Part of why I am writing this series on the antagonist is that most new writers don’t understand 1.) how vital the antagonist is, 2) how to properly use the antagonist and 3) often cannot spot an antagonist if he were dressed like a Vegas showgirl holding sparklers (okay, maybe that last one was just me).
As we discussed last week, the antagonist is the engine of our story. No antagonist, and no story. The main antagonist, I like to call the Big Boss Troublemaker. Read last Monday’s post for more. The BBT Antagonist is who or what upsets the course of the protagonist’s life and sets the story in motion, dragging your protag over the main narrative points until he is tenderized enough to stand on his own two feet and fight the Big Boss Battle at the end.
Ah, but some of you are going to try to cheat.
“But my protagonist and antagonist are the same. He is his own worst enemy…”
Hey, I tried it too. Then Bob Mayer popped me on the snoot and told me to “Give.” Grudgingly I spit out my half-ass attempt at an antagonist and curled up in my crate to think of a new antag.
The funny thing was I had been on the editing side for YEARS. I, of all people should have known better. The problem was that I understood my craft on a gut level. I didn’t understand it in a “nuts and bolts” fashion…which is why I began this blog almost two years ago. I have read almost every top craft book from the best teachers in the industry and I use Monday blogs to share what I have learned on my own journey of Death Star Fiction Editor to Fiction Author.
Back to the cop out, “Oh, she is her own worst enemy….”
Yeah, sorry. That is a character arc, not an antagonist.
Virtually any protagonist who displays a character arc is his or her own worst enemy in the beginning of our story. The Inciting Incident is whatever action the BBT Antagonist takes that sets the story in motion. It is through this journey of escalating conflict that our little protag will hopefully—with the help of mentors, allies and lots of soul-testing conflict—pull his head out of his a$$ and stop being a moron long enough to triumph at the end.
In the beginning of the new Star Trek movie, Captain James T. Kirk is a power-drinking adrenalin junkie who gets in fights and is wasting his brilliant mind and talents. Without the Inciting Incident—the fight at the bar with members of Star Fleet Academy—he would have continued drinking and racing around on his crotch rocket until he was just an old guy with male pattern baldness driving around with his growing beer gut stuffed in crotch rocket leathers.
Who is the antagonist? Well, the BBT is Nero. But in the scene after the bar fight, the antagonist is actually Captain Christopher Pike who throws down the gauntlet that will forever change Kirk’s life. Pike challenges Kirk to actually make something of himself and to use his God-given talents for something better. Come to Star Fleet Academy.
Come join Star Fleet. I dare ya! I triple-dog dare ya!
How is Pike the antagonist? Because his wants are in direct conflict with Kirk. Remember Bob Mayer’s Conflict Lock (for more, seriously go buy Bob’s book):
Kirk wants to power drink and feel sorry for himself and jet down a road to self-destruction on his shiny bike.
Pike wants Kirk to sober up and channel his destructive behavior into something productive–like living up to his father’s legacy.
Captain Pike is the character that induces CHANGE…ergo, the antagonist.
Without this CHANGE, Kirk cannot face off against Nero at the end.
I know that every time we talk about the antagonist, we get the “Oh, but my character is her own worst enemy.” Okay, we know that. That’s called arc. But unless your character is a loser at the end of the book, too, there is an antagonist driving that change.
In the beginning of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, the Hobbits are their own worst enemy. Merry and Pippin are like trying to take Gilligan on a covert Special Forces operation to take out Bin Laden.
Half the tension of the first movie comes from Merry and Pippin nearly getting everyone slaughtered. They steal from the farmer, and while running, send the whole crew tumbling down the hillside practically into the path of the Dark Rider. Then at the Prancing Pony, they all but hang a bull’s-eye on Frodo.
When they escape intact from the trauma at the inn, these two idiots get the “bright” idea to light a fire to make a late night snack, basically sending off a beacon to the bad guys. Samwise is right there enjoying the campfire with them. And, yes, bad guys do show up and are really grateful for the fire to lead them directly to their target. Frodo is nearly killed when he is stabbed in the shoulder with an enchanted blade.
Merry and Pippin, in effect are not only allies, but they’re antagonists, too because it is their antics that stand in direct opposition to Frodo and Samwise achieving their goals (stay hidden from Sauron and make it safely to Rivendell). It is also their shenanigans that will eventually harden Frodo and Samwise.
Naïveté is a luxury Fordo and Samwise can no longer afford in this threatened world. They cannot be innocent and naïve little Hobbits if they hope to make it to Mount Doom. If they are going to sneak past the Black Gate, they cannot be the type of heroes who light a fire to have a snack.
We see their character progression in the final scene of the movie (which ALWAYS makes me cry, btw). The four Hobbits—Frodo, Samwise, Merry and Pippin—are sitting in the tavern having a beer. In the background the happy, childlike Hobbits dance and sing, unaware of the darkness that nearly won. Merry, Pippin, Samwise and Frodo now are battle-weary war veterans, and it is clear from the grief etched forever in their features, that they sacrificed their innocence so the other Hobbits could keep theirs.
Tolkein layers antagonists brilliantly. Let’s revisit the action I mentioned a minute ago. Right after the turning point into Act II:
Frodo and Samwise want to make it to the Prancing Pony to meet Gandalf.
Merry and Pippin want to escape from an angry farmer.
Result: These two goals are in conflict. Frodo and Samwise end up rolling down a hill with Merry and Pippin nearly into the path of the BBT (Sauron’s) emissary…the Black Rider.
Sauron is not corporeal BUT we face off against his emissaries over and over until the climactic scene. The heroes fight Sauron over and over through other scene antagonists like the Black Rider, the Uruk-Hai, Saruman, etc. This story is like a giant chess board. The goal for the Hobbits is to topple the Black King but to do this, they must outwit, outmaneuver, and defeat the pawns, rooks, bishops, knights…peeling back the layers of the BBT’s defenses.
This applies even in the world of literary fiction. To make things easier, I will go with a movie example.
One of my favorite movies of all time is that Academy Award-winning drama Gran Torino with Clint Eastwood. Clint plays Walt Kowalski, a Polish-American factory worker and Korean War veteran who is recently widowed. Walt is not a nice person. He is angry, mean, bigoted, and holds everyone at an emotional distance. We find out over the course of the movie that this is, in large part, due to the guilt he feels for the things he had to do in Korea.
Walt is forced to ally with someone he hates in order to take out a gang that is terrorizing the neighborhood. This battle will force Walt to face the darkest aspects of his character.
For instance, he must come to grips with the self-centered brats he fathered by being emotionally absent.
But back to the main plot…
By Walt allying with Thao (Toad), his emotional walls must be broken down in order for Walt to take out the entire gang at the end of the movie. The sacrifice Walt makes at the end would not have happened had Walt not changed from the mean-spirited self-centered racist he was at the beginning of the movie. How do we know Walt has triumphed against himself? His selfless action at the end. The people he despised at the beginning are now his only family, and he freely gives up everything to save them.
The gang, however is the BBT. Had they not started picking on Walt’s Korean neighbor, Thao, it is likely Walt would have died an angry bitter man with lung cancer and not a friend or a loved one in the world.
Our protagonist may be his own worst enemy, but even in literary pieces there will be an outside force that drives change (BBT), and there will be a final event to demonstrate this change is complete. Your character might be an alcoholic on a road to redemption, but there is an outside story that drives that change, and a BBT who started it all.
I know that makes your mind cramp, but if your protag is a self-destructive alcoholic, his Big Boss Troublemaker is whoever takes away his booze.
Not only will you have a BBT, but likely there will be a series of antagonists to keep the momentum going and force the change. If your protag wants to drink, then the person who throws a bucket of ice water on him and drags his sorry tail to AA is your antagonist…because their goals conflict.
There will also be a scene at the end to cue us the change is complete. Ie. Alcoholic father walks his daughter down the aisle at her wedding (a wedding he was banned from attending in the beginning by the BBT ex-wife).
A character analyzing his emotions and indulging in lots of flashbacks is therapy…not fiction. Great fiction has forward action and is comprised of a series of events that force the protagonist to change so he can triumph at the end.
So does this help you guys understand the antagonist better? Have questions? Comments? Any recommendations? What are some dramatic movies you love and who was the BBT?
I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of March, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end on March I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.
Until next time…
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