Antagonists are the sparring partners of the heroes in our novels.
Years ago when I began to study fiction, I heard the admonition to make all characters, even the antagonist realistic. Good advice, certainly, as far as it went. The problem was that the suggestions to make this pivotal character seem real sometimes backfired.
Let me explain.
The almost universal advice was to give the antagonist both good and bad qualities since people in real life are mixed bags. The secondary answer was to write in the antagonist’s point of view on occasion.
Of course that’s an option and many writers choose to do so, but I found in the books with chapters written from the opponent’s perspective, especially when those chapters revealed the antagonist’s tender side or the horrific circumstances that explained his evil, I didn’t care quite as much whether or not the hero won.
Was showing the good as well as the bad the only way to make an antagonist realistic? I’m afraid I stand against the tide of popular opinion on this one and say, No.
I arrived at this position in part because I write fantasy, and there are some unlovely characters in fantasy. If you’ve read The Hobbit, picture a goblin and see if you can recall a good trait. I may be forgetting something, but I can’t bring one to mind, and yet I had no problem believing Tolkien’s goblins. They were a serious and believable threat to Bilbo.
There are other examples in fantasy literature, so I have to conclude, if fantasy writers can make these darkly evil characters seem real and believable, then putting good qualities into the antagonist isn’t necessary for other writers either.
But what does make the antagonist seem real? Primarily, I believe it is motivation. The antagonist must want something logical, something that fits with his circumstances and character.
Golum, for example, in The Hobbit and in Lord of the Rings wants the ring Bilbo found because it had been his. He’d had it for years, and it was his precious. This desire was perfectly believable in the beginning, and as it developed in the trilogy became even more understandable.
If, however, Golum, who had been living away from people, deep in the goblin tunnels, wanted to kill Bilbo and take over his special home in Hobbition, the desire would not have fit the character or the circumstances. It would have been an unmotivated desire and therefore unbelievable.
The antagonist’s motivation, then, is the key, and his desire is the engine.
One writing professional, John Truby, author of The Anatomy of Story, says this about the antagonist, or opponent:
The opponent is the character who most wants to keep the hero from achieving his desire. The opponent should not merely be a block to the hero. That is mechanical.
Remember, the opponent should want the same thing as the hero. That means that the hero and the opponent must come into direct conflict throughout the story…
The relationship between the hero and the opponent is the single most important relationship in the story.
Mr. Truby goes on to say that the opponent does not need to be someone the hero hates. In fact he or she can be a friend, co-worker, spouse, brother. He can even be nicer or more moral, but in the end he needs to stand against the hero.
They both can’t get what they want. It is through this struggle, that the hero grows. But that also is a side issue to the central point — by giving the antagonist an important place in the story and setting him up with desires that collide with the hero’s desires, this character will become realistic and believable.
For a companion article on this topic, see “Develop Your Antagonist.”
4 responses to “Antagonists Are Real People Too”
How wonderful to read your post on this today! I’m in the middle of writing a very challenging project with a demon as a main character. I’m finding it very difficult though to let myself go and write him as a seemingly good character. Have any suggestions? Thank you.
Ooops, I should clarify, he does eventually reveal his true evil nature, but in the beginning he’s actually trying to do what is “right”.
Interesting, Sarah. I don’t know if I can see a demon trying to do what’s right as God would define right. Seems to me you need to give him a motive that fits his situation. What does he want — power? to earn his way into God’s good graces, perhaps. If that were so he might do what appears to be good things, but I don’t know if I’d buy that motive. I think the Bible describes Satan and by extension his evil forces as enemies of God. Another motive might be to thwart God’s plans.
Many people think Satan was trying to thwart God’s plans when he tempted Christ by luring Him away from the cross. I don’t agree with that because I don’t think Satan understood the cross and it’s power. He is not omniscient and I even think he might not have believed the cross was part of God’s plan. Hence Judas sought Christ’s death when Satan had entered him.
This is a long way around to say, I think you need to figure out what your demon character wants and make that believable, clear, logical. Then readers will buy what he does as long as his actions are consistent with what’s driving him.
I hope that helps. Feel free to ask more questions if this answer isn’t on point.
Thank you, Becky. I was a little cryptic, my demon’s motive isn’t that he wants to do the right thing, it’s definitely something else. But he thinks he can be just, he thinks he can choose right and at this point in the story he even believes he can love. My trouble is allowing myself to write him as alluring in the first half even though there is foreshadowing. I get creeped out and I find myself pulling back. Can a demon look this good? Sin looks lovely so I believe he can, but I don’t like being his PR girl. haha. As I think about it though, revealing his evil nature isn’t going to be a walk in the park either! Unless it’s a dark, sinister one. Still, I’m really excited about this project because it presents a wonderful opportunity to explore the true goodness of God in contrast.