Sunday, May 15, 2011

Creating Antagonizing Antagonists

"No wise combatant underestimates their antagonist."
                                              ~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

"He that struggles with us strengthens our nerves, and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper."  ~Edmund Burke

Antagonists, can't live with them, can't write a novel without them.  We've all had our own personal antagonist(s). Someone or something that came into our lives seemingly to either make them a living hell or to act as barriers in our paths.  Whether it be a person, thing (robot, alien), institution (government), belief (religion) or an addiction (alcoholism), unless your lives have been downright perfect, there are antagonists we can all relate to.  As a writer, finding the perfect antagonist is like finding the perfect pair of shoes (which, if you've read my previous blogs, you'd know I usually care absolutely nothing about).  Your antagonist should fit your story flawlessly without cramping the flow.  He/she/it should complement your protagonist, enhancing them, improving upon their ascribed characteristics.  Your antagonist should make your protagonist better.  In fact, a well-written, well thought out antagonist, like a good pair of shoes, makes the entire outfit. 
The following list includes some examples I've come across when outlining antagonists for my own work as well as some tips I've come across through research:

1.  Not an afterthought--You're beginning Chapter 12 and your protagonist's life is still rainbows and sunshine.  Well, lets just throw Billy the record store guy in to spice things up a bit, you think to yourself. So you throw in Billy the record store guy for no reason other than as an adversary to Ryan for the affections of Colette.  There's no rhyme or reason for Billy, he's just there because it's convenient for you and it makes for a much better plot than what Chapters 1-11 had alluded to.  Now, two chapters later, you're stuck adrift a sea of convoluted plot lines looking for a life raft to float you back to some semblance of dry land.  Back to the place where your story made sense and you had the utmost of confidence in its execution.

The antagonist is one of the most important, if not the most important aspect in your story (yes, I'm even putting them a peg above the protagonist).  The conflict of the story is what makes the story.  Without it, you have nothing more than pages filled with a protagonist whose life is cloaked in perfection and, really, how exciting is that?  An antagonist is not an afterthought. Sure, your protagonists are the heroes of your stories, but it's the antagonists who make the most memorable marks (Darth Vader, anyone) and of whom your readers are going to fear and loathe--or if they really have it in for the protagonist, admire.  Make your protagonists memorable.  Put as much concern, care and attention to detail into them as you would your protagonists.  Your readers will appreciate you for it.
2. Relatable--I personally like antagonists that I can somewhat relate to. Sometimes, I even like rooting for them (until they do something incredibly bat-shit crazy that completely turns me off like August from Water for Elephants).  Antagonists come in all forms: humans, monsters, robots, animals, mothers-in-law, ideals, addictions, beliefs or whatever else you can find to cause your protagonist great discomfort.  Whichever form you choose to embody yours in, just make sure it's one your reader can identify with.  For instance, if you decide to use Missy, a self-absorbed, popular cheerleader, give her qualities to make her seem real and less goddess-like.  Give her a dark secret she's keeping from her friends, a devastating eating disorder.  Hell, give her a pimple at the end of her nose.  Anything that doesn't completely make her unreal to the reader.  If you're going with an addiction as your antagonist, find one most readers can identify with such as alcoholism, drug abuse, or sex as opposed to cat hoarding, glue sniffing or paper eating. 

 Your protagonist doesn't have to nor should they be the most interesting character in your novel.  On some level, your readers need to connect with the antagonist in the event they find your protagonist too goody two-shoes or otherwise unlikeable (there have been several novels I've read where this has been the case).

3. Stay away from the "I’ll get you my pretty" syndrome--As in all aspects of writing, there are those cliches one should refrain from using when crafting their characters.  Antagonists are no exception, especially if you, like me, write science fiction and your antagonists are more villain-like.  In this instance, you as a writer need to stay away from the muahahah-tie-the-damsel-to-the-train-tracks type of antagonist--as well any moustache twirling or any instances where the antagonist lays out their ultimate evil plans to the protagonist with the belief the protagonist will be unable to stop them.

The beauty about evil in writing is that it knows no bounds.  Let your mind wander and come up with a whole new brand of evil and not just the cliched, diet Coke of evil embodied in music videos and cheesy B-movies.   

4. Minor victory--What?  But good must always triumph over evil!  Really Mary Sue, no it doesn't.  The real world isn't perfect.  Injustices occur every other minute. Death and destruction are real and happen way more often than happy endings.  Why should the literary world be any different? Being as I'm a science fiction fan, I'm reminded of The Empire Strikes Back in the Star Wars trilogy.  At the end of the The Empire Strikes Back, Luke looses his innocence as well as his hand, Han Solo's fate remains encased in carbonite, and the fate of the Republic is questionable at best.  Sure, the whole trilogy ends on a happy note, but it's that minor victory by the Empire that keeps the audience entranced and wanting more. 

I'm all for leaving a story at a cliffhanger and putting doubt in the reader's heads about whether or not the protagonist is doomed.  But if the protagonist always wins, where's the mystery?  Where's the cliffhanger?  Where is the incentive to keep reading or the anticipation for the sequel?  If your answer to all those questions is "nonexistent", you're exactly right.

5. Nothing comes easy--An antagonist in any form is tough, nearly insurmountably so.  If your protagonist can quit drinking cold turkey, overcome their fear of failure within two pages, is able to knock the school bully down with a feather, or can stop a robotic entity cold with a drop of water, then perhaps you may want to reconsider the potency of your antagonist and overall plot line.  A true antagonist throws such a monkey wrench into the lives of the protagonist and supporting characters that, even after the battles are fought and the blood has been spilled, its overall effects have left enough scarring to impact them for the rest of their fictional lives.

6. Opposites attract contradiction--An antagonist must be the embodiment of all that is contrary to the protagonist's beliefs.  If your main character is the epitome of individuality, then your antagonist should display characteristics of staunch conformity. Contradicting beliefs and ideals have sparked century old wars and debates.  They've led to the fall of empires, political systems and alliances.  When two ideals collide, the impact rocks not only the holders of those ideals, but the rest of the world around them as well.  Aside from an interesting history lesson, this is the perfect fodder for a very dynamic storyline and your job as a writer is to make this collision as epic as possible.

7. Persistence pays off for evil geniuses--True evil genius doesn't give up after one, two, or even ten failed attempts and neither should your antagonist.  Like everything else in life, world domination doesn't come easy. It takes antagonists much planning, preparation, persistence and the ability to adapt and re-group once their initial plots have been foiled by the protagonist.  A well-orchestrated antagonist finds the ability to pick themselves up, wipe away the dust, dress their wounds and carry on with their drive to defeat their opposition.  There's a reason for your antagonist's drive and ideals.  There's a passion burning within in them--at least there should be--that keeps them striving to benefit their own agenda.  It's a passion that keeps them at odds with your protagonist; one whose embers should remain burning until one of them takes their last breath.

8. Rebel with a cause--Chances are a person doesn't just wake up one day and think to themselves: Boy, this being good and maintaining a normal level of sanity thing really isn't working out for me.  I think I'm going to go out there and be evil whereby making <insert unsuspecting protagonist's name here> a living hell.  Everyone has a backstory, a reason they are who they are. Whether they grew up in abusive households or with silver spoons in their mouths, something has made your antagonist despise the very keystrokes your protagonist is brought to life with.  Bring that out in your writing. Give them cause to be the anti-protagonist and not just page-filler.



Anonymous said...

Great post!

I think the most irritating antagonists is when they keep eluding being brought to justice or getting caught. Oddly enough, this mild irritant is also the little hook that makes me read to the end.

Quite a balancing act I think.

linda said...

I have a hard time with antagonists since the word always makes me think of characters that want to take over the world for no good reason, and that's the last thing I want to write. Thanks for reminding me the antagonist doesn't have to be an evil overlord (or even a character at all).

Sara Furlong-Burr said...

Sophie-Thank you! I agree. It's quite the tight rope walk to make your antagonists (if they're living) seem more real and less cartoony. But if they get caught, how are the sequels going to be made? LOL

Linda-Thank you for following me. I've returned the favor and can't wait to read your posts. ;-)nI used to think that all antagonists had to be human. This blogging thing has really opened my eyes to different concepts in writing as well as a wonderful writing community. I agree, unless you're writing for Marvel (or the dystopian genre), you may want to stay away from the whole taking over the world thing.

Kimberly Krey said...

All great things to keep in mind for our Bad Boys - or girls. Thanks for sharing! :)

Carol Riggs said...

GREAT post, thanks! And just as I am putting the finishing touches on my antagonist revision. :) Nice checklist!

A Musing Man said...

Wow. This was very helpful. I'm writing a 90-page sci-fi screenplay for my scriptwriting class in universty and this really is gonna come in handy.