spoke to about my new mystery series asked immediately, “Who’s working against your protagonist?”
Evil Not Necessary
Working against doesn't mean that all the other characters are evil, though some might be, or don't support the protagonist in other ways. Ephron notes that other characters can and should work both for and against your main character for their own reasons.
For example, in a novel with a protagonist sleuth, the sleuth's best friend and spouse may vehemently urge abandoning an investigation that puts their loved one in danger.
What Do Your Characters Want?
Other characters should have goals that are admirable but require them to thwart the protagonist's actions. Sara Paretsky's Tunnel Vision includes a great example of this.
A friend of private eye V.I. Warshawski runs a women-owned construction company. She struggles to get work, and when her company is finally awarded a contract, V.I.'s investigation threatens that. It would be one thing if the friend were convinced that something wrong or dangerous was really going on. But when V.I. offers what appears to be mere speculation, the friend is understandably angry and works against VI.
As you plot and write your novel, look at each character in your protagonist's orbit. Is each person working for your protagonist? Against? Both, but in different ways?
If everyone's working to help the protagonist, there's probably not enough conflict.
On the other hand, if everyone's working against the protagonist, particularly if they all have nefarious motives, you may have too much of a black hat/white hat situation. Try changing a few characters so their goals are ones the reader can identify with and root for despite that they are in conflict with the protagonist's aims.
It may help to list each character, what that person wants, and whether it means the person works for or against the protagonist.
Remember that a character can have one goal that’s supportive and one that’s in conflict. In fact, in my view, those are the most interesting characters to write and read about.
What are your favorite examples of characters with strong goals that are contrary to a protagonist’s? Feel free to share in the comments.
Until Friday, when I'll recommend a way to understand narrative beats–
P.S. For more on character development, you can check out my new release Creating Compelling Characters From The Inside Out.