Saturday, September 20, 2008

Neglecting Your Antagonist: Secret Sin #6

A few weeks ago, I speculated about what makes a novel memorable. Strong themes. A suspenseful plot. Deep, cunning characters. These are all the biggies that most people think of. Nobody thinks of strong antagonists – did you? But they’re powerful. Come to think of it, lots of people like a strong antagonist.

Would the Jedi be so exciting if they battled womp rats instead of the Sith? No way. You fear for the Jedi because Sith are stronger, threatening, seductive. How about the new Batman movie? I heard more chatter about the Joker than I did Batman. People are attracted to these films because of the villains that inhabit them. But pick ten books at random, and tell me how many compelling antagonists you find. A handful, at the best?

It’s said that the average antagonist – those classic evil bad guys – are flat. Following this accusation comes a miracle-cure: “he’ll be compelling if you make him believe, in his own twisted way, that he’s doing the right thing.” Or, “If you make a villain conflicted, we’ll relate to him more than if he’s evil just for the sake of being evil.”

These methods help, for sure. But they’re just that – methods. I’ve seen flat villains who believed they were doing the right thing, just as I’ve seen the classic villain turn out to be compelling, well-rounded, and credible. So. If it’s not the type of antagonist you create, then what is it? In a word: characterization.

The neglected antagonist.

Antagonists are underdeveloped. Since villains are created with a purpose in mind – to hinder, threaten, or thwart the hero – it’s easy to assume that filling this purpose is all they need to do. A protagonist is developed over the course of a whole novel. Scene-by-scene, moment after moment, they grow and share, fail and succeed. How much time do you spend characterizing your antagonist? A few scenes each novel? A prologue? A character worksheet?

Antagonists don’t get the same kind of attention that protagonists get, but they’re just as important. Without going overboard, I would say that your antagonist and your protagonist are the two main characters. Your good guy is only as good as the bad he has to fight, yeah?

A compelling antagonist gets us involved. Either we care about him, and feel conflicted, or his unpredictability keeps us tense, insecure. We don’t know what to think about this person. Is he really bad? Or, what’s he really planning to do?

On the flip-side, a neglected antagonist is predictable. If we know what to think, we don’t need to get involved. It’s not any more compelling than the last evil dude we read about. So, ask yourself:

How do you feel about your antagonist? It will translate directly to how the reader feels. If your antagonist doesn’t surprise you, he won’t surprise us. If you don’t like him, we won’t like him. Whatever you want your readers to feel, you have to feel first – so develop it.

Is your antagonist sympathetic, surprising, conflicted, compelling? Sympathy happens when we relate to a character. We see a side of ourselves that we didn’t expect to see, a glimpse of humanity, of truth, of weakness. Surprise comes with unpredictability or by a reversal of what we expect.

Make your antagonist act in ways he doesn’t understand. Make him lost in denial. Give him issues he doesn’t want to confront – give him conflict. This happens when your antagonist wants two opposing things with an equal passion, and doesn’t know which to choose. If your antagonist has a purpose in your novel, give him an equally compelling reason why he doesn’t want to fulfill that purpose. Any of the above will make your villain compelling.

Think of key scenes in your antagonist’s side of the story, then write them. They’ll help you get inside your antagonists head and force you to think of him like a real human being, not just some force of evil. You don’t have to keep the scenes. However, do find a few places somewhere in your novel to develop your antagonist.


Every human being can relate to two things: the need to do good, and the urge to do evil. Everyone has tried to be good. Everyone has been bad. This is a huge part of what makes fictional characters so compelling. One character is good; we root for him. One is bad; we’re jealous. We want it both ways.

The fight between the protagonist and the antagonist is one we fight ourselves, in a minor way. The only real difference between your villain and your hero is that at the end, one tries to change, and one does not. Make readers feel this struggle. Make them experience it. If you do, they’ll continue to remember that struggle long after the book ends.


 – Creative A


Janet said...

I will confess that my antagonist is a little stereotypical. But I do give him viewpoint scenes - a fair number actually - so I think I've managed to give at least a little depth to the stereotype.

Interesting post, thanks.

Angela said...

Lovely post! All hail villians!

Terra Chandler said...

Oh, lord. My antagonist needs so much help. I think she has a lot of potential, but she just isn't....there. Of course, I keep telling myself that this is the preliminary writing stage and there will be plenty of time to go back and flesh her out a bit. I will have to take you up on your advice. Perhaps a couple of scenes (not for the book) from her view point will clear things up?

Creative A said...

Janet: I wouldn't worry about it, but I would keep a close eye on it. As long as you continue to develop your antagonist, he shouldn't come across as stereotypical, even if he's got a few classic tropes. And welcome, btw :)

Angela: Ah! You reminded me, I meant to link to that post of yours about cliched villains. Wait, let's see....
"Cliches Part 2."

Creative A said...

Terra: Welcome! As for your antagonist, potential is a good thing. That means you can work things in without changing the main frame of your character. I hope the post helps you out with that :)


Tim Stretton said...

Really interesting post, CA.

In my current WiP I came to the conclusion that the protagonist's story, as it stands, isn't strong enough to carry the book. To fill in the gaps, so to speak, I'm adding an entire plot strand from the antagonist's viewpoint. He's not conflicted at all: he wants things he doesn't have, and is prepared to take steps the reader can't possibly approve of to get them.

What makes it interesting--I hope--is the energy and purpose with which he goes about achieving his goals. And of course the reader knows that, sooner or later, it will bring him into mortal conflict with the protagonist.

I agree with you 100% that attention lavished on the antagonist can only strengthen the whole. It's the reason we still read "Paradise Lost" today...

Creative A said...

Hey Tim, and welcome. I had some stuff in my notes about what you're describing, I just ran out of space to write about it! It sounds like your antag's journey in and of itself will be compelling. Generally, I notice that a villain on a journey feels more human and relatable than a pre-formed entity.

Ha, I purposely avoided referencing either "Paradise Lost" or "The Silence of the Lambs." They make good examples but people hear about them far too much. Dumbs it down a bit, I think.

Thank you all for your comments!


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