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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A Universe in My Head (or: The Intricacies of World-Building)

All the world is a stage, And all the men and women merely players.

~Everyone’s favorite English bard

First, you must build a world.

There are several different camps out there, when it comes to world-building for a novel. And each camp will tell us something different, when we ask the questions we were always going to ask… the questions that pile up as we writers all sit down at our favorite writing desks, and open our notebooks/computers/etc. … when we try like hell to make sense of the places we’ve envisioned, the intricate worlds that thus far live only in our heads but yet are beautiful. Vibrant. Real.

  • Do I need to build a world?
  • How much of a world should I build?
  • Do I build the whole world before writing a word of the story, or do I make it up as I write along?
  • How much of my painstakingly-built-and-now-thoroughly-complex world needs to end up in my story?

To name a few. (There are so many questions!)

Where to start building?

The important thing to understand is that there is no right or wrong way to world-build, but if you gravitate toward the speculative fiction/science fiction/fantasy genres, chances are world-building will be a necessity for you at some point. Whether you design every aspect of the world, down to the smallest detail, before you write a word of the story; or create and pull pieces of the world in as you write along… your characters cannot exist in a vacuum.

I personally fall into the first category of world-builder. For me, creating the world where my characters will be born, grow up, meet each other, fight, go on adventures, suffer loss and find happiness, has to happen before I meet my characters. The world needs to have existed long before my characters’ stories begin, and could feasibly continue to exist long after my characters have departed from it.

Your characters cannot exist in a vacuum.

How much of the world should show up in your story? We are writers, descriptive people by nature, so of course if we had our way the worlds we’ve so painstakingly created would be captured on the page, in every last vibrant detail. But the reality is, not much of the world will actually show up in the story. World-building generally is more for you, the writer, than it is for the reader. Although we spend hours (days, months, years?) developing extensive historical, social and geographical complexities of the worlds we create, the story itself may contain only whispers of the detail we’ve meticulously planned.

We use world-building as metaphorical post-it notes, to highlight a cultural reference or a social norm, to provide a supportive context as for the reason our protagonist has to captain a sailing vessel instead of drive a car to the next town over. Our characters should be living, breathing, imperfect beings; they should screw up and feel losses and care about things (more on this in another post), but their choices and actions need to be grounded in the environment around them. However, it is a balancing act between providing the appropriate amount of context and over-explanation. Too much description and focus on the world, and not on the characters, will slow a story down and ultimately will prove distracting to a reader. You want to give your characters a place to travel, interact, grow and get into trouble, without sacrificing focus on key aspects of the plot or the characters themselves.

There are many, many resources and tools that can assist writers with world-building. I’ve linked a few here that I’ve used and found incredibly helpful:

The Ultimate Guide to World-Building – Writer’s Edit

World-Building for Every Genre: A Checklist – Writers Write

Fantasy World-Building Questions List – pcwrede.com

Additional Advice and Links to World-Building Tools – Fictorians.com

List of 42 World-Building Resources – The Dabbler

30 Days of World-Building Tool – Fantasy World-Builder Guide

Article continues on Patreon.com. To read more about Worldbuilding and the world of Stormriders, subscribe to my Patreon here!

 


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

Coming soon:

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


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Spark

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


Writing a novel is an intricate, complex machine of moving parts and pieces, tasks and goals. Of the entire complex machine, to my mind there are three tasks that stand out as extraordinarily important… the foundations, the tenets, of the entire process: Setting, Characters, and Plot.

These three tenets appear deceptively simple on paper.

  • First, you must build a world.
  • Second, you must meet the people who exist in it.
  • And last but certainly not least… you must learn how to tell their stories.

A larger tenet looms yet higher, almost obscured from view because of its all-encompassing enormity, seldom in the limelight, often taken for granted, rarely recognized for just how vital it is. I call it Spark. (NOT the Allspark, fellow geeks… although… now that I’ve said it…)

Before we can delve into any one of Big Three, it is important to think about what sparks the movement within the machine in the first place. Think of the setting/characters/plot combo as the How of your novel… the (All)Spark is the Why.

In other words… where do the ideas come from?

After that lead-in and build-up, I’m afraid right now I have a somewhat disappointing answer to this question. During a lunchtime conversation the other day, a colleague asked me (innocently) how I come up with ideas for the stories I write. Turns out, I had an obnoxiously difficult time answering. The experience was rough for him, too, I’m sure. Emotionally harrowing for me, indeed. After a few rambling half-hearted expository vocal blerps from out of my brain-mouth connection, ultimately my coworker walked away from the conversation with… nothing resembling a true answer.

Since then, I’ve been wondering about my process, trying to pinpoint where they come from, those elusive little sparks that ignite ideas. Some are inspired from life experiences, sure. Some, less so (I’ve never been a post-apocalyptic pirate revolutionary, nor have I ever manipulated magnetic and kinetic forces via my hands, as two recent examples). As a fantasy/speculative fiction writer, I am firmly of the belief that you do not have to write what you know. You are not limited to the scope of your own personal experiences. There are some fantasy thought sprouts that can only be grown from the fertile soil of pure imagination, with a strong beam of sunlit possibility. (Oof. I’m not going to delete that metaphor.)

I spend most of my extra time exercising my imagination. I’m drawn to the challenge of taking fantastical and impossible concepts and turning them into relatable, probable occurrences within the scope of their universes. In order to do so, context is everything. (More on this in Part 2.)  

The best I can come up with, to explain what happens in my head, is that once in awhile I see or hear something that clicks (connects, fires a neuron, sings a siren song… pick your preferred analogy). When it clicks, I am drawn to a weird little fuzzy place in my brain where I witness the idea materialize from the ether, and watch as it sort of crosses some sort of imagination bridge, growing more substantive along the way, and becomes a story.

Look it’s a magical idea bridge!

More questions remain: How do I coax those ideas forward? How do I pick and choose which idea to coax forward? Why do some cross over into Novel Land, where others stay in the gray and abstract Land of the Unrealized?

And now there are too many weird analogies in this post.

But along those lines, I can’t be sure I even know how I recognize the ideas, when they’re little fledglings, forlorn half-formed storylings. I’ve spent So. Much. Time. trying to hash this out. With only a few paragraphs left in this post, you may yet be completely confused. I am, too. But as difficult as all of this has been to articulate, I’m hopeful the answers might emerge from this miniseries of blog posts, answers that could hopefully address how the Spark manifests itself in my process, within the context of the stories I’m writing right now. I’ll draw examples from those stories when relevant.

And so, this is an experiment of sorts, dear readers. A real-time study of one writer figuring out The Big Magical Process of Making Words Happen, According to Herself. But what I’d love is to foster conversation (and further introspection) about what our own processes entail, what the Spark demands of each of us. So please, please, PLEASE sound off in the comments if you have anything to add!

Now, on to the Big Three: Setting, Characters, and Plot.


Coming soon:

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

(Links will be added to the titles above as they are published)


 

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