Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 1, 2020

Loving Your Hateful Antagonist

by Ellen Buikema

The antagonist is a character that many readers love and many writers hate. In fact, one of my author friends told me that writing her antagonist was a painful experience. “It was a really hard book to write. I had nightmares when I was writing about this character. It was one of the best feelings in the world when I finished writing this.”

In writing my current book, The Hobo Code, I learned what she meant. The book’s main antagonist is a psychopath. To capture the essence of the character, I picked the brain of a retired forensic psychologist and her suggestions surprised me. For example, she recommended I not write chapters from that antagonist’s perspective. “You don’t want to go there,” she said vehemently. “It will give you nightmares.”

I wonder how many forensic psychologists have PTSD by the time they retire.

The Delicate Balance Between Hero and Antagonist

As in all life, there must be balance. Your protagonist needs someone or something, to push against, overcome, or to come to terms with. Some examples:

  • Nature:  Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm
  • An institution: Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games
  • Disease: Stephen King’s The Stand
  • The supernatural: Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight

Note: Twilight is an interesting case as Bella’s humanity might be considered one of the story’s antagonists. Her humanity conflicts with her desire to become a vampire.

Observation and various discussions have led me to the conclusion that most people feel they are the heroes of their own life story. People in power who we believe are in the wrong likely feel that their reasons are good and just—merely not understood by the average person. Antagonists feel the same.

No matter how horrific the means are to the ends, the antagonist believes his or her actions are justifiable.

Give Your Antagonist Some Depth

The antagonist needs a story arc. This character must grow and change, even if it’s only into a more heinous monster. At the same time, he should have qualities the reader can empathize with, such as liking dogs, enjoying cake baking, or taking time to teach children how to make a homemade fishing rod.

House-sit your evil one.
Spend time with him.
Learn his motivation.

Flesh out his backstory to know why he acts as he does. The more you know, the easier it will be to determine what makes him tick. How does he react to triggers? People are truly  the sum of their experiences. What life choices or chance encounters have helped make your antagonist what he is?

Different types of antagonists create different kinds of conflict.

Psychopaths have an inherited condition, often related to under-developed impulse control centers of the brain. They can make interesting antagonists. In Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter, the Dexter character is a psychopathic protagonist with charm—an anti-hero. Dexter’s main antagonist is a copycat serial killer. Both have strong anti-social tendencies but we find ourselves rooting for one and detesting the other.

The antagonist doesn’t have to be evil. He may cause conflict by acting in opposition to the protagonist, erecting barriers against the protagonist’s goals. Samuel Gerard, in D.J. Manly’s The Fugitive: A Novel is an antagonist. He stands in opposition to Richard Kimble and is definitely not evil. In this case, the protagonist understands this antagonist is just doing his job.

An antagonist may be a good person who has become corrupt due to life circumstances. Something pushed him over the edge. Most of the royal characters in George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Fire and Ice” are corrupt. Did the position of power cause corruption? Perhaps there was childhood trauma? The Cersei Lannister character is ruthless, yet still has love for her children. She has some softness in her character to put a dent in her emotional armor. Lord Voldemort of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was once Tom Riddle. He wasn’t always someone to be feared.

Your protagonist may have an internal antagonist in the form of character flaw, like Bella’s humanity (according to Bella) in Twilight. Sometimes desires are in the way of needs. There might be fear or regret to overcome before tackling the primary antagonist.

What if you have more than one antagonist?

Some stories have secondary antagonists to give your protagonist trouble, a warm-up of sorts. Here are some ideas for handling multiple antagonists:

  • Deal with something small before taking on the major issues.
  • Give your protagonist plenty to work on to reach his goal.
  • Your secondary antagonist stirs up trouble for your primary antagonist and your protagonist.

Digging deep into the dark, dredging up fearful situations, pains the mind. I don’t know anyone who enjoys revisiting demons from the past, but getting to know your antagonist well will make for a better, more balanced story.

Have you delved into your antagonist’s backstory? What motivates your antagonist?

* * * * * *

About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Work In Progress, The Hobo Code, is YA historical fiction.

Find her at http://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

Image by Comfreak from Pixabay

23 comments on “Loving Your Hateful Antagonist”

  1. I love your point that "antagonist" doesn't mean evil! It's merely the person (or force) that stands in the protagonist's way and thus creates conflict. If the reader feels a degree of empathy for the antagonist—can even bond with the antagonist, in some way or at some moments—then the reader, as well as the protagonist, experiences conflict .... which makes the reading experience so much richer! How cool is that?

    1. Yes! The Samuel Gerard character was absolutely a good guy, just doing his job and in the way.

      Sometimes it's difficult to bond with the antagonists but getting to know their motivations really jazzes up the stories.

  2. I'm working on this today in an online class. finding my antagonist backstory will be very helpful. I usually know that but in this case I did not and I need to go there.

    1. I'm pleased the blog topic is timely for you! How are you enjoying your class?

  3. My antagonist in my WIP is a loving father who pushes his daughter into a career as a concert pianist, even though she doesn't want it, by controlling circumstances in her life. He's assuaging his guilt over interrupting his wife's budding career before she hit the big stage, a career she never resumed because of a life-threatening illness. We can't like him, but we can understand his motivation. I prefer that my antagonists aren't evil, just seriously flawed and misguided human beings.

    1. Flawed works well. We are sometimes our own worst enemy.

      So Dad is bullying his daughter due to guilt over past wrongs to his wife. Interesting!

  4. That's funny how it works, isn't it? In one of my books I have this really evil guy and I should hate him, but personally I like him! (yikes!) Not that I approve of evil, but he is "fun" to write. But I also have a female antagonist and I hate that b**** LOL She's horrible. I think it's because my MC, who I love, hates her because she's trying to take her man. So there ya go! This is why I love developing my characters though, the stuff that makes them real!! Great post!

    1. Brigid, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. There are many types of antagonists to work with. Sounds like you do deep dives into your characters motivations. Awesome!

  5. Oh, this helps! It’s been 3 years since my husband, a long distance bicyclist, was run over by an insane (legally) woman driving a jeep. He was left for dead, but survived. The true story is rich with twists and turns. I have attempted to write about it, which I thought would be a healthy exercise. I was wrong.

    News outlets and a prominent bicycling magazine have used the incident as reported, thick with inaccuracies, as click bait, but we have never spoken to anyone publicly. Based on your post, I believe she is an antagonist someone else should put down in writing. My husband will give the account to a trusted writer.

    Your post, Ellen, helps me understand that there are reasons why I shouldn’t go there, and that there are alternatives. This is a huge relief to me.

    1. I am so sorry that your family had to go through such a trying and dangerous ordeal. Be kind to yourself. As you mention there are always alternatives. Thank you for your response. My best to you whatever you decide to do.

  6. Loved the article Ellen. I was trying to think of a good example of an antagonist with depth that has a clear arc. Frank Griffin came to mind. He is the antagonist from the mini series on Netflix called Godless. I can clearly see the underlying backstory and the more than horrific growth of the arc of his character. And the touches of personal interests *blech* that arise during the series. Plus there is a direct contradiction of the main MC going the exact opposite way (from bad to good). Such a great series and about as awful as it gets for western horror. I'm not a horror person sooo just thought I'd put in my two cents if someone wants to see first hand how this plays out in film that is a western.

    1. Westerns aren't my favorites but Godless sounds intriguing. We'll give it a try. The filming location is in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico. We lived in Las Cruces, NM for five years and traveled all over the state. So diverse and beautiful.

      I look forward to seeing the MC transition.

      Thanks for the tip!

  7. I really love Bob Mayer's Conflict Lock. This blog shows a great example graphic: https://shannoncurtis.wordpress.com/2013/11/15/writing-101-conflict-lock/

    Here are her basic instructions (although the post is great reading for the examples):

    So, how do we create the conflict lock?

    1. Draw four squares

    2. Label one row for Protagonist (Hero and/or Heroine), and one row Antagonist (Hero or Villain)

    3. Label first column ‘Goal’ and second column ‘Conflict’.

    4. Write in your characters’ objective in the GOAL column, and what is preventing your character from achieving that goal in the CONFLICT column.

    If your protagonist’s conflict is born from your antagonist’s pursuit of his/her goal, and vice versa, then you have a CONFLICT LOCK.

    1. Wow! All protagonists need to struggle with something or someone, even if it's an element of self. What reason was given?

        1. Denise, that does not sound like someone who is doing the best service to your writing. Antagonists rule. Or, as the late great Stephen Cannell (creator of the Rockford Files, A-Team and 21 Jump Street) said: when a story stalls, the best question to ask is, "What are the heavies doing?" In other words, he knew what we all know - antagonists keep the story moving. 🙂

  8. Thanks for this piece - very well done. When I come across antagonists in books, films, etc. who are just bad for the sake of being bad - Snidely Whiplash types - I tend to lose interest in the whole thing. Everyone's complicated, whether they're more prosocial or antisocial in the balance.

    I grew up with a psychopath for a father for my first ten years before my mom got my brothers and me out of there, so I got an in-depth course in Antagonist 201 in a way that made sure the lessons stuck. And the most valuable thing I finally figured out is that he and I are two sides of the same coin - I've succeeded, I hope, in leading a good life and being good to those around me, but although I could never do a lot of things he did, I understand him, and I can't look down on him, because the difference is probably partly genetic and partly my having a better adolescence than he did, growing up with my mom and a healthy stepfather as a role model for us.

    My second career was as a psychotherapist (first was 20 years in the Marine Corps), and I worked a good chunk of it in the prison system. Can't imagine what drew me in that direction . . . I got to know some really dangerous and antisocial people there, too, and some of them were great company - funny, charming, so that I looked forward to sessions with them, even though I knew that for society's sake they should never, ever get out. Dad was funny and charming too when he wasn't terrifying.

    And I can answer your question about how many forensic psychologists (and therapists, and social workers) have PTSD by the time they retire: all of us.

    I try to use that - I'm working on my first novel (I've got some clinical reference stuff in print with Wiley, but no fiction), and I'm loosely modeling a couple of antagonist characters on my father in one case and on my favorite smart, funny, murderous gang leader in the other. And yes, they're going to be major problems for each other.

    Sorry this ran long. And thanks again for this post. I'm going to save this one.

    1. Good luck on your novel! Between your home and work life, you were gifted with lots and lots of fodder for your books. I always say "writers are made." The making part often sucks, but if we can bring compassion to ourselves and our characters, those early experiences will translate to brilliance on the page.

    2. Thank you for your answer to my question. I suspected as much.
      Many of the writers I've met have had difficult childhoods. It gives us a lot to draw on.
      You have a very brave mom. It isn't easy getting out. Congratulations to you for your successes. I'm positive your novel will be fascinating, especially with your deep understanding of your characters.

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