Monday, October 14, 2013

When's the Last Time You Took Your Antagonist on a Date?

About a month ago, I came across the following quote online by screenwriter, comedian, film producer, and comic book writer John Rogers:

You don't really understand an antagonist until you understand why he's a protagonist in his own version of the world.

I found the quote intriguing. Not to say we discard antagonists, but often in writing, especially in that developmental stage of a story where we're trying to get the bones of it down, we think about our main character, the protagonist. We write an elaborate backstory for this "good guy" or "gal" and flesh the character out into a living, breathing person complete with yearning and laden with obstacles and burdens.

Speaking of obstacles, when we get to the stage where we ask what obstacles or conflicts meet our protagonist, this is where we typically start to think of our antagonist(s). We know that our main character (MC) has wants and needs, and we know there must be things and people to prevent the MC from obtaining those wants and needs. We bring in someone that embodies the MC's opposition. Sometimes, antagonists get fleshed out, too, in pretty little dossiers, but sometimes, writers make the mistake of simply making their antagonist a stock character, full of whatever components are needed to make her a foe to the MC.

What if, instead of the stock character antagonist, we took the time to take our antagonist on a date and see what makes her (or him) tick?

Rogers is right though he doesn't say this exactly: antagonists are protagonists in their own stories. Many antagonists don't think they are in the wrong. They think they are fighting for the good of whatever belief and value systems they hold dear. Antagonists aren't, typically, just trained to be evil. They are real people with real issues and come to believe and think the way they do SOMEHOW.

As writers, our goal is to understand that HOW.

Novelist, screenwriter, and game designer Chuck Wendig, in writing about antagonists at his site terribleminds, offers great points we all should know about antagonists, and one of them resonates strongly with Rogers' quote:

Character is the driver. Plot is the getaway car. Character drives plot; plot does not drive character. The antagonist isn’t just here as a rock in the stream diverting the plot-churned waters — he does not exist in service to a sequence of events but rather, he exists to change them, sway them, turn them to a sequence he wants — a sequence that stands in opposition to the protagonist. For opposition is key.

Because the antagonist is as real as the protagonist and is not just a plot device, we need to pay attention to her.

SO, you know what you need to do right? You do.

Call up Antagonist, invite her for coffee, bring pad and pen and recorder, and have a nice long talk about what makes her tick.



What are her values and beliefs?

Who was the driving force for her having those values and beliefs?

Does she have internal conflict with what she believes and values? Sometimes, the antagonist is in as much internal conflict as the protagonist.

What are her good qualities? We have to admit, not all antagonists were born evil. At some point, they had friends… probably… and were liked… probably.

What is a day in her life like? You might be surprised by how Antagonist spends her day.

What is the cruelest thing she's ever done?

What is the kindest thing she's ever done?

These are just a few questions you can ask Antagonist, and after you two hug it out, and you get in your car for the drive home, think about YOU and Antagonist. How are you two similar? Different? Might you ever be… or have been an antagonist in someone else's life story, providing the foil for their race to obtain dreams fulfilled? Again, you might be surprised by the answers you uncover.



Shon Bacon is an author, doctoral candidate, editor, and educator. She has published both academically and creatively while also interviewing women writers on her popular blog, ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. She's the author of mysteries, Death at the Double Inkwell and its sequel, Into the Web, the short story "I Wanna Get Off Here" (in the short story collection, The Corner Cafe), and the romantic dramedy novella, Saying No to the Big O. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her Website, and you can get information about her editorial services at CLG Entertainment. Currently, Shon is busy pursuing her Ph.D. in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University ... and trying to find the time to WRITE.

15 comments :

  1. Excellent post. Thank you for the reminder of how important it is to make the antagonist more than just an instrument to create havoc for the protagonist. And I love the quote from Wendig about character driving plot.

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  2. Thanks for this, Shon. My fiction is always character driven, so I make a fairly detailed character sketch of ALL my characters before I start the story. You're absolutely right, a dimensional antagonist is no proper match for a fully fledged protagonist. If both have their motivation and philosophy of life sustaining them, they'll come across as real people rather than stereotypes.

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  3. Thank you for the comments, Maryann and Stuart. I really enjoyed writing this, and I think it's important every once in a while to be reminded that ALL the characters need a little one-on-one time with the writer so they can get to know each other. ;-)

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  4. Shon, you've outdone yourself—what a great post. Not sure when "antagonist" became synonymous with "bad guy," but an awful lot of writers bought into it!

    I like thinking of my main characters as being at cross purposes. Yes, I want you to root for my protagonist, but sometimes the antagonist has an equally valid point that my protagonist can learn from to push her along her character arc.

    Javert and Valjean from Les Miserables are a perfect case in point. Neither is a bad guy, they just see things in different ways.

    I'm tweeting and bookmarking—thanks!

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    1. Thank you so much for the comments, Kathryn. They made my day. :-) I love seeing main characters that are multifaceted, complete with traits that might make the reader cringe but also full of redeeming values that make you want to root for them.

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  6. The best books and movies are ones that can make us understand the antagonist's motives and how they got that way. Great post!

    Morgan Mandel

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    1. Thanks, Morgan. I definitely agree. :-D

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  7. Excellent advice. I'm currently developing my "bad guy." So it is also timely advice!

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    1. Thanks, Diana. I have a "bad" guy in my head now that needs to be talked to, too! LOL

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  8. Generally speaking, no one is born "bad." They become bad for a variety of reasons. Neither are most of the "all" bad. Humanizing them makes them real. Taking one on a date might be an interesting way to start that process. Great, thought-provoking post, Shon.

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  9. Hey hey Shonell - I, too, concealed a smirk as I read this. Definite echoings and similarities to my blog post, though I promise you I had not read this one first :) Guess great minds think alike! --Zeke

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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