Want to write memorable fiction? Fiction a reader cannot put down? Create a worthy antagonist.
One of the most pervasive errors I see with new writers (and I was at one time guilty as well) is that “antagonist” and “villain” tend to be used interchangeably. HUGE logical fallacy. A villain is always an antagonist, but an antagonist is not always a villain (as in all apples are fruits, but not all fruits are apples). Stories MUST have an antagonist. No one cares about slice-of-life drama. Even “reality” television has to manufacture antagonists, or viewers will quickly change the channel.
Yes, we as writers care deeply about our protagonist, but we have to make others care. How do we accomplish this? By creating a story-worthy antagonist.
Before continuing, let’s take a look at how Webster’s defines “antagonist.”
- One who opposes and contends against another; an adversary.
- The principal character in opposition to the protagonist or hero of a narrative or drama.
In Bob Mayer’s Novel Writer’s Workshop, he requires everyone to clearly show the conflict in their novel in a box diagram (read more on this technique in Bob’s Novel Writer’s Toolkit www.bobmayer.org). The protagonist wants X. The antagonist wants Y. Both get in each other’s way of accomplishing the end goal.
Now, going back to our handy-dandy definition above, notice the word “opposition” is used in both definitions. Opposition does not a villain make. If you are anything like me, examples help, so think of the movie The Fugitive (1993) starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones. The plot is basically this…
Well-respected Chicago surgeon Dr. Richard Kimball (Harrison Ford) is wrongly convicted of his wife’s brutal murder and sentenced to death. On the way to prison, Kimball’s transport crashes and he takes advantage of the situation and breaks free, bent on finding the real killer. This eventually lands him in direct conflict with Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) an unrelenting bloodhound of a U.S. Marshall determined to capture an escaped fugitive.
Dr. Kendall—-GOAL—Find Wife’s Killer
Sam Gerard—GOAL—-Hunt and Arrest Escaped Fugitive Dr. Kendall
Is Sam Gerard a bad guy? No. He’s a federal marshal doing his job. But, his goal clearly stands in opposition to the protagonist’s goal and thus we have action, drama, and forward momentum. The antagonist drives the story. This brings me to my next point.
Antagonists are tangible creatures. And I know the literary fiction people are probably going to cough up a hairball here, so I will confess there are exceptions to everything. But humans do better focusing on the concrete. In WWII we were, in truth, fighting fascism. But, it is really hard to get the general population stirred up over “concepts.” Humans require proxies. Thus, instead of fighting “fascism,” we fought “Hitler” and “Mussolini” instead. These villains became representatives of the larger idea and, in effect, put a face on our collective enemy.
This past Saturday at Warrior Writer Boot Camp, two of the writers asserted that war could be an antagonist…like in Gone with the Wind. But, I challenged them to really think about the central problem of the story. What was it? The central problem of the story was Scarlett O’Hara and her femininity. In Gone with the Wind, the Civil War was the backdrop for change, not the antagonist. Scarlett was at war with herself and her femininity (inner war being symbolized by the outer war). She was up against the ideals of what a female was supposed to be in that day and time. Melanie (proxy of the Old South and its ideal female) was one clear antagonist. Both wanted Ashley, only one could have him.
It ends up that the society where Scarlett is not valued falls apart. She rises above this flawed society AND flawed Ashley, eventually leaving him to Melanie and the dying Old South. Scarlett thrives in the chaos and the new world birthed from it, and becomes a rightful queen in this new world…a queen fit for a man like Rhett, the man a woman like her was meant for all along but she could not see it.
All along, Scarlett is really her own worst enemy but there is always a proxy. In my opinion, Rhett Butler is actually the main antagonist who is threaded throughout the entire plot. He is there at the beginning when she is a vapid stupid girl and he sees what she could become, disdains her for pining after Ashley. And he is there in the end completing her arc.
Antagonists DRIVE the action. Without them, there is no action and thus no story. The antagonist is who upsets the apple cart and makes the protagonist react until the central question of the story is adequately resolved.
Your story might have one main antagonist, but it is also very likely other supportive characters will at least don the “antagonist’s” cloak throughout the course of the story. Scene by scene, there has to be a goal at the end of that scene. Who or what stands in the way?
In The Perfect Storm the crew is up against the storm of the century, but the entire book or even movie would not be interesting without the human drama in the midst of this terrifying event. The human drama is created by all five fishermen and the captain wanting different things. Go back with the catch of a lifetime and risk death? Or, take the safe route. Wait it out and live, but the fish rots and they all must return to New England destitute failures?
The role of antagonist is pivotal and complex. One could spend a lifetime discovering more about them. My best advice is look to the experts to help build your own expertise. I highly recommend Bob’s workshops and books, but I also recommend Jessica Morrell’s Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches, Mindhunter by John Douglas, and Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door.
So be kind to your readers. Leave existentialism in philosophy class, and make sure to give your readers something “real” to grab a hold of. They need a focal point to be better able to cheer on your hero (heroine). Remember, in the end, the better your antagonist(s) the better your protagonist. Your protagonist must triumph, so make it a notable victory.
Until next time…
A strong antagonist makes your protagonist work harder, and makes a better story. And crafting a good antagonist is so freaking difficult. I like to try and make my antagonist have at least one likeable trait, maybe even more. Also, your reader should understand your antagonist’s goals. They shouldn’t overturn the apple cart just to do it. They need to have a legit reason.
I tend to get so into figuring out my antagonist that my first pass at protag is sort of paperdoll-ish. Guess it’s good to have something strong to push against, but I do believe I’ve given my self a few bald spots from pulling my hair out while seeking balance. Back to tai chi with a death metal soundtrack…
With regard to “Gone With the Wind” the blogger argues the point well. However, there are better examples of the underrepresented antagonist or the non-specific antagonist than “Gone With the Wind.” But, as the blogger suggests, the Civil War is of great importance to the story. I am not sure that backdrop is the word I would use but I understand it. But this is not really the issue. I think the blogger is actually agreeing that both the external Civil War and the proxies mentioned are actually attempts by Margaret Mitchell to manifest the protagonist’s internal struggle. The sticking point seems to be the manifestations as they are elevated to the level of “main antagonist.” When does a character become a “main antagonist?” When is one just a major antagonist? What is the difference? Would a series of minor antagonists ever add up in mass to a single major antagonist? Could that work? Could a writer express a story in such a manner that an internal conflict is expressed as a main conflict with all externals clearly seen as expressions of the internal? Who is Hamlet talking to? What about “The Death of Salesman?” Who is the antagonist in Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot?”
Yes, as the blogger suggests, there are often physical “proxy” characters in literary works. It would be foolish to argue otherwise. But the real issue here is not the existence or success of proxies in some instances. It is the necessity to engage such a proxy to successfully convey conflict—especially to manifest internal conflict. At what point does an external manifestation become so pronounced and articulated that the manifestation begins to overshadow the internal struggle? And if such a manifestation takes on a life of its own, must we allow that the struggle begins to shift away from the protagonist’s internal issue to the contrasts of strengths between the protagonist and the antagonist as manifested? Certainly one can skate this edge and it could be quite exciting if the development of the proxy fuels a better story and revelation of the struggle at the focus of the piece. But if this does not happen, is the piece doomed? Or must the piece be given over to the new focus? Or is the proxy antagonist doomed to become a red herring to the audience. “Why did the writer create such a great character and then just dismiss that character?” In the end, the issue of how to handle conflict in literature is too complex to be confined in a single formula.
In this instance I feel the blogger happens to be right about the examples given. It does not, however, offer the best opportunity to embrace a story in which an antagonist or even a collective of proxies remain subordinate to an expression of internal struggle. The suggestions would work for a story. It certainly does in most stories about super heroes coming to terms with their separation from the society they are morally obliged to protect. But if the notion is that this is the only way to see this issue, it is terribly simplistic. By oversimplifying and prescribing based upon that oversimplification, one runs the risk of shutting down or seriously hampering the development of a richer although potentially cloudier version of the story the writer is creating. This is really the writer’s greatest issue.
If one could express a thought in absolute terms such that all of us would clearly understand, on each subject there would be one play, one song, one painting, one book, and one poem. And one could turn to page 21 and the excellent essay of Dr. J Evans Pritchard, Ph.D. To fully understand poetry . . . except for Walt Whitman, T.S. Elliot, James Joyce, E.E.Cummings . . . and who shall we turn to? Were it me, in all humility, I would ask that you leave the door open and the light on.
I think the point is that there are no hard and fast rules in writing. But there are craft guidelines. One tenet of Warrior Writer is to break rules: with the three rules of rule-breaking:
1. Know the rule (writer know your craft)
2. Have a good reason to break the rule (writer, make the characters deeper and the story stronger)
3. Take responsibility for breaking the rule. (writer, if it works, great, if not, redo)
As far as GWTW, I just recently re-watched it. My current WIP goes from 1840 at West Point to 1862 and the Battle of Shiloh. Who is the antagonist? In essence, society an the fatal flaw our Founding Fathers wrote into the Constitution that had to inevitably bring Civil War. But. I do have one person who is the personification of a lot of that. Because personal conflict is always much more intriguing then conceptual conflict.
I always saw Scarlett as one of the first female antiheroes. She could be considered a heroine in terms of story structure but, in terms of storyline, she’s the villain. She doesn’t rise above anything–she was a bitchy, self-involved diva who lived off slave labor before and after the war. Though they’re not the focus of the story, Melanie and Rhett are the heroine and hero. Part of the genius of the story is this structural reversal.
I agree…which is why I used her picture, LOL. She was pretty vile. GWTW is worth of a doctoral thesis. I know the commentary I gave pales for what this work deserves. But it is a good illustration of how WAR was not the antagonist (at least not directly). Depending on what one views as the central question will affect who one believes serves the antagonist role. But…sigh..this is why this work will be discussed for generations. Thanks for the comment!
it’s a useful post that clears up a very common confusion. just like the confusion between ‘plot’ and ‘story’
thank you for posting this.
This post is pivotal for me, a real education on antags. As Rummy would have said, I didn’t know what I didn’t know! Thanks for posting. And love the Martha Stout reference. Socios are SO interesting.
Glad I could help. The antag role is probably the most misunderstood. Please stop by again and thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.
I struggle with wanting to redeem my villain, so I appreciated this post. “Can’t we all just get along” does not make a good story. Thanks for the book recommendations. I’m off to look for them now.