Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Writing the Antagonist

After the excitement of Double Release Day, it's time to get back to routine with a Writing Wednesday post, this time with an excellent question posed by a reader about writing antagonists.

This is something I hadn't put a lot of thought into because I tend to be very protagonist-focused, so it forced me to think about it. Here are some initial ideas I came up with.

First, you probably should care as much about creating your antagonist as you do your protagonist. I've heard writers say that the difference between protagonist and antagonist is perspective, that the protagonist is the one whose viewpoint you're in. I don't entirely agree because it depends on the story. There are cases where the roles could easily be switched, where no one is doing anything actually villainous, and the "good guy" is only the good guy because that's the one we're being led to cheer for. But there are also deeds that are objectively villainous, regardless of perspective. If a protagonist did those things, we'd call him an antihero.

However, if you're looking at it from the antagonist's perspective, then the antagonist is the hero of his or her own story and will find justification for even those villainous deeds. You don't have to write the story from that perspective, but it's a perspective you need to be able to consider in order to figure out what the villain will be doing.

Treating the antagonist like the hero of his own story means that, like the protagonist, he needs to have a goal -- something specific and concrete that he wants to accomplish. It needs to be specific and concrete enough that you can picture a scene of him achieving it (even if he's not going to because the protagonist will foil him). So, not just "world power," but standing on a stage, addressing the entire world via satellite, with his armed minions positioned to shut down any opposition.

Because this is an antagonist, this goal needs to be something that will have negative consequences for the protagonist or for something the protagonist cares about. In that picture of the antagonist achieving his goal, things have to look very bad for the protagonist. These potential negative consequences have to be enough to force the protagonist to take action, so the antagonist's goal needs to be in proportion to the situation and to the protagonist. If the antagonist's goal is to take over a small town's garden club, that's not going to work if your protagonist is the police chief (unless, I suppose, the chief is an avid gardener) or superhero because why would they care? It might work if your story is a cozy mystery (and the antagonist is knocking off rivals), a small-town romance, or possibly literary or women's fiction about the relationships among women in the town and your protagonist is desperately clinging to the one bit of status she has left. She'll be left a nobody and outsider if she's no longer garden club president, so she's going to fight to stop the antagonist.

The antagonist also needs a motivation, a reason for the goal. That doesn't mean it has to be a sob story, though that's become something of a trope. Someone can want to take over the world or rob a bank or take over the garden club without having had a sad childhood. Money and power are perfectly good motivations on their own. Look at the real world and the people involved in insider trading and corporate raiding. Most of them come from a background of wealth. They're motivated by greed and entitlement. I might have a minority opinion on this, though, since I see a lot of readers swooning over poor, sad villains. I just tend to roll my eyes at villains who justify all their evil actions on this one slight they suffered as kids. My response is to want to tell them to grow up, or else I hear a Dr. Doofenshmirtz monologue from Phineas & Ferb in my head (a cartoon villain who tied each of his evil schemes to some incident from his childhood, like being forced by his parents to serve as a garden gnome). You'll need to figure out for yourself what effect you want to achieve -- do you want readers feeling sorry for your antagonist, or do you want them hating her? Are you planning to redeem her or vanquish her? That will determine how sympathetic you make the villain's motivation. Mostly, the motivation needs to be strong enough to explain why the antagonist is bothering with everything it takes to achieve the goal. The protagonist is generally motivated by the potential negative consequences of the antagonist winning, but that means the antagonist has to have a good reason to kick things off in the first place.

A specific, concrete goal that has negative consequences for the protagonist that's driven by a strong motivation is the basic building block of an antagonist. From there, you can do other things to make the antagonist and his relationship to the protagonist more interesting, and that's a subject for the next post.

No comments: