Is an antagonist required?; When do you need an ISBN?
Published: October 5, 2010
Q: Does a story or novel have to have an antagonist?
A: An antagonist is a specific entity that continually stands
in opposition to the protagonist or main character. Not all works of
fiction include an antagonist, but many do. An antagonist may be an
individual character or a group of characters. In Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,
the antagonist, Nurse Ratched, and the main character, a patient named
Randle McMurphy, butt heads as McMurphy challenges Nurse Ratched’s
authoritative and often dehumanizing power over the ward. An antagonist
need not be human. In Stephen King’s novel Cujo, a rabid St. Bernard traps Donna and her son in their car. In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road,
a novel that follows a young boy and his father in a harsh
post-apocalyptic world, the bleak setting and the force of desperation
that it spurs may be seen as the antagonist.
An antagonist is
not always a villainous character. Some are downright kind. In Raymond
Carver’s short story “Cathedral,” the narrator dreads the arrival of his
friend’s wife, a blind man. The narrator is the story’s main character,
but if anyone is unlikeable in “Cathedral,” it’s him. The blind man is
the antagonist because his visit causes such unrest for the main
While your fiction doesn’t have to include an
antagonist, it must have a series of compelling and persuasive obstacles
that the main character must negotiate. What’s the difference? An
antagonist is a specific presence that returns again and again
throughout the fiction. Randle McMurphy always has to contend with Nurse
Ratched in Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In McCarthy’s The Road, the bleak setting and desperation is a constant threat to the young boy and his father.
Some fictions don’t have one main entity working against the character, but rather a series of them. In Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were the Mulvaneys,
an idyllic family unravels after their daughter, Marianne, is raped.
While the family struggles to heal, they are faced with many obstacles:
the father’s inability to cope with his overwhelming anger and grief,
the secrets they keep from one another and the mother’s choice to side
with her husband over her daughter.
The antagonist is a compelling way to create formidable obstacles for the main character, but it’s not the only way.
Q: Do I need to get an ISBN number for my unpublished manuscript?
A: No, ISBNs are for published books. An ISBN (International
Standard Book Number) is a 13-digit number that uniquely identifies a
book. The number is found on a book’s copyright page and, sometimes, on
the back cover. Embedded in those digits is information about the title,
edition and publisher, which makes it easier to identify, market and
track the book.
Once you do publish the book, you will want an
ISBN. Usually you don’t have to worry about this as the publisher
secures the ISBN. However, if you’re the publisher, which may be the
case when self-publishing, you’ll need to purchase the ISBN. Bowker is
the only official source for ISBNs in the United States. At the website—www.isbn.org—you
can obtain an ISBN instantly. If you’re the publisher and you’re
located in another country, you’ll need to track down that country’s
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She
was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for
Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University,
University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a
visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.
Send your questions on the craft of creative writing to email@example.com. All of Brandi's other Q&A columns are available to registered users.