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The Most Important Character: The Antagonist
#7 GUEST POST BY AUTHOR MIKE FARRIS
The most important character in your story is the antagonist.
Now wait a minute! Didn’t I say before that the protagonist is the person who drives the story? So wouldn’t that make the protagonist the most important character? Well, yeah, I suppose I did say the former and implied the latter. But, after all, I’m a lawyer, so it’s my privilege to take different positions on the same issue. But that doesn’t make my assertion above any less a true statement.
Why? Well, the antagonist, by definition, is the character—or thing (see discussion below as to what I mean by “thing”)—who stands in the way of your hero. That means that the protagonist will be defined by the antagonist. I’ve heard it said that we are measured by who our enemies are. There’s a lot of truth to that. In the same way, our protagonists will be measured by who their antagonists are. The bigger, badder, smarter, meaner, faster the antagonists are, the bigger, badder, smarter, meaner, faster the protagonists must be to overcome them. The bigger the obstacles that are placed in the protagonist’s way, the more he or she must reach down deep inside and pull out that depth of character to overcome them. The more they are tested in the fire, the stronger they become.
For example, in the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Butch and Sundance are outlaws, train and bank robbers to be precise. Even though they’re “bad guys,” at least as far as the law is concerned, they are the characters driving the story, so they are the protagonists. But they have triggered the ire of the head of the Union Pacific railroad, who hires a posse, which includes a renowned Indian tracker, Lord Baltimore, and is headed by a lawman named Joe Lafors.
Lafors strikes fear into Butch and Sundance. No matter what they do, the posse continues to track them, leading to the famous line of dialogue: “Who are those guys?” At the end, when Butch and Sundance are trapped in a village in Bolivia, surrounded by what seems to be the entire Bolivian army, Butch is relieved that Lafors is not among their pursuers. He tells Sundance that if Lafors were there, then they’d really be in trouble. The line is delivered tongue- in-cheek, of course, but it is reflective of how overwhelming that antagonist is to the heroes.
So, yeah, the antagonist is your most important character because the antagonist determines who or what your protagonist, the other most important character, really is. They can also be the most fun characters to create. They allow you a measure of freedom because you don’t have many of the same restraints you have in creating protagonists. The temptation, though, is to create antagonists who are so villainous and so evil that they come across as cartoonish. Avoid that temptation at all costs. Instead, strive to create interesting, even sympathetic antagonists.
Here are some things to remember when creating your antagonists:
The antagonist is the protagonist in his own movie. Brilliant! So what does that
mean? It means that everything you have to think about that goes into creating your protagonist – three dimensions, motivations, arc, etc. – should also go into creating your antagonist. Remember that your antagonist has a point of view. If you can create even a glimmer of insight into that point of view, you go a long way toward humanizing the antagonist. Give them personalities, intellect, viewpoints, and you make them more interesting.
Antagonists don’t have to be villains. Oh really? Yeah, really. An antagonist is anyone or anything that stands in the way of your protagonist achieving his or her goals in the story. How about a young woman who wants to be a professional soccer star? Who’s gonna stand in her way? Well, in the movie Bend It Like Beckham, it’s her loving family, who want only the best for her. They’re not villainous, but simply have a different point of view that puts them at odds with their beloved daughter. Or do you want to break up your best friend’s wedding so you can marry him, instead? Who stands in your way? If you’re Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding, it’s sweet, lovable Cameron Diaz who’s about to marry Dermot Mulroney. That’s right; the most likeable character in the movie is the antagonist, because she’s the obstacle to the protagonist’s goal.
For another example, let’s go back to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Remember, Lafors and the posse are on the side of the law, while Butch and Sundance rob banks and trains. That means that Lafors and his posse, although antagonistic to our heroes, are ostensibly the good guys; it’s Butch and Sundance who are the outlaws.
Antagonists don’t have to be human. In the book and movie The Perfect Storm, three storm systems collide to prevent our heroes from returning successfully from a fishing trip. And it’s not just a storm; because of the combination, it’s the mother of all storms. It is the perfect storm. In the novel and movie Jaws, Chief Brody wants nothing more than to keep his town, Amity, safe for the summer tourist season. What stands in his way (other than a meddling town council, a minor antagonist)? A shark. And not just any shark – a Great White Shark. And not just any Great White Shark – a twenty-five foot Great White Shark. See what I mean about antagonists not having to be human? Not to mention how this illustrates examples of bigger, badder, better antagonists?
Antagonists can change. Jaws is a great example of changing antagonists. At the start of the story, Chief Brody wants to protect the town from the shark, but it’s the mayor and the town council, backed by all the merchants in town, who stand in his way. They want to keep the beaches open because they depend upon summer tourists and those tourist dollars. They’re not bad people, they’re just concerned about finances. But they’re antagonists because they stand in Brody’s way. When it’s time to set out after the shark, there’s another little antagonist that rears its head. Chief Brody is afraid of the water – and now he has to go to sea on a tiny little fishing boat. Then, finally, the biggest, baddest antagonist is that twenty-five foot shark.
In the novel and movie Deliverance, the antagonist starts as deviant mountain men, but soon morphs into the raging rapids our heroes have to navigate to get to safety. As with The Perfect Storm, Mother Nature, herself, dons the black hat.
As the story evolves, so, too, can your antagonist.
• Antagonists don’t have to be tangible. In the novels and movies To Kill a Mockingbird and A Time to Kill, our intrepid heroes Atticus Finch and Jake Brigance, respectively, must come to grips with institutional racism in their small southern towns. A Time to Kill puts a face on it in the form of the Ku Klux Klan, while Mockingbird personalizes it in the form of an alleged rape victim, Mayella Ewell, and her father Bob, plus an all-white jury. But make no mistake, the actual antagonist is racism. In the movie Braveheart, it’s an oppressive political system. Tough opponents, indeed.
These are just a few things to keep in mind when creating your antagonists. After all, as someone once said, they’re the most important characters in your stories.