Showing posts with label antagonist. Show all posts
Showing posts with label antagonist. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 9

A Theory of Story


What makes a story seem real? What gives it verisimilitude?

I'm trying out a new idea or perhaps just putting a twist on an old one. I'm not sure if you'll agree with me and if you don't that's okay! I would be interested in what you think.

A Theory of Story

Stories are nothing new. I think in our earliest days as a species we were already telling ourselves stories, stories that helped us understand the world around us. But certain stories were better than others at doing this. Over time, one can imagine that the stories that were better at helping people succeed in the world were favored. They spread.

There are two things here: First, some sort of theory, some sort of idea about how the world works, Second, there is what is actually out there in the world.

And there are levels here. In real life I tell myself stories about molecules and atoms and subatomic particles and I expect that out there in the world there are things that these ideas, these theories, more or less refer to. The theory has some ‘traction’ on what is out there, on whatever it is that impinges on my senses.

These two things, these two levels, let's call them A and B.

A) What is

When we write a fictional story we take one step back. We’re no longer talking about an objective reality. We are the gods of our stories, creating worlds from whole cloth. As creators we get to invent whatever we want. 

Broadly interpreted, what we create is what we call the setting of the story. What is the physics of this world? What is the politics like? What sort of biological systems exist? Do gods exist? Does magic exist? If so, how does it work? And so on.

B) Human (or other) machinations

Then there is what I’ve called some sort of theory of the world, some sort of story--or stories--that the characters tell themselves about what is true, about what are the best ways of getting what they want. 

My point is that these two constructions (A & B) are related, and that things will turn out for a character better or worse depending upon how well they hook into each other. 

The Idea

So here’s my idea. This is an oversimplification, but for every major character, they will have ideas about what the story world is like. Now, you will have made the story world--the setting--in a certain way so there are only two possibilities: your character will be right about how the world is or they will be wrong about how the world is. 

Let's call "alignment" the degree to which how the character sees the world aligns with or agrees with how the world really is. I think that a character's degree of alignment is relevant to the kind of character they are. 

If there is a high degree of alignment, if how the character sees the world more or less matches up with the character's ideas of how best to get on in the world, then chances are the character is either the protagonist or someone helpful associated with the protagonist such as his sidekick or his mentor.

On the other hand, if there is a low degree of alignment, if the story they tell themselves about the best way to get on in the world, is at variance with how the world really is then chances are the character is either the antagonist or someone associated with the them such as their sidekick, mentor, minion, and so on.

Here's how this idea, or these ideas, relate to the notion of verisimilitude: A character's degree of alignment needs to be matched up to the kind of character they are (for example, protagonist or antagonist) in order for the story to feel real, or at least, in order for the story to feel satisfying. [1]

In what follows I try to unpack this idea. [2]

Luke Skywalker

For example, Luke Skywalker. He is a young man working on his aunt and uncle’s moisture farm, but he is a skilled pilot and wants nothing more than to head offworld, fly fast planes, and have adventures. 

In a way, that is every teenager, ever. 

And then something unexpected happens (The Call to Adventure) and Luke is asked to go on an adventure to help the rebel alliance and save a beautiful princess. This is everything Luke has ever wanted… And he says “No.” Why? Luke says he has a duty to his aunt and uncle and he can’t just leave them to run the farm on their own.

And this is consistent (or so I would argue) with Luke’s character. Yes, he wants to go off on an adventure, but then why hasn’t he? He could have left and gone to school even though his uncle and aunt didn’t want him to. He stayed because he was grateful to them and because he loved them.

Let’s break this down into (A) and (B).

B: The parts that are important here are Luke’s attitude toward his aunt and uncle, his belief that duty matters--this shows how he feels toward those close to him and it shows that he loves his family. He is loyal. He puts the needs of others above his wants. 

A: Also, we get a peek at the political world of the story, at that part of the setting. There is an Empire (bad, repressive, brutal killers) and a resistance (fighting for life and liberty). And, of course, given what we know of what kind of character Luke is, we aren’t surprised that he sympathizes with the resistance BUT refuses to join because he recognizes his duty to his aunt and uncle.

So I would say that Luke was a good character in the sense that we are given a certain setting (the external world filled with rebels and stormtroopers) and a certain kind of character (loyal, courageous, a bit impatient) and how that character acts in that world makes sense. We have a character with a good goal and a close fit with reality.

More Examples


The Evil Queen from Snow White

As I mentioned, not all characters, though, have a close alignment. An example of a character with a distant alignment and a bad goal is the Evil Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

I think this is often true for antagonists; that is, they often misrepresent the world to themselves. Why? It often happens that a certain way the world is radically disappoints them. Often this disappointment is due to what we might consider a character defect.

The Evil Queen, for example, has a magic mirror that always tells her the truth. So here we have (A), how the story world really is. And the queen, who we are told is vain, asks the mirror who is the fairest in the land, and one day she is told that it’s not her. Instead, it’s her step daughter.

It seems to me that we all realize that people age and beauty doesn’t last forever. At a certain point the queen had to know she wouldn’t be the fairest in the land. But, what’s her reaction? Does she react in a way consistent with this truth, with reality? Not so much. She tries to kill Snow White so she will, once again, be the fairest in the land. 

I think this is very effective at setting the queen up as an evil character. I mean, what is her long term plan? As she continues to age her beauty will continue to fade so what is she going to do, kill all the pretty young women in the land until she’s the only female left? That shows she doesn't care about the people in her community. 

Also, and as you know, this is another mark of an antagonist: her goal is a bad long term goal. As I mentioned, her beauty will inevitably fade but, more than that, putting her entire focus on being the most beautiful is a selfish goal. She isn't trying to accomplish anything that will help her community or the broader world.

But the Queen's behavior (exaggerated though it is) is believable, it’s plausible, because she is vain and intentionally not thinking things through because that would be traumatic for her, it would uncover certain errors in how she understands the world around her. (I’m not saying that most of us haven’t had a moment of vanity here and there, but hopefully none of us carried things quite this far! ;)

Cypher from The Matrix

Let’s look at one more character: Cypher from The Matrix. Like the Evil Queen, Cypher wanted to deny reality. What he wanted to be true and what was true were at variance, and since he couldn’t change reality, he decided he would change his beliefs about reality, he would rather accept a lie as true than accept the bitter dystopian reality that the world actually was. And so he betrayed those who had been his friends to their enemies and exchanged the bitter truth for a pleasant lie (although it is hinted that Cypher’s actual reward for his treachery was death). 

Conclusion


I'm not sure whether this has been one long waffle or if I'm beginning to get at what might be an interesting idea. But I thought I'd share! Let me know your thoughts, and good writing!

Notes:


1. Here I don't say anything about, for instance, the protagonists arc. At the beginning of the story there will be some distance between at least one of the protagonist's beliefs and how the world really is. For example, Luke Skywalker is naive. This was the result of a lack-of-fit between how he viewed the world--his ideas about how to best get on in the world--and the way the world really is (I'm including the social world, other characters, in "the world" since they are, perhaps, the most important aspect/part of the world/setting).

Similarly, I think the same applies, only reversed, for the antagonist. Perhaps at the beginning of the story the antagonist's ideas of how best to get on in the world more or less match up with how the world really is, but over the course of the story they will become more and more divergent.

2. In a future blog post I want to incorporate into this analysis the idea of a character's goal, whether it is good or bad. Broadly speaking, I would say that a character's goal would be considered a good goal if it helped the hero's community and/or his entire world and bad if it would harm them. So this would yield a 4x4 matrix. On one axis we have good and bad goals and on the other we have a close and distant alignment. I think this is how the combinations break down:
a) Close alignment & good goal --> protagonist
b) Distant alignment & good goal --> fool
c) Close alignment & bad goal --> nemesis
d) Distant alignment & bad goal --> big bad
Anyway, I may have more to say about that in a future post.

Thursday, January 22

A Three Act Story Structure: The Final Conflict (Part 5 of 5)

A Three Act Story Structure: The Final Conflict (Part 5 of 5)



This is the final post in my series on the Three Act Structure for genre stories. Yes! (I always get a bit excited when I write the last post in a series, it’s not the same as finishing a short story, but it’s still good.) Here’s an index to the rest of the posts in this series:


Endings Are Important


In many ways the final bit of your story, the Final Conflict, is the most important part. If the ending isn’t satisfying then, chances are, your readers won’t be waiting on pins and needles for your next story. 

I’ve written about story endings elsewhere (see here and here) but what I want to concentrate on today is everything that happens after the protagonist goes through the All Hope Is Lost moment and has her epiphany. (I’m not going to talk about this moment here because I covered it in my last post, see above.)

The Plan


Things are now looking up. Sure, nothing has actually changed. The protagonist is still in the deep dark pit with no way out and his allies are about to be killed in the most brutal of ways, but, still, things aren’t as bleak because the hero has an idea. 

Right now at this moment, the protagonist is everything we wanted her to be. She has struggled, she has failed, she has learned from her mistakes and the scales have just fallen from her eyes. She is aware of the lie she’s told herself. She has (partially at least) healed her deep inner wound. As a result, the protagonist is whole; she has come into her power.

Now the protagonist makes a new plan. Often she is alone at this point, her allies having been sidelined. But, even if she has allies, she often won’t reveal the specifics of her plan. (The writer  may not want her readers to be too informed at this point since not knowing exactly how the protagonist plans to pull things off can help build suspense.) 

Story reasons for the protagonist keeping her plan to herself could include the following:

- The protagonist knows that one of her allies is really a spy.
- The protagonist knows her allies would try to prevent her from doing what she must since she believes doing so will mean her death.

In any case, the protagonist advances, alone, to the place where the final conflict will take place. (Though, her being alone isn’t the crucial bit. She could have one or two allies come with her, the crucial bit is that she faces the Big Bad all by herself without any help.)

The Penultimate Conflict


There is often a confrontation with the antagonist’s minion, a confrontation that the protagonist will win, now, without too much trouble. The minion would have beaten her before her revelation—before the epiphany she had at the end of the All Hope Is Lost moment—but now the tables are turned.

Also, this confrontation with a minion shows how far the protagonist has come. She has overcome her weaknesses, she has healed her wound, and it’s time to let the audience see this. 

One way of accomplishing this is to have the protagonist wipe the floor with a bad guy that gave her a sound beating earlier in the story, around about the time she entered the Special World and was still figuring out how things worked.

Often this bad guy is the Big Bad’s second in command. He sees that the protagonist is in pretty bad shape, she’s beaten up, and he thinks she’ll be easy to obliterate. What ensues now is what I think of as fun, satisfying, violence, the sort of thing you see in the trailer to a James Bond flick. She will win the fight with the minion fairly easily (though the protagonist may fake an injury to build a moment or two of tension) and he’ll die with an incredulous expression on his face.

After this fight things get serious. Often, one way the protagonist can win is by sacrificing her life. This would be noble and a perfectly good ending, but we want her to live, so there’s suspense, tension.

The Final Conflict


Riding high from trouncing the minion the protagonist often walks into a trap. Or she is ambushed. Perhaps our protagonist has gotten a little cocky, perhaps a vestige of her former, scarred, self rears its head. Whatever the case, the protagonist gets into trouble.

This could happen right as the protagonist goes to engage the antagonist, or it could happen after the fight is well on its way and the antagonist is starting to realize he may not win the fight (or confrontation). Whatever the case, there’s a moment when it looks as though we were wrong—really really wrong—about the protagonist now being as good as it gets. She’s in trouble again and this could be the end of her and her quest. 

But it’s not. She faked the injury to get an advantage.

It sometimes happens here that the antagonist ups the stakes one last time by daring to do what no one else would. Perhaps he alters himself in such a way that he is now the walking dead but he’s going to be godly for the next ten minutes, which is more than enough time to destroy the protagonist. This pushes the protagonist to excel in a way we’re truly not sure she’s capable of and, once again, the audience is (hopefully!) on the edge of their seats.

- At this point the antagonist has no secrets.


At this point in the story all of the antagonist’s cards should be on the table. True, you don’t want an information dump where the protagonist, strapped across railway tracks, pleads for her life while the black cloaked villain rubs his gloved hands together, twirls his mustache, and tells her about the brilliance of his scheme.

But, still, no secrets. Perhaps the antagonist will taunt the protagonist by filling in the last little bit of the puzzle that lets the protagonist see how very high and dire the stakes are. Instead of simply the world being destroyed, he’s taking the galaxy out too! 

Yes, I’m exaggerating, but at this point it isn’t just the protagonist that is going to win or lose it’s also every single one of her allies, and perhaps her family and extended community. Also, the protagonist may have allies the antagonist has killed and who need avenging. Not to mention that by this time we’ve become emotionally attached to the protagonist and those she cares about.

- On with the fight.


After the antagonist shows us his last card we’re all on the same page. We now know the antagonist’s true power as well as his true agenda.

We, the audience, quake. Even our new punched up self-aware protagonist can’t possibly beat this guy, he’s just too badass.

Then ... why does the protagonist seem so confident?

Seeing the protagonist’s newfound confidence, the antagonist’s composure is shaken for a moment but then he laughs. “You’re faking,” the antagonist says and calls the protagonist’s bluff. Perhaps he even knocks the protagonist down. The Antagonist is now sure he’s won and sneers at the protagonist, ready to deliver the knock-out punch.

The audience is now worried that perhaps the protagonist was bluffing after all, that perhaps she really is all flash and no substance.

But, then, the protagonist shows the audience she wasn’t bluffing and shows the antagonist what she’s capable of. And wins. Since the antagonist was the thing that prevented the protagonist from achieving her goal, that’s it, we’re done.

The story question has been answered. (The story question is basically: Will the protagonist achieve her story goal? Jim Butcher has written a wonderful article on this.)

- Other kinds of endings.


Of course the story doesn’t have to end with the protagonist winning. 

a. She could fail to defeat the antagonist and die. 
b. Or she could fail to defeat the antagonist and live the rest of her life with the knowledge that she’d failed. 
c. Or she could beat the antagonist but still die. 
d. Or she could partially beat the antagonist and ... Well, there are many, many, possibilities.

Keep in mind, though, that each genre usually has pretty clear conventions about how stories will end. 

In a mystery story, if the sleuth doesn’t discover who committed the murder—or they do discover whodunit, but no one is ever brought to justice for the crime—then chances are that you’ll have plenty of grumpy readers who will make it a point of never ever reading another one of your mystery books.

In a Harlequin-type romance story, if the romantic leads do not live happily ever after (HEA) there will be hell to pay. A senior editor at Harlequin once told a conference I attended that they did break this rule once, and both the writer and publisher received hate mail. I kid you not!

The Wrap Up


The final conflict concluded, we wrap up the story by cashing out the final stakes. We do this by showing how the lives of each significant character have been changed because of the protagonist achieving the story goal.

Then, at the very end, the protagonist goes back to the Ordinary World and we see how the adventure changed her. Now, transformed, she does with ease tasks which were impossible before. For example, the protagonist can now best a bully, make difficult decisions, be a leader in the community, gain the elder’s respect, and so on.

Closing Thoughts: The Importance of Change


Let me stress that, although I do often talk about THE Three Act Structure, there’s really no such thing. There is no one monolithic structure that each and every genre story will exemplify. What I’ve written about is my own personal understanding of, distillation of, a structure I see in the overwhelming majority of popular genre stories.

Further, no single story will touch all these bases, and that’s fine. If I had to boil all the advice I’ve given over the years down to just one thing, it would be this: change is necessary.

Situations change, characters change. The mood of a scene changes. Readers—the audience—go from ignorance (Who is the villain?) to knowledge (It’s—drumroll—the mayor!). Without change, nothing dramatic can happen. And whatever else genre stories are, they should be dramatic.

Though, that said, there are only two actual rules in writing:

1. Write regularly. 
2. Read regularly.

If you’re looking for places to share your writing, or encouragement to write every day, I publish a daily writing prompt here, here and here, and the folks over at Critters.org have helped many writers hone their craft.

That’s it! Thanks for reading. 

Note: While the version of the Three Act Structure I’ve presented here does agree with that put forward by many screenwriters, I’ve noticed some put the break into Act Three after the All Hope Is Lost point. I think the take-away from this is to, as always, do what seems right for you. For me, it seems most natural to have the break into Act Three come just after the Major Setback but before the All Hope Is Lost moment, so I’ve placed the Major Setback at just before the 75% mark. 

I’d also like to note that, often, the Third Act will be quite short compared to the First Act. That way, once the hero breaks into Act Three it feels like one incredibly fast race to the Story Climax.

Photo credit: Original photo: "The Lonely Vacuum Of Space" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, February 10

How To Create An Entertaining Protagonist: A Story Checklist

How To Create An Entertaining Protagonist: A Story Checklist


What do you have over your writing desk? Mine is littered with pieces of paper on which I've scribbled bits of (what I think is) sage writing advice. I'll let you be the judge. (grin)

By the way, your protagonist doesn't have to have all these characteristics. I like to look at this list every once in a while and double-check that my protagonist has a fair share of them and, also, to make sure I haven't forgotten anything.

1. Protagonist


Your protagonist should:

a. Have a special talent.
b. Have a strength.
c. Be clever and resourceful.
d. Be wounded.
e. Be pursuing justice or at least have a guiding principle.
f. Have a catch phrase.
g. Have likeable qualities.
h. Be quirky.

1a. Give the protagonist a special talent (/unique ability).

Give the protagonist an ability that no one else has. This doesn't have to be something earth shattering. It can be something trivial such as being able to tie a cherry stem with one's tongue.

1b. Give the protagonist a strength.


The following list is from Character Strengths and Virtues by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman.

i. Wisdom allows one to acquire and use knowledge. Creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective and wisdom.

ii. Courage allows one to accomplish goals in the face of opposition. Bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality.

iii. Humanity allows one to befriend others. Love, kindness, social intelligence.

iv. Justice helps build community. Active citizenship, loyalty, fairness, prudence, self control.

v. Temperance protects against excess. Forgiveness & mercy, humility.

vi. Transcendence helps forge connections to others and provides meaning. Appreciation of beauty, gratitude, hope, humor & playfulness, spirituality.

1c. Make the protagonist clever and resourceful.


It seems to me that most good protagonists are both clever and resourceful. They are intelligent and can fix things, both little and big. They can come up with inventive solutions others would never think of. 

Clever characters are quick-witted. They can come up with a blindingly clever retort but without, perhaps, thinking through all the ramifications of what they've just said. (It can, occasionally, be smart not to say something clever.)  

1d. Give the protagonist a wound


Make sure that, in romance writer Terrel Hoffman's words, "In a hero’s character arc, she is missing something so essential that, if she doesn’t find it by story’s end, she’ll fail to achieve her story goal." (For Great Characters it's All About the Wound)

1e. Give the protagonist a guiding principle.


What is your protagonist's guiding principle? What rule do they live by? Turn this into a saying. Almost a tag line for the character.

For example, Poirot's guiding principle is "I do not approve of murder."

1f. Give the protagonist a catch phrase.


For example, two of Poirot's catch phrases are: "My little grey cells," and "I do not approve of murder."

Monk's catch phrase is "It's a gift and a curse."

1g. Give the protagonist likeable qualities.


I've already listed some strengths a character--or, indeed, a person--could have. I think most of these would go toward making a character likable. 

Another thing that works is to show a character being liked by other characters. 

You can also show your character doing something selfless for someone else. Save a cat!

1h. Give the protagonist a quirk


Give your protagonist a reason to be concerned about something, their clothes for instance. Then give your protagonist a reason to continually pay attention to it.

For example, lets say your protagonist, Zoe, buys an expensive dress she can't afford. She plans to wear it once then return it. Her date takes her out for dinner, but at a place that features mud wrestling! Zoe continually worries about staining the dress.

If you can manage it, the silly quirk should contradict the character's strength. For example, Indiana Jones' strength is courage and his silly quirk is fear of snakes.

2. Stakes


Stakes must be clear. What will the protagonist get if she achieves her goal?  What will she lose if she fails to achieve it? 

Also, the stakes must matter to the protagonist.

3. Motivation


The protagonist's motivation must be clear.

Although it seems not everyone draws a distinction between a protagonist's motivation and his desire I find doing this often helps. 

Here's how I look at it: a protagonist's motivation explains why he desires what he does and his goal is a concrete expression of that desire. 

For example, a child might want to win a spelling bee because the school bully taunts him and calls him stupid. In that case, the character's wish to silence the bully would be the protagonist's motivation. His overriding desire, on the other hand, is for people to think he is smart, and the concrete expression of that desire--his goal--is to win the upcoming spelling championship.

4. Goal


The protagonist needs to solve a well defined problem
The protagonist must take decisive action to get what she wants.
The protagonist must want something desperately
Finally, the thing the protagonist wants should be something so concrete that you could take a picture of her doing it.

5. B-Story


The solution to the B-story often provides the protagonist with the solution she needs to finally resolve her dilemma and achieve her goal. (I talk about the b-story a bit in my article on narrative setting.)

6. Antagonist's Goal


The antagonist's goal should be such that if he achieves it the protagonist cannot. For instance, in Lord of the Rings, if Frodo succeeded in destroying the One Ring then Sauron's quest to destroy Middle-earth would fail. On the other hand, if Sauron got the One Ring back then Middle-earth would be destroyed and Frodo would have failed.

The best article on creating an antagonist I've read so far is Jim Butcher's, "How To Build A Villain." If you read that article, don't forget to take a look at JB's comments in the comments section.

Question: What writing advice do you have tacked on the wall above your writing desk? Please share!

Photo credit: "2014-038 this way up" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, August 5

4 Ways To Create A Strong Antagonist

4 Ways To Create A Strong Antagonist


Janice Hardy's blog, The Other Side of the Story, is wonderful and I recommend it to anyone who asks: Which writing blogs should I follow?

Her recent post, 10 Traits of a Strong Antagonist, is one that helped me make the antagonist of my work-in-progress more three-dimensional, more real. Today I'm going to talk about four points that helped make my story stronger.

Remember: a strong villain/antagonist will help you create a strong protagonist.

(See also: How To Build A Villain, by Jim Butcher)

4 Tips on how to create a strong antagonist:


1. Give the Antagonist a goal


Just like protagonists, antagonists have goals. They want things. They have ambitions and desires. These are the sorts of traits that make your characters jump off the page.

As Donald Maass has said a number of times: Antagonists are heroes of their own journey.

2. Make the antagonist similar to the protagonist


Antagonists and protagonists are often a lot alike except for one vital aspect.

For instance, in the BBC's take on Sherlock Holmes both Holmes and Moriarty are brilliant anti-social types but the key difference is that Sherlock is on the side of the angels. He has formed relationships with people, ordinary people like his roommate and best friend Watson and his landlady Mrs. Hudson. He would give his life for them and nearly does.

Which brings us to ...

3. Make the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist personal


Have the rivalry between the antagonist and protagonist hinge on something personal. As tvtropes.org says:
The Protagonist catches bad guys for a living (usually at a rate of about one a week), but this time, the bad guy has decided that he doesn't like the protagonist. Instead of doing what any sensible psychopath would do and simply toss a grenade in the character's window, the psychopath takes creepy photos of the character's kids, abducts the character's wife, kicks the character's dog, and above all, leaves calling cards and clues to ensure that eventually he'll get caught. The bad guy (often a Big Bad) knows about the protagonist's Fatal Flaw and is more than willing to exploit it. (It's Personal)

4. Make the antagonist at least as complex as your protagonist


Janice Hardy writes:
To keep her from being a two-dimensional cliché, give your antagonist good traits as well as bad. Things that make her interesting and even give her a little redemption. This will help make her unpredictable if once in a while she acts not like a villain, but as a complex and understandable person. She doesn’t always do the bad thing.
These are only a few of the many wonderful points Janice covers in her article 10 Traits of a Strong Antagonist.

Photo credit: "Untitled" by martinak15 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Sunday, April 21

How To Create A Villain Your Readers Will Love To Hate

How To Create A Villain Your Readers Will Love To Hate

Have you ever had the experience of suddenly seeing something everywhere after you begin studying it? Of having something 'on your mind'?

That's what's happening to me with antagonists/villains.

A few days ago Larry Brooks wrote an excellent article, The Flipside of Hero Empathy, about the importance of crafting an antagonist your readers love to hate, and how that generates narrative drive. I thought it was brilliant so I'm sharing it with you. It's all about the basics of the craft, but those are strangely easy to forget.


Empathy


"Your reader needs to feel something for your hero."

We know this. We want our readers to care intensely about our protagonist and about whether he/she will achieve his/her goal.


Dramatic Tension


The antagonist is "the obstacle to the hero's question. Therefore a good antagonist will help build dramatic tension or what I call narrative drive.

The Antagonist


The antagonistic force tries to prevent the protagonist from acquiring his/her goal, often because the antagonist wants it, or something it would lead directly to.

Also, the antagonist is often very much like the protagonist but with one crucial difference. For instance, Luke and Darth Vader were both strong in The Force and both trained as Jedi Knights. One could say that they both wanted what was best but they had very different ideas about what that was.

Similarly, Dr. Belloq was Indiana Jones's antagonist in Raiders of the Lost Ark. They were both archaeologists, they were both passionate about finding and bringing back relics and they both liked Marion Ravenwood, Indiana's old flame. The big difference? People were more important to Indie than relics.


Empathy & Narrative Drive/Dramatic Tension


Larry Brooks holds that if readers have both a) empathy for your protagonist and b) a strong desire to see the antagonist get what's coming to him (/go down in flames) then your story will have oodles and oodles of narrative drive, that couldn't-put-it-down-if-they-tried quality which most of us would like our stories to have.

After all, if readers desperately not only want the hero to achieve his/her goal but want the antagonist to go down in flames then they will keep turning pages until that happens.


The Following


Larry Brooks writes:
I mention this killer (literally) television program [The Following] because it offers one of the most compelling, interesting and deliciously hateable villains, maybe ever.
I haven't watched this series yet, though it's on my to-do list.

Which antagonist(s) do you love to hate?

Other articles you might like:

- Joe Konrath Is Having A 99 Cent Sale
- Dean Wesley Smith Writes A Novel In 10 Days
- How To See Through Your Character's Eyes

Photo credit: "Snow" by Luis Hernandez - D2k6.es under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, December 8

12 Tips On How To Write Antagonists Your Readers Will Love To Hate

How To Write Antagonists Your Readers Will Love To Hate

Who is the most important character in your story? Your protagonist, right? Wrong! It's the antagonist. Or at least that's what Jim Butcher says. He writes:
One of the most critical skills an aspiring writer needs is the ability to build a solid villain. Even the greatest protagonist in the world cannot truly shine without an equally well-rendered opposition. The converse of that statement isn’t true, though—if your protagonist is a little shaky but your villain absolutely shines, you can still tell a very successful story. (How To Build a Villain, Jim Butcher)
Whichever is the most important, the protagonist or antagonist, the protagonist needs a strong adversary. Here are 12 tips for ensuring your antagonist is in tip-top shape:


1. Spend As Much Time Developing Your Antagonist As You Do Your Protagonist


Your antagonist needs goals and obstacles, hopes and fears, just like your protagonist. As Jim Butcher says, arguably, having a strong antagonist is more important than a strong protagonist. (See: Ten Tips for a Terrific Antagonist)


2.  Antagonist and Protagonist Have Conflicting Goals


If the antagonist gets their way the protagonist doesn't and vice versa. For instance, in Lord of the Rings, if Sauron gets the One Ring then Frodo has failed to destroy it in the fires of Mt. Doom.


3. Antagonist and Protagonist Have Conflicting Characteristics


In Die Hard protagonist John McClane (Bruce Willis) cares about other people, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) not so much. John McClane cares most about his job and his family, especially his estranged wife. Hans Gruber cares most about the millions of dollars he's going to steal from the vault. And so on.

It's interesting that in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone many of Severus Snape's (also played by Alan Rickman) characteristics were the opposite of Harry's and this was partly why it was so easy to think he was the one out to get Harry.


4. The Antagonist Drives The Conflict


Without the antagonist's dastardly plans, the hero would have nothing to do.

For instance, before Changes begins Harry Dresden's having a grand old time. This peacefulness is shattered when his ex-girlfriend calls and tells him (surprise!) he has a daughter and that she's been kidnapped by Red Court vampires.

If the Red Court hadn't taken Harry's daughter he'd have had time for an afternoon nap and a leisurely dinner at McAnally's. But that wouldn't have been terribly exciting.


5. Outline Your Book From The Antagonist's Point Of View


Kathy Steffen writes:
As Donald Maass suggests in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, outline your book from the antagonist’s point of view. Not every scene, but give him an outline with steps throughout the story so you clearly see the path he will take through your book. Whether you do it at the beginning, middle, or end of writing your book, this is a wonderful way to strengthen conflict in your story.  (Ten Tips for a Terrific Antagonist)


6. The Antagonist Is The Hero Of Their Own Story


Many antagonists think they're the good guy. Like Col. Jessep in A Few Good Men, the antagonist does terrible things to protect the group. He is the necessary evil doing what needs to be done for the greater good.

Or not.

Hans Gruber in Die Hard was motivated solely by the bottom line. He wanted money, lots of it, and didn't give a fig who he had to kill to get it. Different strokes. But I bet in Gruber's own mind having a lot of money made him a success and, at least in that minimal respect, we could relate to him.

I think what matters is that the antagonist is as fully fleshed out a character as your protagonist. That means giving her goals, motivations, fears, likes, dislikes, phobias, and so on. She has to have both strong points and faults, likable qualities and detestable ones.

Once your antagonist has fears and hopes and weaknesses it's hard to see them as pure evil. But that's good because it's much more interesting.


7. Don't Make Your Antagonist Too Powerful


If they are too powerful it's difficult to relate to them. Give your antagonist at least one weakness.


8. Don't Make Your Antagonist Too Weak


If they are too weak then there isn't enough conflict. We're not really worried for the protagonist. There's nothing to root for.


9. Have A Moment Of Connection With The Antagonist


Even if he's a complete jerk, find one point of connection, one point of contact, between your readers and the antagonist. Find the last surviving ember of his humanity. Fan that ember to life and show it to your audience.

Chuck Wendig says it best:
[M]ake me connect with him: something he does, something he believes, should be something I would do, something I believe. Or connect me to his past — help me understand ... (25 Things You Should Know About Antagonists)

10. Give The Antagonist An Arc


Just as your protagonist changes through the course of your story, so should your antagonist. For instance, at the beginning the antagonist might be a careful planner, over-confident and jolly and at the end she is paranoid, reckless and vindictive. (Though I guess it's not paranoia if everyone is out to get you!)


11. Give Your Antagonist A Kick-The-Cat Moment


This point comes from Chuck Wendeg:
In Blake Snyder’s books, he speaks of giving the hero a “Save the Cat” moment — meaning, we get to rally behind the protagonist early on as we get to see just what he’s capable of because, y’know, he rescues the cat from the tree (metaphorically). Antagonists need the reverse: one requires a “Kick the Cat” moment (see also: “Detonate the Puppy,” “Machine Gun the Dolphin,” or “Force the Baby Seal to Watch a Marathon of the Real Houswives ...). We need to see just why the antagonist is the antagonist — show us an act that reveals for us the depths of his trouble-making, his hatred, his perversion of the ethical laws and social mores of man.
Just as we need to show that our protagonist is a good guy by having him do something good, so we need to show that the antagonist is a bad, bad person, by having him (or her) do something horrible.


12. Let Your Antagonist Win Occasionally


Let the antagonist win. Sometimes. He's going to lose at the end, and lose big, so give the guy a break and let him (or her) win every onece in a while. Besides, it'll keep your readers guessing and interested.


13. Make An Antagonist Your Readers Will Love To Hate


The goal of writing is to create stories that move your readers emotionally.

Your antagonist can help you with this, but it all depends on your readers truly hating him. And not just hating him, loving to hate him. If your readers don't despise your antagonist as the lowest form of pond muck then, chances are, they won't like your protagonist much either.

Check Wendig writes:
[T]he biggest and best test of an antagonist is that I want to a) love to hate them and/or b) hate to love them. Do either or both and it’s a major win. If you make me love them and I feel uncomfortable about that? You win. If you( make me despise them and I love despising them the way a dog loves to roll around in roadkill? You win again. I hate that I love Hans Gruber. I love that I hate every Nazi in every Indiana Jones movie. ... [M]ake me feel something. (25 Things You Should Know About Antagonists)

Further Reading:

- Jim Butcher: How to Build a Villain
- Chuck Wendig: 25 Things You Should Know About Antagonists
- Kathy Steffen: Ten Tips for a Terrific Antagonist

Other articles you might like:

- Editing & Critiquing
- The Albee Agency: Writers Beware
- Connie Willis And 11 Ways To Write Great Dialogue

Photo credit: "Who dressed YOU?" by juhansonin under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.