When Antagonists Aren’t Bad Guys

Laura Ayo

Laura Ayo

Last week, my writing group finally got to read and critique a scene in my work-in-progress that introduces the antagonist to the readers. I say “finally” because I’ve been struggling to write this scene for quite some time. No matter what approach I tried, I just couldn’t seem to pull it together. So, I made it my goal at the start of 2017 to figure out why this scene wasn’t working.

I knew where the scene needed to take place and that the protagonist needed to have her first confrontation with the antagonist. I even knew what the two characters – a father and daughter – would argue about. I had a clear picture in my head of everything the protagonist would do in the scene. I could hear what she would say. I knew what she would feel at the beginning of the scene and by the end. But when it came to the antagonist, the only thing in my mind was a blurry, silent question mark. Clearly, my problem had to do with my antagonist.

To work through the block, I began by reading as much as I could about how to create a “good antagonist.” It was thinking of him in those terms – a good antagonist – that finally got me over the first hurdle. For a long time, I mistakenly thought my antagonist had to be a bad guy. The problem is, my antagonist isn’t a bad guy. He’s not evil, sinister, vindictive, oppressive or mean. That revelation led me to realize many of the books I enjoyed reading don’t have a villain as an antagonist. Often, the antagonist isn’t even a character. Instead, the antagonist is an oppressive society, an unforgiving setting or, my favorite, inner turmoil the protagonist must overcome. It wasn’t until I realized an antagonist simply needed to serve as an obstacle to my protagonist reaching her goals that I had my first breakthrough.

I leapt the second hurdle by taking the time to do a character interview with my antagonist. Like many writers, I knew my protagonist inside and out – her back story, motivations, fears, goals and objectives. But I hadn’t bothered to delve that deep with my antagonist until I listened to a Helping Writers Become Authors podcast by K.M. Weiland. In it, Weiland makes her case for why plotting should start with the antagonist. Her argument that the antagonist is the catalyst for the plot made sense to me. So, I decided I needed to get to know my antagonist beneath the surface. The character interview – something I had never bothered to do before – helped me figure out the details of his dilemmas and desires. And once I knew what was in his heart, I had a better handle on how, when and why he would oppose my protagonist.

With those two hurdles cleared, the scene came together. It took me several more days to finish a first draft of the scene, but the words were finally filling the page, and my critique group finally had the opportunity to meet my antagonist. Their feedback told me I had invested my time wisely. The antagonist rang true to them. His interaction with the protagonist engaged them. And most important, they liked him the way you’re supposed to like an antagonist who isn’t a bad guy. Nice!

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