Category Archives: Antagonists

Bad Guys Need To Be Bad

Darth VaderThe conventional wisdom today is that antagonists in fiction, in order to be believable, must have a “pet the dog” moment to show that they have a human side, that they are realistic, since real-life people are a mixed bag of good deeds and evil desires.

In an earlier blog post, “Antagonists Are Real People Too,” I made a case for a different way of creating realistic antagonists: give them appropriate motivation.

Then too, an antagonist may not actually be evil. They might simply be in conflict with the hero, the way the San Francisco Giants pitcher Ryan Vogelsong is in conflict with the Los Angeles Dodgers ace, Clayton Kershaw.

But sometimes the antagonist is evil.

I think, however, writers tend to overlook the fact that there are different types of evil. The general picture of an antagonist is a character who wants total control no matter who he hurts to get it. Certainly that antagonist works, whether he wants total control of a family, a church, a business, a country, or the world.

His number one tactic is force. He aims to break knee caps or kidnap children or murder cousins just to force people to do his bidding. He is made in the image of the Godfather. Or Hitler.

But violent, power-hungry megalomaniacs are not the only people who are evil. What about the charmer who talks people out of their life savings? He’s evil on a different level. He can cheat people but also undermine their trust in others—perhaps a worse result of this evil person’s actions than the loss of money.

Or how about frauds? Or liars in general. These are people who don’t need to cheat—they are healthy, able-bodied, smart and capable, but they’d rather figure out a way to cheat the government or lie to their boss or to their business partner or their clients. They are constantly looking for an edge so their “half” is a little bigger than your “half.” These are the people who steal identities so they can benefit from someone else’s hard work.

Another type of evil is the computer hacker or spammer. This person wants to create havoc because he likes to see other people scramble around and try to undo what he’s done. He might do something malicious like put people’s lives in danger because of his tampering with other computers. Or he might operate like the arsonist—start a virus and see where it goes and what all people have to do to get it under control. He might like seeing his work talked about in the media. He might get a sense of accomplishment by bringing entities more powerful than he, to their knees.

Another type of evil is the sexual predator. Many suspense stories feature this type of antagonist, so I don’t have to elaborate. There are varieties of sexual predators, however. Black widow movies, for example, came into their own when writers realized that women could also be sexual predators.

Other familiar bad guys, but perhaps not utilized as antagonist very often, are people who are prejudice. I’m not referring to the obvious white supremacist or Ku Klux Klan member. I’m talking about the people today who might whisper to their neighbor about “those people,” or start a petition against a certain religion or ethnicity. Or, for a real twist, favor a certain gender over and above the other (and clearly, women can be favored over an above men just as easily as the reverse).

Another effective bad guy is the one who is out to get the story hero and no one else. He may be motivated by revenge, so his aim is to destroy the hero, one way or the other. His hate is focused and white hot so he won’t consider the illegality of his own actions or the danger to others in his way.

Showing antagonists with a bent toward a specific evil is the writer’s first step toward making them realistic. And no dog needs to be petted in the process.

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Characters And Their Struggles

Cinderella-Offterdinger_Aschenbrodel_(1)A story needs characters, and generally one stands out as the central figure, the person about whom the events will revolve.

I suggest the above description of a main character is a recipe for an unpublished novel. While it may be true, it misses key points regarding characters who appear in well-read fiction.

First, the definition implies a disconnect between the events and the character. In page-turning stories, things ought not happen to a character. Rather, the character ought to go out and make things happen. The events aren’t centered on the character as much as the character is causing the events.

Secondly, the character as agent develops because of his wants and needs. These twin motivating passions have to do with both external and internal desires.

The external refers to something a character perceives will solve a problem, fulfill a longing, advance a goal. Harry Potter needs to attend Hogwarts, Cinderella longs to go to the ball, Dorothy must return home.

The internal has to do with an inner desires fueling a character and may be things she doesn’t realize at first. In fact these passions may be so ingrained in a character, she doesn’t understand these are motivating her. Harry Potter wants revenge, Cinderella longs to be loved, Dorothy wants to be loving.

Often a character reaches a point of revelation and comes to a place of clarity. She might then embrace what she finds or she may determine to change. Scarlet O’Hara determines she will never go hungry again, Bilbo Baggins embraces his role as “burglar,” Lucy Pevensie realizes she should do what Aslan tells her even if no one else believes her.

Internal and external wants and needs motivate the main character to action. He makes a plan and determines how he should go about acquiring what he perceives to be his greatest need. His plan may be involved, it may lead to a second plan or a revised plan, it may unfold in stages. The point is, the character is not passively waiting for things to happen to him. He is an instigator.

He is not the only instigator, however. The story also has antagonists who act. They are bent on foiling the main character’s plan or changing his intentions. They create obstacles that delay or derail his plans, causing him to revisit his goals and readjust what he’d hoped to accomplish.

Dorothy wants to go home but learns only the Wizard of Oz can help her. Her plan, then, is to go to Oz and put her petition before the Wizard. When she at last gains an audience with him, he promises to help her only if she kills the Wicked Witch of the West, giving her a new goal. Throughout the story Dorothy alters her plan and aims for something different as a stepping stone to her ultimate goal–returning home.

In essence, that desire drives the story, and the events that make up the story stem from Dorothy’s efforts to accomplish her goal. Put another way, Dorothy’s efforts are the story. The key is, whether succeeding or failing, Dorothy is striving to achieve what she wants.

She may succeed or fail in her efforts, but readers are firmly behind her, hoping the best for her because she’s active. She struggles to accomplish what she believes the circumstances require.

Dorothy doesn’t act alone. None of the characters do. Cinderella attended the ball only because of her fairy godmother’s gifts, Gandalf provided Bilbo with the help he needed to unite the Five Armies, and the Weasleys showed Harry Potter how to reach Platform 9 3/4 where he would catch the train to Hogwarts.

But the help these characters received in no way canceled out their need to struggle against the obstacles and work toward their goal. After all, that’s what a story is about.

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Antagonists Are Real People Too

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.”

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Develop Your Antagonist

Too often writers focus on developing their protagonist and forget that the antagonist who puts that character into conflict must also be well developed.

The first step in creating a fully-realized antagonist is to be aware that he or she does not necessarily have to be an opponent. He must be a character who has a want or need that clashes with the protagonist’s want or need. The two characters should not both be able to realize their desires. Thus the conflict.

Too often, in my opinion, writing instruction books give the impression that all an antagonist needs is some good quality to flesh him out and make him not one dimensional. The typical example is the serial killer who loves his pet dog or dogs in general or little children. He goes out of his way to save a puppy or feeds his dog a special treat before heading off for the next murder.

I don’t see that as sufficient character development. Instead, an antagonist must be true to his own want or need.

For example, I believe the serial killer can be thoroughly reprehensible—evil, through and through. But his struggles need to be real. He needs to kill or to foil the detective out to catch him. He needs to have his own character arc—struggles that push him forward and motivate him to make choices, along with consequences that refine him or weaken him.

Of course, the antagonist doesn’t need to be evil. He simply must be the principle foil for the main character.

If the antagonist is the business partner of the protagonist, he might believe that the only way to make ends meet is to accept a client our hero finds unacceptable. They both want to make the business succeed, but the main character wants to be free of any questionable associations. He wants a growing business, but he needs to be a man of integrity. The antagonist, on the other hand, needs to be successful, no matter what the cost. These two are far from enemies, but their differing needs pull them in opposing directions.

When beginning a novel, knowing the main character is imperative, but knowing the antagonist is equally so. It is the antagonist who provides the counterbalance to the main character even as he throws up roadblocks and deepens the conflict. Good stories inevitably have good antagonists.

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