I want (and need) to have multiple antagonists in my story, but how do I pull this off without the story or the goals becoming too fragmented? Do you have advice on how to write multiple antagonists or should I just forgo that idea?
Yes, you can definitely have multiple antagonists without fragmenting a story. While it’s possible for multiple antagonists to be a sign that the story is fragmented, it doesn’t have to be.
The purpose of an antagonist is to be an obstacle that makes it harder for the protagonist to solve an important problem. The key question here is what problem each antagonist is preventing the hero from solving, or as another way of looking at it, which of the protagonist’s goals each antagonist opposes. Are they the same or different?
Let’s take an example.
Maybe you have a minor antagonist who is the protagonist’s boss. The boss is trying to make the protagonist’s job so difficult that the employer will be forced to fire them. The protagonist wants to keep their job. Then you have a big bad who’s kidnapping people off the street, and the protagonist has to find out who they are and rescue the people. By default, those are two different plot arcs about two different problems. One about the job, the other about a threat to the city. In that case, your story could be fragmented.
But what if the protagonist needs time away from their job to investigate the mystery, and their boss keeps giving them so much work they have to do overtime? They can’t just quit because they need the money, so they have to find some way to complete the work while also running off to solve the mystery. Now that the boss is standing in the way of the mystery plot, the story is no longer fragmented.
If the antagonists are participating in different plot arcs, you can also consolidate the story by multi-tasking. However, that’s much easier if one arc is more internal and lower tension. Maybe the boss is on Team Good, and isn’t trying to get the protagonist kicked out, they’re just making the protagonist miserable. In the course of working together against the big bad, the protagonist learns to stand up to them.
In most cases when you have multiple antagonists, there will be a hierarchy of greater and lesser ones. The greater ones are more threatening and play a central role at the climax. The lesser ones offer early obstacles while keeping the big bad mysterious and threatening. The hero usually defeats a lesser antagonist before the climax, and sometimes they join Team Good afterward.
You can have two big bads, it just makes the logistics of the story a little trickier. They both need to feel present earlier in the story while not having their asses handed to them, or they won’t be threatening anymore, and they’ll both need an important role at the climax.
I hope that answers your question. Happy writing!