Your good guy is only as strong as his enemy. The Authors Collection.
October 12, 2013
James R. Callan
We all work hard at making a great protagonist. We want a well rounded character who will interest the reader. In fact, one of my favorite themes is “Making memorable characters.” And most of us take that to heart – for the protagonist/
But, what about the antagonist? The first questions is, must you have one? I contend the answer is yes. What about Benchley’s Jaws? Or last week’s Gravity? The antagonist does not have to be a person. It can be an animal, a shark or a whale. The antagonist can be a force of nature. Perhaps it is a tornado, or the unrelenting sun, heat and drought. It could be a machine, as HAL in the classic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Hal was ranked as one of the top ten all-time great villains by the movie industry. The antagonist could be a virus, as in the Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton.
t can be a facet of the protagonist. Maybe the protagonist has a drinking problem, a gambling addiction, or an anger problem. Perhaps the protagonist is bipolar.
Without an antagonist, it is difficult to put in conflict. And without conflict, you have removed most options. So, let’s agree we need an antagonist.
It was the famous Lakota Indian warrior Crazy Horse who said, “You are only as strong as your enemy.” If you want a strong, memorable protagonist, you must have a strong, memorable antagonist. The antagonist must be sufficiently strong that the outcome is in doubt. Often, it appears the protagonist cannot hope to win. The antagonist is far superior in every respect. Now, you have some suspense. How can the protagonist possibly defeat this powerful opponent?
You can use this superiority to orchestrate the defeat of the antagonist. The antagonist may be more confident which can lead to overconfident. On the other hand, the protagonist may be more driven, more passionate, and perhaps forced to use unconventional resources which might catch the antagonist off guard.
In A Ton of Gold, Crystal finds herself face to face with a merciless brute of a man with a large knife. He is far superior in strength and agility, and will not hesitate to cut her throat. In her haste to move her chair back from the dinner table, the leg of the chair catches in the rug and she cannot escape. How can she survive? It seems clear she will be killed. I could have someone come to her rescue, but Crystal is the protagonist. She should save herself. And she does.
So, you need to put in the effort to make the antagonist a memorable character and you do that the same way you did for the protagonist. You make a three dimensional character. You make a bio sheet.
You recognize that, just as the protagonist is not perfect, the antagonist is not one hundred percent bad. He may visit his sick mother, set his younger brother on the right path, do something not evil. But, whatever you choose, it should be worked in naturally. It cannot look like you suddenly thought, “Oh, I need him to do something nice.”
Spend the time to make the antagonist a good character (even if he does not have good character). Create a full, three dimensional character for your antagonist. That will make your protagonist better, and improve your book.
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