Antagonists, and Antagonistic Forces
What is an antagonist? In grade school it was simple enough. The protagonist was the good guy, and therefore, by default, the antagonist was the bad guy. Good vs. Evil. Good triumphs over evil. End of story—right? Boring. So, to create a greater range of drama storytellers went and muddled up the idea of what an antagonist to broaden the range of conflict in narrative.
“Know your enemy,” is a saying derived from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. The proverb extends beyond a statement as simple as, “know your enemy,” but for the sake of discussion I will concentrate on this aspect of the expression. Know your enemy and know your antagonist. How do you expect to win over the heart of your readers if you don’t establish a strong enough conflict? If you want your reader to care about the protagonist overcoming adversity and resolving the conflict, than show a character, an anti-hero, who cares as much as the protagonist, if not more so, to achieve a goal in stark contrast to that of the hero.
During this discussion we will define what an antagonist or an antagonistic force is and deconstruct the motivations of the opposition. We will be able to approach the root of the conflict in each category. We will learn how to not only overcome adversity, but how to sustain a reader’s attention beyond the common story setup and repeated narrative themes.
The 5 ultimate conflict types
To reflect modern gender neutral terminology, the traditional man vs. man descriptions and the like have been replaced.
Person vs. Person
This is the most common conflict. Cowboys vs. Indians, Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader, Lt. Ellen Ripley vs. the zenomorph (notice how I didn’t use a Disney princess and instead chose the most bad-ass female protagonist in all of Sci-fi action movies Alien—at least in my opinion)
Person vs. Self
This type of conflict is an internal one. Joseph Campbell has written many works about the role of heroes in myths and religions by comparing stories from around the world. Joseph Campbell concluded that one of the hero’s first steps to finding herself or himself and becoming the hero is to face, and overcome an existential crisis before gathering the strength to defeat the larger external conflict of the main protagonist. But, many stories do deal with the core theme of person vs. self. As an example, in my own book, The Prick of Time, John, the central character is wrestling with his own demons of addiction, morality, ego and mortality.
Person vs. Nature
This is a story of survival, whether it be a blizzard in the woods, a volcano in Pompeii or, just plain weather. Apocalyptic tales about earthquakes and climate change have become a staple of summer movie blockbusters in the last forty years. No doubt the trend will continue as long as CGI, 3-D and surround sound supplement the story. Audiences continue watching millions of desperate computer generated humans being destroyed with a sick sense of pseudo-sadism to escape the mundane.
Person vs. God
Sometimes the hero will be encountering fate or even God himself. These stories aren’t so much about defeating the antagonistic—I mean, how could they—but more about coming to terms with certain unalienable truths and surrendering to the idea.
Person vs. Society
These stories are about a conflict with the status quo. It’s not any one antagonist causing trouble, it’s just how things are done. Stories like these typically take place in an urban environment. Whether the society is dystopian or utopian, the common elements are a societal structure that is oppressive or perceived to be by the protagonist. Everyone stands in the way of the protagonist, but not everyone is at fault.
There are several subdivisions of the five conflict archetypes that fall into several categories like person vs. animal, person vs. technology, and person vs. supernatural.
Of the five major conflict types we are going to delve into the more common of the types: person vs. person. This is a good starting point because these enemies are human and easier to define than say a snow storm or the grandeur of God. Also, by dissecting the themes of person vs. person, you can relate some points of contention to the other main conflict types. You can find parallel themes by anthropomorphizing the conflicts of mere mortals using metaphors and similes.
First I’ll start by saying that we are all judgmental. We are human; it’s what we do. Recognize that you—as a writer—are blinded by your own judgements, and tend to discriminate because of your previous conceptions of persons, places, things and ideas. If you envision your antagonist as a bad guy, then you’ve already put the character in a box that they can never escape. You will write that character insincerely from a place of your own judgement.
These are some tips that I use on occasion to help me when writing an antagonistic character. So what makes a strong antagonist?
- A strong antagonist is motivated to act. They are trying to accomplish something. Whether it be an evil plan or upholding the status quo, a strong antagonist wants to gain something, has a goal to achieve, and has a plan meet their needs.
- A strong antagonist has a strong personal desire. Greed, personal demons or an affinity to violence or maintaining power, they posses a plan to meet their goals.
- A strong antagonist is compelling. They have a soul. They are flawed and have something to hide. They are avoiding something. By making an antagonist likable you make them relatable. An antagonist you love to hate because you can relate is the best antagonist. We as humans tend to dislike viewing our own flaws mirrored by another.
- A strong antagonist is adaptable. A strong antagonist is cunning and learns from the protagonists actions. As the antagonist continues to create conflict by always being one step ahead, the protagonist will be forced to overcome their own certain limitations and grow beyond them.
- A strong antagonist is in the path of the protagonist’s goal. Without the dynamic of two characters with personal goals is direct opposition to each other, than you have a weak conflict, an insufficient plot, and a reader lost after forty pages.
- A strong antagonist is not over excessively capable. If your character is indestructible or impossibly intelligent it overshadows the protagonist and eliminates hope.
- A strong antagonist is not dumb or incapable. An easily defeated antagonist is boring. There has to be thought before action; action before reaction; conflict before antagonism.
- A strong antagonist thinks like a protagonist. The best antagonist doesn’t know they are the bad guy. In fact they imagine they are a good guy, but like the old adage goes: the road to hell is paved in good intentions. I don’t agree with a man like Hitler in any way, but I sometimes wonder how well he slept at night. Hitler probably assumed he was doing a good thing. Hitler saw himself as a world changer. He considered himself a power for good to rid society of “disease.” Yes, Hitler was bad, but he didn’t think so.
- A strong antagonist is not evil for evil sake. A strong antagonist doesn’t wake up one morning and say, “hey, I feel like doing some damage today.” A simply evil character is boring and one dimensional. The world is complex. What is good and bad is almost never clear. Even the greatest good is bad on some level and vice versa. Your antagonist should be forced to make emotional decisions and be defined by their choices.
Understand what type of conflict you are writing: person vs. person, person vs. self, person vs. nature, person vs. God, or person vs. society. Once you figure out the points of contention then you gain a foundation on which to build a strong antagonist.
If an antagonist reminds the reader of someone they know or of themselves and a situation they were in, you have a strong protagonist. If the reader is trying to guess the next move of the antagonist because the antagonist is clever and capable of a well played rouse, you have a strong antagonist. If you have an antagonist whose goals are so grandiose that the protagonist views the journey as an insurmountable task, you are on your way to a compelling antagonist.
What makes your antagonist gripping and jump off the page? What makes your antagonistic force give your reader a lump in their throat? What makes your antagonist just like you?
If you liked this article I suggest you check out Fiction University at JaniceHardy.com. The blog contains many articles on the craft of writing, the toils of publishing, and the lifestyle of an author.
Another good article to check out for the Authors Nook