Like most writers, I keep a backlog of story ideas that I revisit from time to time, trying to decide what to write next. To help me with my choices, I analyze each idea, testing whether it has what I consider the essential components of a compelling book-length idea: a clear protagonist, strong primary conflict, high stakes, character transformation, etc.
In doing so, I found an area where my ideas consistently fell short: most of the ideas did not have a clear antagonist.
I know that’s not necessarily a dealbreaker – there are plenty of books that don’t have a specific character acting as an obstacle or an opponent to the protagonist. Particularly with books that emphasize self-discovery, the protagonist herself can sometimes be her own worst enemy. But when I look at a lot of the books (and movies and TV shows) that really sweep me away, almost all of them have a clear – and usually very memorable – antagonist.
For example, consider the antagonists in this literary dozen:
- Water for Elephants (as well as Sara Gruen’s new book, At the Water’s Edge)
- The Help
- Heart of Darkness (and the film it inspired: Apocalypse Now)
- Harry Potter (pick any one of the series)
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Nurse Ratched, anyone?)
- The Stand (Randall Flagg – AKA the walking man – still creeps me out)
- No Country for Old Men
- Moby Dick (Hmmmm – is the antagonist Ahab, or the whale? Tough call…)
- Red Dragon (the book that introduced us to Hannibal Lecter)
- The Lord of the Rings
- The Devil Wears Prada
I may not remember all of their names, but I damn sure remember the characters, and the hell they put their respective protagonists through. So if we hate these characters so much, why do we want them in our stories? I have three theories.
1. It amps up the conflict.
Ideally your protagonist is facing some challenges. Those challenges can be made infinitely worse by having somebody whose goals and desires are in direct opposition to those of your protagonist. Suddenly, what was simply a challenge has now become a contest – a test of wills.
2. It makes things personal.
Suppose your protagonist’s primary problem is money: she needs a job. Okay, the job market is tough, so she’s got some conflict ahead of her. But what if she finds out her former best friend is competing for the same job? Or what if she finds out the HR director she’ll be interviewing with is somebody whose boyfriend she stole in the 9th grade? Or, to get more into the larger-than-life area, what if that HR director is a psychopathic killer who has decided to kill the next green-eyed job applicant he encounters, and your protagonist has green eyes? [Read more…]