by Michele Prestininzi
So … you’ve got a protagonist and you’ve done the hard work needed to give them an emotional arc. You’ve explored the exercises in Lisa Cron’s Story Genius to find the origin story of their wound. You’ve gone all Brené Brown and shown the protagonist’s vulnerability. Your main character’s emotional arc is good––really good. Your story is moving along, but there’s a nagging feeling that something is missing.
Perhaps it’s time to give that same level of attention to your antagonist.
Your antagonist can take many forms, but they all cause issues and obstacles for your protagonist. In Bullies, Bastards, & Bitches, Jessica Page Morrell advises determining what threat level your story needs to decide how villainous your antagonist needs to be. For example:
- Your antagonist threatens the protagonist’s goals and happiness.
- Your villain threatens the protagonist’s safety, life, sanity, and possibly other characters.
- Your supervillain threatens the protagonist’s life, other characters, and the story world.
Whether your antagonist is a sympathetic bully or a frightening malevolence spreading fear and uncertainty (e.g., wars, forest fires, global pandemic?), antagonists keep your protagonist away from what they desire the most.
But they do so much more. Here are four ways these unsung heroes can strengthen your story:
- Antagonists take a universal primal fear and give it form. Who’s afraid of monsters in the dark, of being betrayed or abandoned, or of losing a loved one? Me! But thanks to antagonists who have given these fears form (think evil stepmothers, Death Eaters, Hannibal Lectors,) I can confront these fears through the pages of a story on the safety of my couch. Check out Flannery O’Connor’s book Mysteries and Manners to learn more.
- Antagonists create structure for the story. Without obstacles for your protagonist to overcome, your Act 2 would be very short, not to mention sleepy. Author and blogger K. M. Weiland argues to put your antagonist in charge of your plot. What?? Not after you spent so much time crafting your main character’s journey! (says me.) But Weiland has a point. If your MC is going to change in the story, then you need the antagonist to be the force of that change. Tracey Baptiste’s middle grade novel Rise of the Jumbies is a strong example of antagonists structuring the plot.
- Antagonists create tension and suspense. (Jaws, anyone?) Tension is created when the reader cares for the main character. Antagonists are the perfect catalyst because their actions fuel our empathy for the main character and create a connection between the reader and the main character. Will Cruella De Vil kill the dalmatians? Will the Death Eaters destroy Harry Potter? Will the cannibalistic Hannibal Lector eat Clarise? No. But I was filled with angst and worry for these characters until the end of the story.
- Antagonists create the opportunity for protagonists to be their best selves. (And really, what’s better than that?) Author and educator Mark Karlins argues we should be grateful to antagonists because they give our protagonists a chance to shine. They force our main characters to stretch beyond what they thought possible to discover what they’re truly made of. After all, where would Harry Potter be if not for Voldemort? Or Clarise without Hannibal Lector? Or Pongo and Perdita without Cruella De Vil?
Regardless of how sinister, antagonists are essential to moving your story forward.
If you’d like to take a deep dive into the world of antagonists, join me for the three-week workshop Character Deep Dive: Antagonists, which runs Thursdays, April 15 – 29, from 9 to 11 a.m.