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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Harnessing Inspiration in the Digital Age

How do you harness inspiration for your works-in-progress?

Hello, friends!

I wanted to let you know about a thing I made. The thing is the product of one of my favorite “non-writing” writing activities… a fun tool I used to help craft the world of Stormriders! I’m talkin’ about inspiration boards!

Inspiration boards have been used in the design and visual arts fields for ages. They are commonly used in those fields to shape the intended narrative and guide the project. In this increasingly digital world, it is becoming easier for other creators, including writers, to dabble in creating these bulletin boards of imagery that help share their vision and aesthetic for the worlds they build. Read more about creating your own writer inspiration board here. Inspiration boards can be either “analog” (physically tacking items to a bulletin board) or digital. Whatever works for you!

Stormriders inspiration board (preview)

I’ve created digital inspiration boards for nearly every story idea I’ve had; it is an important part of my world-building and outlining process, as I am the most visually-oriented person you will ever meet! So I’ve decided to share my Stormriders inspiration board on Patreon! A link to my Patreon page is here. If you join at the $1 level, you can unlock the full inspiration board (not to mention the added perk of getting full access to ALL of my Patron-exclusive content about all things Stormriders!).

DISCLAIMER: Inspiration boards are generally for a creator’s own personal use and are not widely disseminated for profit. That said, When utilizing images and artwork that aren’t my own and that will be used for Commercial use (i.e. book covers), Best practice is to either purchase rights to images (via for-purchase image databases like Shutterstock/Getty Images/etc.), or find fair-use/royalty-free/Attribution-free photos via sites like Pixabay. Personally, I give credit for Every Photo when using them commercially, even the attribution-free photos. but it is always best practice to read carefully about any restrictions or attribution guidelines for any images you opt to use for your creative endeavors, especially for projects or products that will be distributed to large audiences. Credit your fellow artists!

 

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Welcome to the perfect morning.

 

I decided to take some time off this week (gasp!) to treat myself with a long weekend of [refer to above photo].

As a writer with a full-time day job in a field that demands a significant amount of my energy and focus on any given day, one of my most daunting challenges is making the time and harnessing the motivation to write after a long and difficult day at work (or, on the weekend after a full week of long and difficult days). Fortunately, I have a day job that actively encourages best practices in work-life balance, a supportive team, and A LOT of PTO days accrued. Hence, Stormriders Staycation 2018.

I absolutely understand how fortunate I am, in these respects, and I admire my fellow writers who are making things happen with limited resources and support… a special shout out to my fellow indie writers.

Dear Indie Writer With A Day Job,

Your time is a treasure, and your process is valid, however that looks for you. I have every confidence in the story inside of you, the one you absolutely MUST tell, the one that makes your soul cry and sing and hope and despair at the same time. You WILL write it. And if it’s not done tomorrow, that’s okay. Maybe in a month, or a year, or a few years. All of those time frames are valid. Because your story WILL be told, and by you. There is no better person to tell it.

If you’re interested in supporting indie writers in their endeavors, I highly recommend exploring Patreon, a crowdfunding site for artists, authors, and other creators. You can visit my Patreon page here.

 

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