Love the Antagonist

Don Corleone in black and white

This post originally appeared on the amwriting blog.

Copious bubbles of advice flow out of the Internet for new writers—everything from opening lines that work to hanging in there through the middle of the first draft. Once a novel is completed, emerging writers can spend the majority of their waking hours searching for that perfect agent or press, hopeful that such recipients will go wild for their pages. All of the eagerness and pride and delicious fantasies about our future success—for we are nothing if not avid daydreamers—are blown away when rejection after rejection rolls in, clogging one’s in box. Suddenly that stream of advice looks chalky, harder to interpret, and the messages around handling professional no-thank-yous another cold stab of curtness. It’s difficult to hear the “just keep writing” mantra and adhere to it with the same level of joy as before. But take heart: this is all part of the process.

In my own journey towards publishing oblivion—I mean, toward getting published—I’ve seen some big gaps in wordcraft advice. Agents are ready for the first few terrific pages, because everyone knows about the hook, the setup, the voice, and the avoidance of cliche. Because those are the known points where writers put a lot of their energy, agents and editors know to look past those initial moments, and a request for the first three chapters or first 50 pages is their attempt to get into the meat of the book.

In this light, I bring up the antagonist. As a reader for more than one literary contest, I will say that often, she does not get her due. The antagonist is the foil to the main character, after all. The relationship between the antagonist and the protagonist has to propel the conflict and catalyze the growth of our beloved heroine or hero, after all, so the antagonist needs at least as much care and attention as the author is willing to drizzle over the main character.

A poorly conceived antagonist is like a loose string on a sweater that destroys one line of fabric at a time. Without a strong antagonist the book can’t support a strong conflict; without a strong conflict the story doesn’t have the ability to transport the reader, and then folks, we’re done. If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it—if a reader walks away at the start of the second chapter, then we need to revisit our work.

Antagonist tips, in a deliberate order:

  • Love the antagonist—Writers need to have some inroad to affection for the antagonist, in order to create a layered, full-fledged character. Maybe we loathe and despise their actions, but somewhere deep down they have a soft spot. This need never come out in the finished pages (although I would argue that they probably should), but the writer needs to conceive of it and remember it when writing any scene that includes the antagonist. Think Don Corleone with an orange segment in his mouth, chasing his grandson through a garden.
  • Motivate the antagonist—Every character in the tale has a back story, and the antagonist is one of those characters. How did this person become such an . . . antagonizer? The writer has to know the reasons; I’ll note here that experience + personality result in the current-day character. It’s not just what has happened to the antagonist that matters, it’s how they responded to some previous moment, and what consequences they’ve had to live with that bring them to where they are now. Working up this back story will also help for going forward with their reactions and attitudes through the open waters of the story itself.
  • Humanize the antagonist—We need to move beyond evil villains. Not every antagonist is Voldemort or a hell-bent angel. Antagonists are mothers, tricksters, misguided psychologists, people overcome with bitterness, failures, individuals with problematic delusions, bullies, and so on. Thinking that antagonists must be megalomaniacs looking for total control of the multiverse will likely result in an unbelievable character. All the antagonist has to do is resist the protagonist in a way that matches up with the plot, themes, and structure of the story. Nobody needs a laser to cut a stick of butter.
  • Desegregate the antagonist—There are probably people in the story who like the antagonist, because hardly anyone is an island. Who are they? A congregation, schoolmates, parents or children, a lonely next-door neighbor, someone. On Glee, the cheerleading coach, an antagonist if ever there were one, has two fans: a sister and a single cheerleader to whom she is always nice. How these supporting characters figure into the story is up to the writer, but it helps to create a multifaceted antagonist when we see them in non-antagonizing relationships with other people.
  • Equalize the antagonist—Big mismatches in power between antagonist and protagonist sound interesting, but often don’t play out well on the page. Especially for YA literature, I like to see two main antagonists: one who figures in the protagonist’s world at the start of the story, and a bigger, more powerful one the protagonist will face when she has grown, by the end of the story. Think corrupt guidance counselor versus evil demon living under the public library. If the antagonist is worlds stronger than the main character, that match up may injure the believability of the story itself, and trust me, nobody wants that.

Rejections will happen because yes, they are part of one’s eventual success. In the meantime we should pay attention to making every facet of our work impeccable, thoughtful, and engrossing. Antagonists factor into every other aspect of a story and deserve their own careful construction. Agents and readers alike will love to hate them, as we do.

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Categories: Writing

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