Antagonists Need Love, Too

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

~John Rogers

Why a Weak Antagonist Can Ruin Your Story

Artist: isabellaquintana (Pixabay)

I’ve always loved a good bad guy.

I mean, a goooooood bad guy (or gal). The characters in your favorite books – or movies – who were so insidiously, deliciously villainous that you loved to hate them. Who had you shouting at your book in disgust and anger, but secretly a tiny part of you empathized with a tiny part of them, and that made you hate them even more.

But for every Annie Wilkes (Misery), Kurtz (Heart of Darkness), Hannibal Lecter (the eponymous series by Thomas Harris), Heath Ledger’s Joker (cemented forever into the Halls of Depraved Genius), Erik Killmonger (in Black Panther, and arguably one of the most sympathetic movie villains of recent memory), or Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis Moriarty (my favorite manifestation is by far Andrew Scott’s portrayal in the BBC’s Sherlock series) – for every strong and complex antagonist in classic or contemporary literature and film – there is also at least one flat antagonist automaton whose only motivation is that he must drive the plot forward somehow. While it is every writer’s tendency to want to focus on developing the protagonist – and I am guilty of this, too, time and time again! – a well-rounded antagonist with a relatable backstory can only strengthen your narrative. An antagonist with a driving purpose for his/her actions is far more interesting.

Artist: linolombardi (Pixabay)

“I am evil because the story dictates I need to be evil!” or “I am doing this or that to your beloved MC because I love power for power’s sake!” are certainly character motivations that lean toward the one-dimensional. On the page, a one-dimensional bad guy is one character whose flawed nature readers will certainly notice (and not a good notice), and can really make or break your story. I tend to treat my antagonists as top priority characters, sometimes giving as much if not more attention to their development than the protagonist.

That’s NOT to say your protagonist should be relegated to the Mary Sue/Marty Stu archetype, who simply reacts to everything the antagonist throws in their faces, to whom everything happens yet overcomes adversity with flying colors… although there are times where that model works. (That’s a blog post for another day!) Long story short: I try to give equal attention to writing flawed MCs as I do to write complicated and interesting antagonists and villains.*

*NOTE: To avoid confusion, since we’re talking about both in this article… antagonists and villains are not necessarily the same. While a villain will almost always fall under the “antagonist” category, an antagonist can be a villain, sure, but does not have to be villainous or evil. An antagonist can be sympathetic, charismatic and even likable.

By giving your antagonists your due diligence – creating backstory, figuring out what motivates them, identifying sources of their internal conflict as well as possible sources of redemption, injecting humor (even dark humor works!) or quirks into their personalities – you end up with a person, instead of just Evil Personified For No Reason. I recommend using the same Character Development tools you used to get to know your protagonist on your antagonist. As mentioned in my previous post on Character Development, my favorite is the NaNoWriMo Character Questionnaire.

Artist: sik-life (Pixabay)

Bad guys are quite adaptable, and even the same antagonist can change exponentially between the covers of a single book, let alone in the cataclysmic transition between a book and its film adaptation. Ever get angry about the portrayal of your favorite book characters when they appear on the silver screen?

The list of my favorite literary antagonists of all time includes:

  • Long John Silver, Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
  • Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, Maguire’s Wicked (this one is controversial, because she is the villain in Baum’s Wizard of Oz, but in his prequel-of-sorts, Maguire gives us a fully-realized complicated person whose choices and motivations set her on a course we are all familiar with).
  • Moriarty (again! forever!), Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.
  • Hot take: Mr. Rochester, Bronte’s Jane Eyre. (Yes he is a villian. Fight me!)
  • The Goblin King, Jae-Jones’ Wintersong/Shadowsong duology (please read these! Pleeeeease!).
  • Any villains or antagonists I missed who deserve to get their due? Let me know in the comments!

A few final notes:

Antagonists don’t necessarily have to be single characters. Here’s an article that outlines four types of antagonists.

Looking for more sage writing advice regarding antagonists, villainy and evil? Author Chuck Wendig wrote an article about how to do it. Trust me, this guy knows what he’s talking about, and articulates the many facets of writing antagonists far better than I ever could.

 

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Writing Them to Life (or: The Complexity of Character)

You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, you find out who they really are.

~Joss Whedon

Artist: johnhain (Pixabay)

It all begins with the faint early tingles of a story idea creeping through my brain.

When that “spark” turns out to be a fantasy/speculative fiction idea that requires extensive world-building, the work begins. Through that planning and building process, as mentioned in my previous post, I learn the context for how my characters are going to live, interact with each other, and move their way through the world.

But without the characters, you have an empty landscape.

It’s as if they are reading over my shoulder, as I fill pages and pages of Google Docs with the geography and culture and systems of government within their world. They frown and shake their heads when I sketch costumes that are impractical for their trade or daily lives. I feel them rolling their eyes behind me when I write conversations on their behalf: words and statements that ring false, dialogue you’d never ever hear uttered from their mouths.

And suddenly, here we all are. Me, and the fictional people in my head.

I’m sure other writers relate to this, to some extent, although I can’t be sure to what extremes they take it. On the surface, at best it seems a little eccentric. Prior to writing the fundamental bones of the story, I spend quite a bit of time thinking about the people in it, as if they are living, breathing people who live actual lives when I’m not writing about them.

There are many different schools of thought, regarding Character Development; the art of creating characters people empathize with and whose journeys they want to follow. I, for one, start with one general rule, once I have the idea for the story roughly sketched out in the world I’ve painted. I get to know my protagonist first. There are many tools one can use to accomplish this; my favorite is the official National Novel Writing Month Character Questionnaire. Completing this exercise gets you thinking about how your protagonist grew up within the world you’ve created, prior to the events of the story you’re writing. It gets you thinking about what formative events shaped the personality traits you envision for them, and clues you in on what they might say or do in future situations (i.e. plot twists and obstacles). It helps you understand what they want, what their future aspirations are, which also shape their behavior.

My next step is to get to know my primary antagonist. The villain. The bad guy. The person (if it is a person) that adversely and actively acts as a foil to your protagonist, yet needs to be a fully realized and complex person/nonperson in his/her/its own right (this last point is extreeeemely important. Important enough to warrant a separate blog post). If there is no conflict in the story, it is difficult for that story to go anywhere or for your protagonist to experience personal growth, and for me it is more interesting to have that conflict stem from another vibrantly real and complex individual (although it is possible to create conflict without a villain… yet another blog topic for another day).

Next, I think about secondary characters. These are the supportive characters who know, are related to, are subservient to, have power over, are in love with, and/or despise the protagonist and/or the antagonist. They, too, need to have well-rounded backstories and motivations, even if not everything is alluded to in detail as the story is being written. Using character development tools for even minor characters will prevent them from reading one-dimensional on the page. Readers can absolutely pick up on characters who are plot devices, who exist merely to propel the plot forward. They receive a couple of pages (or even paragraphs) of exposition or action, their literary “15 minutes in the spotlight” and then they disappear into the depths of the plot and are not heard from again. Give these folks more credit, if you can. Especially if they create what I call “relevant complexity” within the narrative by bringing their own influence, advice, experience, hubris, perspectives, prejudices, and motives to light.

As with world-building, your readers might never see the full Character Development profiles you’ve so painstakingly crafted for your characters. They might never know the full background and exploits of Character A’s history as a notorious pirate, but they will know enough to understand why Character A has acquired so much wealth, and why the authorities are after him, why he hates storms, and why he avoids a certain port on a certain island. The more time we spend with our characters, the more details we flesh out… and the more details we know, the more we treat them as real people. Real people, with real motivations, with whom readers can empathize. Real people to admire or detest, but always to learn from, and – on some level – understand.

And when I do reach the point of understanding them, the people in my story, they become anchors. If delving into their world is my entry-point into the story, the characters I meet along the way keep me grounded there.

And along the way, I start to understand that the story is no longer, and probably was never, mine.

It is theirs.

 


Become a Patron, and unlock additional content! View the Character Profile for one of the main Stormriders protagonists… meet Ben Corley.


This is the third post in a 4-part series about The Big Magical Process of Making Words Happen (According to This Author).

Part 4: Our Journey Begins Now, But How? (or: To Plot or Not to Plot)


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Where the magic happens (with a fresh coat of zen)

This morning is the first morning I feel well enough to write, after a week of mornings where the fever caused my bones and muscles to crumble under flu aches, and I despaired wondering if I would ever be able to breathe through my nose again.

After a week of days where I was rendered barely able to move, let alone clean my house, I was well enough this morning to survey the damage, and realized how depressing the cycle of being sick actually is. When one feels lousy, the cleaning and dusting goes undone, the clutter piles up (somehow!) and everything is kissed by a not-so-thin layer of dust and dog hair. Which makes one feel even lousier. Thus, the vicious catch-22 of the flu.

This morning, with a renewed frenzied energy bordering on frantic, I tackled the cycle. Eradicating every last residual influenza germ being the ultimate goal, I scoured and dusted and vacuumed for awhile before taking stock of my writing desk. Covered in bric-a-brac, unopened mail from two weeks ago, and the shuffle of papers and notes from my various writing projects, it was overwhelming. There is little wonder I’d been avoiding it, even in the days prior to my bout with the flu.

But this desk was the center of my writing world: where every scene I dreamed up in the shower or plot knot I untangled in the car (hands-free dictation apps, look ’em up!) was documented, flushed out, put to (digital) paper.

It is a white workbench-style table, with a solid metal base and an expansive rectangular surface made from hefty particle board with a white laminate overlay. Basic, plain. Utilitarian. A fresh, clean palette. And so, of course, my first instinct was to cover it with decoration: hand-painted yarn bowls, framed pictures, glass mosaic-tiled vases. Decoration eventually gave way to things: folders, notebooks, pens, more notebooks, fresh stacks of unused post-it pads, post-it notes with various scribbles. Seashells. Business cards. Coffee mugs. And books… so many books. Stacks of books. Four-fifths of the desk surface was books.

Overwhelming.

Today I made a decision: over the past several weeks, and even months, I had been gradually avoiding my workstation because it no longer was conducive to its original purpose… writing. Every time I sat down, I was distracted by things. And the words would slow, and stop. And so I would gravitate to my couch, which of course offered its own set of distractions in the form of the TV remote. Or my bed… which I will posit is a terrible, terrible place to try to write a novel. Or outdoors… this option actually works brilliantly in warmer months, but not so much in January in Minnesota. This flu hiatus acted as a reset; I needed to clear the space, so that the words could come again.

Which is what I did. I scrubbed the surface free of dust, after removing each and every piece of distraction from it. I sat there awhile, letting myself feel the full effect. Slowly, I added a handful of items back, but only the items that contributed to a calm, clean, zen aesthetic:

  • Three live plants, one set in the midst of a mini rock garden to add some texture and sparkle.
  • An artsy poster of text, made by a friend of mine, with an inspirational quote in gold foil print.
  • Three candles: two battery-operated faux candles that give off a gentle warm light, one real scented candle designed to fill the space with the warm fragrance of Snicker-doodle cookies.
  • A hand-painted paperweight I picked up in Tanzania, a polished black stone covered in dainty goldfish.
  • An antique coaster, made from blue hand-blown glass.
  • A head massager (a must-have within arm’s reach, trust me).
  • A crackle-glass votive, full of dried French lavender from my garden.

Lastly, my laptop. And then, reader, the words did come back. Because now I’m sitting here, at my desk, telling you all about it.

writing desk

The lovely end result. No, there is no “before” picture (thank goodness).

Yes, you just read a blog post about how I cleaned my apartment (sorry). But it’s also about how we really should be intentional about honoring the importance of where we write. If we do not allow ourselves the adequate environment in which inspiration and ideas can flourish, we aren’t allowing ourselves the chance to achieve what we want through our writing. This applies equally to creators of art in other mediums, and it all goes back to self-care… as creators we can easily become caught up in the act of creating, and neglect other supportive aspects of sustaining our creative drive. Finding a space that nurtures your craft and sparks your creativity is step one; nurturing that space as well as your craft and creativity is the critical step two.

Take care of your space. Take care of you. And the words will come.

 

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A brief update and miscellany

Hello, lovely people.

It has been a while, hasn’t it? I can tell you the last few months have been spectacularly busy at best, and tumultuous at… less than best. Between day job issues, exciting ongoing writing projects, personal health issues, and of course the juggernaut that is National Novel Writing Month, my blog has been (accidentally) abandoned to the dark corner of the internet where neglected blogs are tossed to collect dust.

Forgive me?

And because things show no signs of slowing down in the near future, I just wanted to reach out and answer a few questions.

  • 1. Yes, I’m alive and relatively healthy, the people I love are healthy, and things are more or less okay.
  • B. My major book-publishing projects are moving forward, behind the scenes, even though they’ve been out of the limelight for a little while… both my travel memoir and my YA novel Stormriders are in their respective editing phases (to clarify, Stormriders is in the Gonna-Pull-My-Hair-Out-This-Is-Horrid part of the editing phase).
  • And thirdly, I have some exciting updates to share with you!

Updates:

I started a new project last month, for this year’s National Novel Writing Month, and on this side of November I have a 45,000-word draft for a story I’m sorta in love with. Think high fantasy meets stranger-in-a-strange-land, throwing in a few dragons and featuring a version of the feisty heroine who always finds her way into my stories somehow, and here we go again! Stay tuned.

The local writers group in Waconia is producing an anthology of our work, hopefully in early 2019! I’ve signed on as primary editor and formatting/layout designer, and the book will feature a wide range of beautiful work from our group members. More information can be found at waconiawriters.wordpress.com.

My 4-part blog series is still in progress! I began writing the third entry in The Big Magical Process of Making Words Happen series a few months ago, and hope to finish the darn thing and post it live within the next few days.

Anything else?

Yes.

A note on overcoming adversity, and finding success in your writing, even when you (temporarily) physically cannot write.

Over the past week, I’ve been sidelined from all of my writing projects, due to a pinched nerve in my neck. Sidelined, meaning I’ve been forced to intermittently lie flat on my back on the floor, with an electric heating pad between my shoulder blades. For awhile, merely sitting upright was painful. Working on my laptop was excruciating. 

This has been my primary view for the past seven days straight. (Yes, that is A Christmas Prince, the finest Netflix Xmas movie ever made. Fight me.)

But in spite of my inability to use my computer, I’ve still been writing. How, you might ask? I used the time staring at my ceiling. I used every single one of those horizontal minutes to brainstorm, to think through some plot problems, and I even solved some plot holes that were previously and up to that point driving me bonkers.

My injury forced me to stop, to avoid the tempting social media distractions that are present every time I open my Chromebook, and think. I spent the better part of the past two months constantly on the go. Not saying a nerve injury is a boon, but it did present an opportunity. I had to press pause on most of my hectic daily life. Alone with my thoughts and the strange patterns on my popcorn ceiling, I had nothing to do but untangle and sift through those thoughts, prioritize the ideas I wanted to, and focus.

After a few days, I was pretty good at think-writing. I could visualize pieces of my story that I struggled to see through the blue glow of the computer screen. Fleeting ideas and concepts became tangible plot points. Characters developed true human flaws and traits; I got to spend some time with them and get to know them better. Even though I didn’t physically hold a pen or crack open my laptop, I was writing. I was creating. And those exercises were really the only things keeping me from going out of my mind.

Moral of the story: you can create, you can make progress and move forward in unconventional ways, even when life (and nerve pain) tries to blow up your process.

Fin.