Posts Tagged understanding the antagonist
My friend Piper Bayard is away for a few days and she asked me to pick up the Apocalypse Torch for the week. It is so tempting to write more about zombies and Kardashebola or Sharknado and maybe we will. But, today, we are going to talk about the apocalypse—what it is and what it means for really great writing.
When we hear the word “apocalypse” we think of doomsday prophesies, Mayan predictions, global catastrophes, and Mad Max movies. It conjures images of the end of the world. Yet, if we look to the original Greek word, an apocalypse, ἀποκάλυψις apocálypsis, from ἀπό and καλύπτω meaning ‘un-covering’, translated literally from Greek, is a disclosure of knowledge, i.e., a lifting of the veil or revelation (via Wikipedia).
When it comes to writing a great novel, the apocalypse must be present externally (plot) as well as internally (character growth). The story problem, created by the antagonist, is what provides the crucible that leads to change. There is an unveiling on two levels. First, the solution to the story problem (unveiled over time) and secondly, the protagonist has an opportunity to grow from regular person to hero.
Protagonists Need Baggage to Become Heroes
Most of us have done this. We begin with the uber-perfect protagonist. She is beautiful, speaks twenty languages and saves kittens in her spare time…and she’s utterly boring. Why? First, we can’t relate since most of us are far from perfect.
But why the uber-perfect character is dull is there is no room for an apocalypse. There is nothing to shake her out of the stupor of existing and introduce her to living. There is nothing personally at stake because there are no fears to face. A fully-evolved character has no room to GROW.
An apocalypse is most interesting when there is massive change we witness. For instance, if a tornado hits a junkyard, it just rearranges the existing mess. But when it wipes out half of Joplin, Missouri? We are moved and emotional because change is on such a large scale.
Now reverse this. If our character is too perfect to begin with, when the apocalypse happens….eh *shrugs*.
In Normal World our characters flaws are working for him, or so he believes. It’s the story problem that reveals the error of his thinking, that there is more inside him than he believes. The more baggage a character is carrying, the more interesting the transformation.
One of my favorite examples of this is Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer. Mickey Haller is a sleaze bag defense attorney who operates out of the back of a Lincoln Continental. He defends the worst of the worst because nothing frightens him as much as representing a truly innocent man. The guy is a total bottom-feeder who knows how to manipulate the justice system. But what happens when he comes face-to-face with real evil? Can he live with who he is?
Now, if Mickey Haller was a crusader who’d been fighting for justice since he was a small boy playing Superman in between earning badges as a Boy Scout? Boring. But a guy who defends drug dealers, murderers and pimps and can still sleep at night? The guy with no apparent conscience? THAT is an interesting character and one ripe for an apocalypse.
In The Lincoln Lawyer, not only does the story unveil an evil unimaginable, but it also unveils the most unlikely of heroes. The person who’s always been perfect to defend the bad guy now is the only one who can take him out.
Picking the Perfect Story Problem
This is one of the reasons we discussed beginning with the antagonist first this past Friday. If we begin with the antagonist and then create the story problem, it becomes far easier to envision the flawed protagonist who is the perfect guy or gal to solve the problem (and know precisely how this character must grow along the way).
When it comes to The Lincoln Lawyer, who better to destroy true evil than the guy whose been making a fortune defending evil? What is the threshold that causes someone as low as Mickey Haller to change? And since he believes he’s a slime ball, what can happen to change this internal belief so that, in the end, Mickey rises to be a hero?
Another great example is Ree Dolly in Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. Ree lives in the trailer park and has no interest in her future. She’s too locked in the hell that is her present. Unlike Mickey Haller, Ree is a good person. She takes care of a mentally ill mother and two much younger siblings, living hand-to-mouth while her father is in and out of prison for cooking meth.
What is her flaw? She keeps her head down and doesn’t make waves.
There is an unspoken rule in hillbilly culture. Family is everything. Never turn on family. But what happens when family turns out to be the enemy? When Ree’s father doesn’t show up for court, Ree finds out he put up their home and the land it sits on as part of his bond. She must find her father—dead or alive—to save her mom and siblings from losing everything. Yet, to find her father she’ll have to take on the most terrifying adversary of all…her own family.
She can no longer keep her head down and get by. She has to make waves. For Ree, this is a personal apocalypse.
But again, notice how creating the antagonist/story problem reveals who the protagonist is and the precise way to create a hero. We begin with a hillbilly culture, steeped in secrets, and pit one of their own against them. The conflict is deep, intimate, ugly, personal and all the right ingredients for an award-winning story.
I am running an on-line class this Friday about antagonists. Use the WANA15 code for 15% off and the class is recorded if the time doesn’t work for you.
If your story isn’t moving, you’re stuck, plotting is making you want to OD on brownies, it might just be you need to alter or strengthen your antagonist. We will also talk about scene antagonists to keep the momentum increasing in your novel.
What are your thoughts? Questions? What are your favorite character apocalypses from books or movies? Why did they inspire you? Do you use these to inspire your writing?
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of July, 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. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
NOTE: My prior two books are no longer for sale, but I am updating them and will re-release. My new book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE.
Today I wanted to take some time to talk about the antagonist. Why? Well, not only is the antagonist THE most important character, but he is the most misunderstood as well. In fact, that is part of the reason I am teaching a class about understanding the antagonist at the DFW Writers Workshop Conference this next month. I hope you guys will sign up ASAP. This conference has a history of selling out. It is a FABULOUS conference and the keynote this year is a dear friend of mine, NYTBSA James Rollins. Not only is Jim an amazing author, but he is probably one of the finest people I’ve ever met.
But back to the antagonist…
Whenever I blog about the antagonist, I generally get one of the following:
“Well, my character is the antagonist. She is her own worst enemy.”
“What if my antagonist is nature?”
“But my antagonist is a belief system.”
Most of the time, comments like these are a red flag to me that the writer doesn’t truly understand the role of the story antagonist, or what I like to call the Big Boss Troublemaker. And this is okay, because I believe the antagonist is not only the most vital role, but it is also the most difficult to understand.
He is His Own Worst Enemy
Just to be clear, virtually all protagonists, at the beginning of the story are their own worst enemies. That is called character arc. If properly plotted, all protagonists would fail if pitted against the story antagonist in Act One.
Luke would never have bested Darth if the showdown would have happened on Tattoine, minutes after his aunt and uncle were murdered. Luke was his own worst enemy. He was angry, grieving, reckless and untrained. If a protag starts out with his act together, then this is called boring fiction. The protagonist needs room to grow into the hero. It is the growth that makes great stories.
The Engine of the Story
Conflict is the core ingredient to fiction, even literary fiction. Conflict in any novel can have many faces and often you will hear this referred to as the antagonist. The antagonist is absolutely essential for fiction. He/she/it is the engine of your story. No engine, and no forward momentum. Like cars, plots need momentum or they are dead.
The antagonist provides the energy to move the story forward. Antagonists generate genuine drama. No antagonist, and we get the crazy, unpredictable cousin of drama known as melodrama.
Yet, the antagonist has many, many faces and that is what trips up most new writers.
Not All Antagonists are Villains
Think of your antagonist like ice cream–infinite colors, flavors, and complexities. The antagonist is not always evil. Villains are only a flavor of antagonist, much like chocolate is only one flavor of ice cream. And, even in chocolate, there are still limitless varieties. Guess what? Same with villains. We’ll talk about them later.
Today we are going to talk about the two primary types of antagonists. There is the scene antagonist and there is the overall story antagonist, or what I like to call The Big Boss Troublemaker (BBT). Why? Because the term antagonist confused the hell out of me for years, so I decided to make things simple.
The Scene Antagonist
The scene antagonist is fairly simple. In every scene there needs to be a character that offers some form of opposition. Think of your novel as a machine. Each character is a cog that moves the machine and creates momentum. How do cogs move? Another cog must move the opposite direction. A cog with no opposition is a spinning, useless part incapable of providing any forward momentum.
If we are trapped in a theme park that has been overrun by dinosaurs, some member of the party will want to fight and some will want to flee and likely everyone will argue about the precise way to fight or flee.
There will always be a character who wants something different than the protagonist. Whatever this character wants stands in the way of the protagonist’s goal. Each scene goal is like a subgoal to solving the overall story problem. Thus, when the protag is kept from completing subgoals, the overall goal is, by extension, in jeopardy. This jeopardy is what makes readers tense.
Why is this important?
When editing, we must make sure we can look at every scene and say what the goal of that scene is. Then, ask ourselves, “Who is standing in the way?” Characters thinking and pondering does not a scene make. That is called a sequel. To learn more about scene and sequel, I highly recommend Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure.
One bad situation after another is not conflict. It is wash, rinse, repeat. This is the stuff of bad action movies, not great page-turning fiction.
The scene antagonist is vital, but the most important type of antagonist is what I like to call the BBT—-or, Big Boss Troublemaker. For long-time followers of this blog, we have talked about the BBT before. So this will be a refresher. We never get so good that we can’t use a dose of the basics.
As we’d already discussed, every scene in your book should have an antagonist, but no BBT and you have no story. Your opposition is the most important ingredient for a great story readers will love.
Introducing the Big Boss Troublemaker
The Big Boss Troublemaker is whoever or whatever causes the protagonist’s world to turn upside down. The BBT creates the overall story problem that must be solved by the end of Act III. This is also who or what must be present at the Big Boss Battle.
In Finding Nemo, the Big Boss Troublemaker was Darla the Fish-Killer. Though we only see Darla a few minutes out of the entire movie, it is her agenda that creates the problem. If Darla wanted a kitten for her birthday, little Nemo would have been safe at home. It is also Darla’s propensity to kill her fish that creates the ticking clock in the race to save Nemo.
The Stronger Your BBT, the Better
In the beginning, your protagonist should be weak. If pitted against the BBT, your protag would be toast…or actually more like jelly that you smear across the toast.
One of the biggest problems I have with new writers is they shy away from conflict. New writers tend to water down the opposition. This is natural. As humans, we really don’t like a lot of conflict…unless you happen to be a regular on the Jerry Springer Show.
It is natural to not like conflict, but good fiction is the path of greatest resistance. The bigger the problem, the better the challenge and thus the greater the hero. When we begin our story, the best stories are when we look at the opposition and ask, “How can the protag ever defeat this thing?’
A fantastic example of this. Go watch the movie, The Darkest Hour. I spent over 2/3 of the movie wondering how on earth humans would survive, let alone have a fighting chance. This movie was terrifying, not because of a lot of blood and gore, but rather because the opposition was so overwhelming it seemed there was no hope of winning. I’ll warn you that the movie is frightening, so those who dare can check out the trailer here. The trailer alone is enough to show what I’m talking about.
The BBT doesn’t have to be terrifying, but he/she/it must be powerful. Think of Rocky. If his big fight was against the band nerd from three flats down, it would make for a lousy story/movie.
What About When the BBT is Not a Person?
Remember high school literature?
Man against man.
Man against nature.
Man against himself.
Ah, but this is where writers can get into trouble. Just because the BBT is not a person, does not mean the BBT will not work through a person. Humans don’t do so great with existentialism, which is why proxies are often so helpful.
For instance, in the 1984 movie Footloose, religious fundamentalism that forbids dancing is the BBT but religious fundamentalism that forbids dancing is represented by the town’s Bible-thumping minister (who also happens to be the father of the love-interest). Talk about conflict!
We will talk more about this next week.
Okay, well that’s enough for today. Need to stop before your brains all explode and then you have to clean up your keyboard. The antagonist is tough, and hopefully this series will break its complex nature down in to bite-size, manageable pieces.
What are some of your all-time favorite BBTs? What made them so awesome? What are your biggest problems with the antagonist? What do you find confusing? What books or resources helped you? Any recommendations?
I LOVE hearing from you!
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of April, 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 of April 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’ve been having technical problems lately and am in the middle of rebuilding my web site. Also, my toddler has had an allergic reaction to something and he is home sick, which is slowing me down.
Thus, I am a tad behind and there were so many comments last week I need a bit more time, so I will announce on Wednesday. Thanks for your patience!
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