Antagonists: Depth, Breadth and Maybe a Little Crazy

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I’ve been watching a really great show that has lots of twists and turns, secrets and lies, and plenty of surprises and dramatic reveals.  It’s gotten me thinking about antagonists.

You see, in the show, sometimes a character’s antagonist might also be the character’s best friend, or parent, or child, as well as their arch enemy.  This show is particularly interesting that way because the “main character” changes from episode to episode (and sometimes scene to scene), but mostly focusing on four characters.  That means that who the protagonist is in any given moment, dictates who the antagonist is.

I really admire the author of this particular world, because he’s got so much complexity and looks at things from so many different perspectives.  And no matter whose eyes we’re seeing the story from in a given moment, the antagonist makes sense.

The antagonist is the person getting in the way, the person foiling the protagonist’s plans.  They aren’t evil and don’t even have to have nefarious motives.  Sometimes they can be oblivious to how they are hurting the protagonist, or just not realize all the consequences of their actions.

My point is, it’s good to remember that your antagonist doesn’t have to be evil, just an obstacle for the protagonist.  Evil can be good, but writing a more complex antagonist who is driven by their own internal struggles and issues is much more entertaining for your readers.  And never underestimate the appeal of a little crazy.  An antagonist’s thought process doesn’t have to make sense (neither does a protagonist’s if you get down to it).  A little crazy can go a long way toward creating some really interesting conflict in your story.

When creating my own antagonists I try to think back on the ones I’ve seen in books, shows or movies that were so well done.  What did I like about them?  How could I apply that to the character I’ve created and the plot I’m developing?

For example, the idea of using a little crazy.  There’s a character I’ve been working on for a while.  She’s a major antagonist, and she’s done some truly awful things and plans to do more, but she’s motivated by fear and revenge.  She thinks her sister was murdered and that broke her a little, which has seriously warped her sense of right and wrong and her ability to think through something logically.  She’s volatile, emotional, and quickly becoming abusive.  And of course, she spirals down from there in order to become a truly epic and dangerous antagonist for my other characters.

I like to get into the back story of my antagonists so I can map out how they got to where they were, how they became who and what they are, and how they might be redeemable in the right circumstances.  Sometimes this happens before they start working evil in the actual story, and sometimes it comes later, but it’s something that I make sure to do by the end of the zero draft so I know where they’re coming from and can work it into the story more when I’m revising.

My favorite antagonists are the ones with depth.  The ones with flaws of their own and redeemable traits too.  I try to make my own antagonists from the same kinds of molds.

Who are some of your favorite antagonists?  And what did you like best about them?

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