Antagonism – Going Deeper Than “Bad” & “Evil”

If you’ve read my post regarding what makes a story bad, you’ve already read a brief rant on the features that qualify an antagonist to be one. You also know what the character is not. As a reminder, the antagonist’s role is not limited to con man, evil genius/mastermind, and serial killer. Antagonists can be much, much less deadly–or not at all so–and still be forces to be reckoned with. They are, sadly, often portrayed as villains; and although that may be the case in a lot of mainstream fiction and films, it is not the fundamental role of an antagonist. That’s because the main difference between antagonists and protagonists is a conflict of interest; and yes, it really does boil down to just that.

In honor of those whose only mistake is that they’re different from us, let’s explore in depth the qualities of a worthy opponent.

The most commonly known attribute of an antagonist is that (s)he stands in the way of the hero(ine) getting what (s)he wants. Here’s the thing, though, getting in the way could be intentional opposition against the hero(ine), yes, but it may also be unintentional. That means that the opposition may not be exclusively aimed toward the protagonist because (s)he is the main character, and the tension between them may not be personal. It may just so happen that the protagonist is the one to try to hinder the antagonist, and that makes him/her the target of the antagonist. The basic concept to bear in mind is that there doesn’t necessarily have to be any personal beef whatsoever between the hero(ine) and so-called “baddie.” What there is, is a conflict of interest that drives antagonists to prevent protagonists from getting what they want, and vice versa. Why? Because the other thinks they need their own goal accomplished more. It’s basic, childish even, but true.

In one of the greatest (writer’s) self-help books of all time, Alan Watt’s The 90-Day Rewrite, the author reveals that writers have a tendency to be too hard on their antagonists, and seem to forget or ignore the fact that they are just as human as the protagonists in any story. He implies that we sometimes ignore the depth of those we limit to villainies because of preconceived notions of how the story and characters are supposed to be. I believe that the solution to that problem is simple; if you use this worksheet before writing/revising your original stories, you can create in yourself, and build in your fiction, sympathy for the antagonist by exploring and understanding the humanity behind his/her character and actions.

Don’t stick to presumptions, as a writer – keep an open mind, and be open to growth and change. Let your characters be strong in their beliefs (no matter what those beliefs are), complex (determine their layers and subconscious contradictions), and vulnerable (don’t make them perfect versions of anything; everything is flawed and has some form of weakness). Basically, let each character–“good” or “bad”–be human. Let them start off as one archetype and then develop into something else – something that is inherently them.

While reading the bolded portion, you probably thought of the protagonist. If so, news flash, you need to apply those attributes to your antagonist as well; otherwise you’ll write a weak opponent who is under-developed.

Moving on, the next defining attribute on the list is strength. Don’t mistake this for physical strength, because what antagonists have, or pretend to have, is the psychological strength of willpower. You may assume that the antag. is stronger, and it surely does appear that way sometimes, but in actuality, the opponent is only one level stronger than the protag. because (s)he usually doesn’t have the inherent goodness, or moral code, of “the good guy/girl.” All that that means is that the opponent is willing to stoop lower than the hero and go to any lengths to win, whereas the hero must (try to) conquer in a way that causes less harm, destruction, or disaster – either to the world, to the ones they love or care about, or maybe just to themselves.

Which brings me to the next point, the antagonist’s vice. The guy or gal who stands in opposition to the hero(ine) acts on his/her vice, and (s)he is like this by nature. Rarely are antag.s deviating from their norms when they do something shady or generally unacceptable. Another key difference between the “goodies” and the “baddies” is that one suppresses his/her negative qualities, whereas the other acts on his/her vices. That’s just who they each are.

You’ll notice it even when a story contains an anti-hero(ine) – they may do bad things, but they try to be good, even if it’s a minimal effort. Those guys/gals can’t help it; they bear the burden of guilt, and have a rather primal need for validation from others. The antag., however, suppresses his/her guilt (and other emotions that reveal vulnerability) and validates him- or her-self, which is where their confident front derives from.

The opponent is often considered dangerous because of his/her refusal to play by the rules, since they believe rules are followed for the sake of validation and the opponent has no need for it. That, combined with the boost of willpower that derives from the belief that they can achieve anything in the world, makes the antagonist seem stronger.

It is crucial to remember that only a well-developed opposer–not just one who has character, but one who has an active role–can either drive the hero to extraordinary lengths in order to conquer and thrive through his/her journey or break them down to their very core and crush them.

The reader sincerely wants to see what your hero is made of, and that’s why a worthy antagonist is so important. That’s the reason they read any story. Remember who you’re writing for. Remember what they want. Remember what you, as a reader, crave from fiction. Then go ahead and deliver that.

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