Working With the Absent Antagonist

Day Thirty-eight: Skulking
Day Thirty-eight: Skulking (Photo credit: mbshane)


The book opens when the protagonist finds recent signs of the monster she has been hunting. The creature is nearby but does not actually appear until the next scene. Who is her main opponent? The creature. Where is it? Not here.

Scenes of pursuit and flight are perhaps the most common examples of absent antagonists. And thrillers are not the only books where the antagonist is not present. Maybe the protagonist is his/her own antagonist. How does the writer keep the reader involved when a direct confrontation just is not possible? Here are some techniques:

  • Develop the sense of danger. She knows it is out there but not exactly where so it could appear at any time. Show destruction previously caused by the antagonist and hint at what it could do to the protagonist.

  • Develop the sense of uncertainty. Not only could it appear at any time and from any direction, she’s never actually seen the creature. Let her imagination run wild.

  • Make the mood forbidding. Plants rustle without a wind. Sour smell from the burned out den. Lack of magic where there should be lots. No wildlife moving. Add what could be a bad omen. Skin prickles. Imagine that ghosts or some part of the setting is trying to warn her of danger.

  • State fears/ worries/ uncertainties from the protagonist’s POV. If she is unsure of her success, the reader will worry too.

  • Set a time limit. The protagonist has to find the creature now before there are more victims and before someone else gets involved.

  • Have someone warn her of the danger. Have someone warn her of the worst case outcome – the one that happens or one that is similar to what happens.

6 thoughts on “Working With the Absent Antagonist

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