Alright, so you’ve given in. You’re finally going to sit down and write that novel that’s been sitting, twiddling it’s thumbs on the back shelves of your mind. I don’t know how, but somehow you were given this inkling of an idea, and now it’s time to write it. My guess is, you at least have some notion of who your protagonist is. Your protagonist is your main character, the one that by the end of your novel must complete the story goal (unless you’re writing a tragedy). He needs to rescue the maiden from the tall tower. Or she must complete a deep, inner journey to find her true-life meaning. Whatever it is, you should probably have your story goal/idea and protagonist picked out before you continue on with the steps below, because this post has nothing really to do with those two things.
No, today’s post is all about your antagonist, or your baddie. The person (or person’s in my story’s case) that works against your protagonist to try and make them fail. Think Draco Malfoy (who I LOVE), Inspector Javert or Gollum. But wait, those three aren’t exactly pure evil. Correct. And that is what makes them such perfect, complex antagonists. We want to make our readers see and believe that deep down inside there is a glimmer of good. Yes, readers love to hate, but they also love to love, and in order to make our baddies remembered, we want our readers to struggle in how they feel towards them. So today, I want to share with you some of my own personal opinions on how to create complex, remembered baddies.
- Don’t force them to be pure evil. It just doesn’t work. It’s not believable, it’s not relatable, and frankly, readers get tired of one dimensional, blood soaked bad guys. They want someone who has a face, who has a soul, and who has a reason for doing whatever the hell it is they are doing. Show your reader that deep within them, your baddie wants to be good, or they think that whatever it is they are doing is good. Make your antagonist believe that whatever they are struggling for, really is good and wholesome (in their eyes), as what your protagonist is struggling for.
- Give them backstory. Even if it never makes it into the final draft of your novel, write a short story of backstory for each of your antagonists. Why should you? Because, writer knowledge is power. But no, seriously. You need to know what motivates your baddie. Are they trying to prove themselves because their parents treated them as if they were useless? Write that story. Do they truly believe that in working so ruthlessly against your protagonist, they are actually doing the right thing? Write that story. Your antagonist deserves as much attention as your protagonist, writer. And if you don’t give it to them, they’ll make your regret it.
- If your antagonist is an abstraction, consider revising. Abstractions normally don’t work unless you’re like Charles Dickens or Shakespeare or something. Sometimes, I think as writers we can confuse our story’s theme with an abstract antagonist. If your story’s theme is the cruelty of war, your antagonist needs to be that, but with a face. Maybe it’s a hard-heartened housewife who no longer cares if her husband is shot on the frontlines. Write her story too, even if it never makes the final draft. For me, my story’s theme is the loss of childhood innocence, and for a while my story was suffering from some middle sagging syndrome because I had no true and active antagonist. So I took my theme and plastered it to the face of a girl who, in actively working against my protagonist, honestly believes in what she’s trying to accomplish. The resurrection of her father.
- And finally, give us something that makes us love to hate them. A moment of silence for Dolores Umbridge please. My gut just roils with the thought of her. And I’m pretty sure I can speak for all of us when I say I love to hate that pink-clad, toady-faced woman. But in her defense she honestly thought that what she was doing was right and for the good of all. Create antagonists who think and act the same. Make us love to hate your antagonist.
So if you’ve just started your novel or have been writing it for ages (2011, anyone?) go back and try to apply these things to your antagonist(s). Some of it might not work for you, some of it might. But let us know if it does!
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