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?
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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.