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? I’m winging it here, obviously, but I hope you see my point. When there’s an actual person standing in the way of your protagonist’s goals, taking active steps to thwart (or even kill) your protagonist, the problem becomes far more personal.
3. It gives us an enemy to root against.
Frankly I think this is one of the biggest reasons for having an antagonist. Why are we so eager to root against somebody? I submit it’s because we’ve all been wronged; we’ve all lost to somebody undeserving (or flat-out mean or evil); we’ve all been obstructed by somebody endowed with more power than us – whether it’s a muscle-bound bully or a brown-nosing executive. In short, we’ve all seen the nice guy finish last – because we have all been that nice guy.
[pullquote]Why are we so eager to root against somebody? I submit it’s because we’ve all been wronged.[/pullquote]
This leaves us hungry for one thing: comeuppance. And I think it’s one of the primary reasons we gravitate towards stories with antagonists. We want to savor their crushing defeat, which may often include their actual death.
I suspect one reason for this desire is the fact that in real life, we seldom see people getting their karmic due in a dramatic way. Whether it’s in the day-to-day world of office politics and high school locker rooms, or in the higher-stakes world of murder trials and billion-dollar financial scams, we seldom see the bad guy lose everything. So I’d submit that it’s largely a wish-fulfillment thing, this desire to see these despicable villains getting their just deserts.
No mustache needed
Okay, I think we can agree there are some compelling reasons to make sure your book has a bad guy (or gal). Now let’s look at some things to take into consideration when trying to write fully developed characters, not just mustache-twirling villains who say Muwahahahaha every five pages.
1. Bad guys don’t necessarily think they’re bad.
Here I’ll quote myself, from a WU post last year on a different topic: Other than Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers movies, the reality is that most bad guys do not think of themselves as bad guys. They just have differing desires and motivations than the protagonist.
2. There’s often a reason they’re bad.
This is actually a huge opportunity for you as a writer: to create the backstory that explains how your antagonist became such a monster, whether she’s a tyrannical fashion magazine editor or a serial killer who only kills (and eats) people he considers rude. Done well, this can even make us root for the villain, either reluctantly or overtly. But even if you don’t want us rooting for your villain, you at least want us to care about her. Don’t waste the opportunity to make this happen!
3. Their badness may exist primarily in the eye of the protagonist.
While this may not always be the case, it’s possible your antagonist could be a star in others’ eyes, but the bane of your protagonist’s existence. The play and movie Amadeus is an excellent example, where Salieri viewed the rising young genius Mozart as a curse, and an affront both to Salieri’s ambition and to his religious faith.
4. Bad guys aren’t all bad – nobody is.
I’ve had this point driven home repeatedly in my life (which has brought more than a few bad people across my path over the years). As a case in point, during a particularly low period in my musical career, I spent some long and demoralizing months playing drums in the house band of a very rough biker bar in Florida, where the majority of the clientele had spent time in prison, and some of the regulars were bona fide Ku Klux Klan members. Seriously.
One of the alpha males among the regular customers was a guy who for safety reasons I’ll call Big Frank. From outward appearances, Big Frank was straight out of Central Casting: he stood a strapping 6-foot-4, with a pot belly, countless tattoos, a Fu Manchu mustache, and a penchant for complementing his leather biker vest with a bright red t-shirt with a huge swastika on it.
Although I tried to avoid him when possible, Big Frank was a gregarious type, and I found myself occasionally pulled into conversations with him while the band was on break. During those conversations, I learned several things about Big Frank, including the following:
- He really was a racist, and a white supremacist. That red t-shirt wasn’t an act.
- He was very intelligent. Despite his hateful belief system, Frank was no redneck dummy. He was extremely articulate, with a keen sense of logic and rhetoric, and a ready wit. Which led me to the most surprising and disturbing realization:
- He could be a pretty likable guy. At least when he wasn’t busy preaching racial hatred.
Getting to know Big Frank triggered some serious cognitive dissonance for me. A man I instinctively hated on sight turned out to have some redeeming qualities. Don’t get me wrong: I was still diametrically opposed to most of his views, and I considered him overall to be a bad man – but a pretty likable guy.
[pullquote]Getting to know Big Frank triggered some serious cognitive dissonance for me. A man I instinctively hated on sight turned out to have some redeeming qualities.[/pullquote]
The memory that has stayed with me the longest was when one day, out in the parking lot during a break, I saw a biker couple walk up and greet Big Frank, who was clearly an old friend of theirs. The woman had a tiny baby girl with her, and she handed the child to Big Frank to hold. I stood with my jaw agape as this hulking brute with a shirt with a freaking swastika on it eagerly took the baby from her, and held her tenderly while he cooed lovingly to her, a huge smile on his face. And the baby was utterly content in this man’s arms.
My long-winded point? Even the baddest bad guy probably isn’t all bad. So if your antagonist is, you might want to weave some goodness into him or her.
Fitting big badness into “smaller” stories
During the examination of my own story ideas, I realized I was finding it difficult to develop antagonists when writing relationshippy, emotion-focused stories (we can argue later about whether relationshippy is a word). In analyzing this, I think my difficulty stemmed from the fact that I personally don’t deal with people whom I consider out-and-out antagonists in my own life. Sure, certain bosses, coworkers, neighbors, relatives, and other people may annoy or impede me, but I’m pretty diligent about refusing to give them enough power to become emotionally significant to me. As a result, they never really take on the role of antagonist or nemesis.
While that may be a decent coping mechanism for real life, I fear it has worked against me as a storyteller, particularly in my efforts to tell a “bigger,” more high-impact story.
Does this mean I have to write about explosions and car chases and serial killers and sparkly vampires? I don’t think so (not that there’s anything wrong with any of those things, unless they’re written by Clive Cussler). Instead, I think it’s worth exploring ways to raise the stakes when developing an antagonist in your down-to-earth story.
[pullquote]It’s worth exploring ways to raise the stakes when developing an antagonist in your down-to-earth story.[/pullquote]
For example, maybe those down-to-earth problems your character deals with are not so small. After all, that antagonist at work could cause your main character to lose his job, and with it, his health insurance, which he needs for a medical condition that threatens his young daughter’s life. Or maybe that bitter ex-husband stands in the way of your protagonist adopting the child they were never able to have together, by trashing her reputation with the agencies and social workers involved in the adoption process.
Bottom line: even normal people with no superpowers or lethal weapons can wreak life-changing havoc on those they oppose, so I now think there’s plenty of potential for a powerful antagonist – and powerful conflict – in even the more “quiet” fiction many people prefer to write. At least that’s my theory…
How about you?
Do your stories have clear antagonists? If so, do those characters have any redeeming qualities, or have you written them bad-to-the-bone? Who are some of the antagonists who’ve lingered in your memory long after finishing a book, movie, or show? How do you flesh out the most reprehensible characters in your own fiction? Please chime in, and share the badness!
Image created by the awesome (and free) Breaking Bad Generator.