But what if the hero isn't told at the beginning (by a cliche old, wise man) who he needs to outdo? What if the plot isn't a big, cohesive piece, it's episodic?
This is an issue I've struggled with. In From Halvmane's Shore, Andren only finds out he needs to wage a war on Potestatem halfway through. It doesn't make sense in his character development to know before then. But practically everyone who's published says to introduce the main antagonist in the first chapter.
After struggling with this for years, I figured it out. In the first chapter, I had two characters talking about dragons, but not Potestatem specifically. So I changed it, just a little.
“Dragons eat people?” Eiva asked, shocked.“Sometimes.”“How do your people keep from getting eaten, then?”“Sometimes they don't,” she said, her voice soft. She paused as if to collect herself. “The world is not as it should be. Potestatem is a cruel master.”Sibeal's distress made Eiva want to take up arms and go slay the dragon who'd hurt her. But no matter how much she wanted to, such a feat was not something she could do.
As you can see, this conversation sets up Potestatem as a bad guy, while saying Eiva can't defeat him, which begs the question, Who can?
It's not a lot. Perhaps it's too subtle and I need to drop other hints throughout. But I think it's a great way to incorporate a piece of advice I'd been struggling with. All I had to do was keep in mind the advice, even when I couldn't find an immediate solution.