Tag Archives: The Anatomy Of Story

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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Plot Weaving – Where To Start


Novelists report common problems. One has to do with “sagging middles” — stories that dead end or lose steam somewhere in the middle. A second is not knowing where to start.

In actuality, the two issues might be related. Story consultant and critic of the popular three-act story structure, John Truby, in his book The Anatomy of Story says this about crafting a plot:

Because plot involves the intricate weaving of characters and actions over the course of the entire, story, it is inherently complex. It must be extremely detailed yet also hang together as a whole. Often the failure of a single plot event can bring the entire story down (p. 258).

It’s fair to say, then, that a bad beginning can affect a story’s middle. That’s not to conclude that a good beginning will automatically eliminate the possibility of a slow or stalled middle, but I’ll explore causes apart from the beginning another day.

I’ve suggested in earlier articles — “How to Start A Novel”, “The First Five Pages”, and “What Goes Into A Plot” that the writer should know his protagonist and his main opponent. He should know his theme and have the setting firmly in mind. But that still begs the question — where to begin the plot?

To figure out the answer to that question, it’s important to know where the story will end up. Mr. Truby says it like this: “An organic plot shows the actions that lead to the hero’s character change or [that] explain why the change is impossible” (p.259).

He then makes, what I think to be a central observation about good plotting: the events of the plot need to be “causally connected.” In other words, one event needs to cause the next event, and in the end the character needs to be changed (or the reason he isn’t clarified). To accomplish both of these goals simultaneously, the writer must weave the story events together in such a way that they appear to grow naturally, one from the other.

It’s possible to do this as an outliner who thinks through the events ahead of time, or as a seat-of-the-pants writer who creates scenes, then pieces them together and fills in gaps later on.

But that still doesn’t answer the “where to start” question. Think of a story as the reason why — the reason why Gillian is blind, the reason why Tad loves soccer, the reason why the sky is blue, or any of a countess number of scenarios. Each of these names the outcome. The story will detail the events that brought about the outcome. The start, then, is the first of those events — the trigger, if you will, or what most writing instructors refer to as the inciting incident.

As a reminder, I suggested in “The First Five Pages” that the opening scene should be a bridge between the story and the back story, so a novel generally doesn’t start with the inciting incident. In reality, however, the inciting incident is the beginning of the plot.

Here’s what Mr. Truby says about the inciting incident: “This is an event from the outside that causes the hero to come up with a goal and take action” (p. 278).

From that point on, the events will have a cause-effect connection.

Fairy tales often used a nice prompt to alert the reader to the inciting incident. After setting the stage, a paragraph would inevitable begin, One day … The implication is that on that day something new and different will happen — the inciting incident, the first step in a series of steps leading to ultimate change.

And that, my friends, is where a plot should start.

Examples
From “The Monkey and the Crocodile”

Once there lived a monkey in a jamun tree by a river. The monkey was alone – he had no friends, no family, but he was happy and content. The jamun tree gave him plenty of sweet fruit to eat, and shade from the sun and shelter from the rain.

One day a crocodile came swimming up the river and climbed on to the bank to rest under the monkey’s tree …

From “Little Red Riding Hood”

Long, long time ago, in a little village at the edge of a forest, there lived a little girl with her mother and her father. This little girl was the sweetest, kindest child there ever was. She was always dressed in a pretty red cloak and hood that her mother had made for her, so that everyone began calling her Little Red Riding Hood.

One day Little Red Riding Hood’s mother called her and said, ‘Daughter, your grandmother is very ill. Please take her this pot of butter and some custard that I have made.’

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