Tag Archives: antagonist vs protagonist

Fundamentals of Writing: The Strong Antagonist #amwriting

I gravitate to narratives featuring a strong antagonist, someone who could have been a brilliant hero if only they had made different choices.

depth-of-characterAuthors work hard to create a strong, credible hero. In genre fiction, the hero’s story evolves in a setting of our devising and is defined by their struggle against an antagonist.

Strong emotions characterize what and who we perceive as good or evil. Emotion is a constant force in our lives. When we write, the emotions we show must be credible, shown as real, or they will fail to move the reader.

Consider the forces of antagonism in the story. The antagonist can take many forms. In some stories, it will be a person or people who stand in the way. In other stories, an internal conflict and self-deceptions thwart the hero. When you think about it, we are usually our own worst enemy, constantly telling ourselves negative things that undermine our self-confidence.

When we create an antagonist, we take what is negative about a character and take it one step further: we hide it behind a lie.

First, we assign them a noun that says who the antagonist thinks they are. Good.

Then we assign them the noun that says who the protagonist believes they are. Evil.

So, in an overly simplistic example, the antagonist gets two nouns: Good/Evil. We hide that perception of evil behind a lie, a falsehood. This lie is the antagonist’s belief that they are the hero.

One of my antagonists in a current work in progress is Kellan. He and his younger sister were born into an abusive family. When their parents were murdered, they were adopted by a family who raised them with kindness and understanding. At the age of ten, Kellan’s basic character and gut reactions were already formed.

protagonist-antagonist-06082021LIRFKellan is a complicated character who believes he is the hero. His story begins as a member of the protagonist’s inner circle and ends tragically.

The people who love him describe him this way: Ivan saw Kellan as two people. One lashed out at the people he trusted and loved most, was filled with jealous anger, and the other was sweet, gentle, and mesmerizing. Rage sometimes owned him, a flaw the earth-mage might never overcome.

Life is complicated, and the relationships in a good novel should also be complex. Often, a protagonist faces a second antagonist: themselves. In real life, who is usually our worst enemy?

We are.

It is us, our own fears, the little voice whispering doubt, indecision, and impulsiveness into our subconsciousness.

So, to further complicate life for our hero, we can go two routes when creating the antagonist. One way is to allow one of the characters to make choices that ultimately harm them, which is how I went with Kellan, turning him into the visible antagonist.

Another way is to take the negative that is directed outward and turn it into self-hate, which I have done with Ivan. He has two enemies to fight, one is someone he loves but must reject, and the other is himself.

nebulousIn other stories, there is the nebulous antagonist—the faceless giant of corporate greed, characterized by one or two representatives, who may be portrayed as caricatures. In some cyberpunk tales, the antagonists tend to be thugs-in-suits, and in hard sci-fi, they might be members of the military or scientists. In fantasy, the nebulous antagonist might be a powerful queen/king or sorcerer, or both.

In that case, how the protagonist reacts internally to the threat these formless antagonists pose is the story. Emotion makes the risk feel genuine to the reader, gives it life.

To show great evil in genre fiction, we take the negative to the limit of human experience. And while I do write some dark scenes, I don’t write horror, so I can’t speak to that, exactly.

What I can speak to is the perception of corruption, which sometimes horrifies us.

Perception and imagination are everything. As children, what we infer from the visible evidence in a dark room after mother and father have turned out the lights can be terrifying.

We are frightened of the formless monster that we perceive as lurking in the corner until we discover the truth—it is only something that was piled there and was never put away.

As adults, what we infer from the visible evidence in a dark story can be equally terrifying. Thus, you can write dark scenes but don’t have to be utterly graphic.

War is an evil that is difficult to make sympathetic, and shouldn’t be. Sometimes a faceless blob of evil is the right villain.

However, I seek out stories that delve into the characters as people and show their motivations. Word choices are the key to success in showing the darkness a character embodies without going over the top. Think about the word perversion, a word with many meanings and uses. Its synonyms are: corruption, corruptness, debasement, debauchery, decadence, decadency, degeneracy, distortion.

Coloring an antagonist with a perception of perversion (distortion, corruption) drives home the evil they represent.

Someone—and I don’t remember who—said in a seminar a few years ago that the author is the character’s attorney, not their judge.

approval-f-scott-fitzgerald-quote-LIRF05312021This is an important distinction. Credible villains become evil for sympathetic reasons. They care intensely, obsessively about something, or someone. It is our job to make those deeply held justifications the driving force behind their story.

Therefore, a true villain is motivated, logical in their reasoning. They are creatures of emotion and have a backstory. You as the author and their lawyer, must know what that narrative is if you want to increase the risk for the protagonist. The reader doesn’t need to wade through an info dump, but you, the author, need to know those details.

You need to know why they feel justified in doing the sometimes-heinous things they do.

The greater the risk for the hero, the more interesting the story is. A strong protagonist requires a stronger antagonist if the risk is to be believable.

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The Antagonist’s Story Arc – part 2 #amwriting #nanowrimo2020

In Monday’s post, The Antagonist’s Story Arc, I explained how I organized my notes for each book or series using a workbook from a spreadsheet program, such as Excel or Google Sheets. Today I am continuing to plot out the opposition’s story arc to dovetail with what has already been established in the protagonist’s storyline.

So now, I go back to the notes on my protagonist, Alf, and look at my calendar of events. What clues have I inserted about the antagonist, Daryk, from Alf’s point of view? I need to make sure those are noted on Daryk’s timeline.

At this point, Daryk is only partially formed in my mind. I see him as he was before he triggered the mage trap, which is how Alf sees him. Daryk was a close companion, a canny adversary in any competition, and especially at the game of stones. He was a dedicated Sword of Aeos, deeply committed to rooting out the Bull God’s secret covens. Strategy and battle tactics were second nature to him. His best skill was how well prepared he was for every turn of events. He and Alf had worked together successfully since becoming hunters.

Alf only wants to remember him that way but knows he will be forced into a direct confrontation at some point. I have written the book’s opening chapter, where the event that changes everything occurs.

Since NaNoWriMo ended last year, I’ve gotten the first draft of most of Alf’s story arc written to the point where these two characters must face their destinies.

But only the protagonist has been fleshed out.

One thing that occurred to hold up this aspect of the first draft was the protracted illness and death of my good friend and structural editor, Dave Cantrell. Dave was an integral part of my writing posse, giving me the male perspective, which helped to round out my characters.

Now I need to decide how many chapters will be devoted to Daryk, and what events are important enough to be highlighted from his view. First, I need to identify his quest.

In a good novel, characters aren’t evil for no reason. Perhaps what the protagonist perceives as evil is merely a radically different way of living, a cultural difference. Or maybe they’re under pressure from some external force. In Daryk’s case, it is both.

While battling a mindbender and his coven, Daryk is separated from the Swords of Aeos. He enters the enemy’s altar room and finds a statue cut from amethyst crystal. This is a trap set to snare mages serving Aeos, Goddess of Hearth and Home.

The moment he touches it, Tauron, the Bull God, seizes Daryk’s mind. No mere mortal can withstand the personal attention of a god, and Daryk is now set on a collision path with destiny. Tauron is the God of War, jealous, paranoid, and insecure. He demands abject worship, extreme sacrifices, and harshly punishes those who fail. Success is rewarded richly, and the strongest rise to the top to rule over the weak.

Steeped in the lore of his warrior culture, Daryk is easily bent to the Bull God’s path. He is now convinced that he is the rightful heir to be the War Leader. He sees Alf as serving a weak and feeble deity, and that the tribes have lost their strength. His goal is to seize power and use the tribes to conquer Neveyah for the Bull God.

Tauron gives Daryk new gifts, one of which is the ability to sway large gatherings of people. Since he has no empathic magic, he needs to find and snare an empathically gifted healer to project his compulsions.

To do this, Daryk must accomplish several things from the outset:

  1. He must find the crystal cave and undertake a vision quest. The Bull God doesn’t know how Barbarian shamans are trained, so this quest is very different. The high trial Alf undertakes is vastly different from his first shamanic quest. Daryk was not trained to be a shaman, so he doesn’t know what the true trial entails. Since only the strongest are fit to rule, the test the Bull God sets before him is a much darker journey, one of overcoming and bending demons to his will.
  2. Having survived the trial, his first task is to find an empathically gifted healer and bind her to him. He uses Helene to project his spells of compelling and takes over her village to make his small army.
  3. Daryk needs a base of operations, so he must acquire a citadel. He and his new wife go to a lesser known place, Kyrano, as it isn’t somewhere Alf would look for him. Using compulsions to present themselves as distant relatives and charming the elderly baron, they are officially named his heirs. The old man dies that night in his sleep.
  4. Daryk needs to conceal the fact he is a rogue-mage, or he will have enemies on all sides, and he isn’t ready for that yet. He acquires a coven of elemental mages, binding them to him and using them to have a greater chi reserve to draw on when casting spells. They conceal from the population at large the fact that their new baron is a rogue mage.
  5. He must gather the resources to lay siege on Aeoven. Everything is at stake here: if he can’t defeat Alf on his home turf, Daryk will never bring Neveyah to the Bull God.

By charting his story arc, I’m laying the framework for what I will begin writing in November. Those weeks will be spent writing backstory and building Daryk’s world. I will connect Daryk’s timeline to Alf’s.

This kind of work is mind wandering, in a way. By writing this out, I am cementing Daryk and Helene’s characters and passionate commitment to their struggle in my mind.

Certain scenes showing critical information that Alf doesn’t have will be included in the final draft, but only those essential to the advancement of the plot. This is so the reader knows what is happening in the enemy’s camp.

For the reader, this knowledge raises the tension. Daryk must be shown to have a stronger position and better resources.

I intend to write about 30,000 words detailing Daryk’s story. Little of what I write will find its way into the final manuscript. My hope is that it will be there in how solidly I show these characters, their deities, and why they do what they must.

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