Beyond Bastards, Bullies and Bad Girls–Understanding the Antagonist
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…