First, an apology. I've learned that some people were taken aback by the invitation I left on challenge entries last week. They thought that I was singling them out as someone who needed help. That was not the case--just me being a clumsy inviter. I sincerely apologize, and hope that you will continue to invite Level 1 and 2 writers to this class.
Darth Vader…the wicked witch of the west…Professor Moriarity…Inspector Javert…the evil stepmother.
It’s not too difficult to determine what these folks all have in common. They’re the bad guys, the ones who cause so much trouble for the main character of the story. In literary terms, these people are called antagonists
, and they’ve got a very important role to play.
First, a tiny bit of foundation: one of the essential elements of good fiction is conflict
. It’s conflict that draws your readers in as they search for resolution, just as your ear longs for resolution when you hear a dissonant chord. And the person who causes all that conflict is the antagonist.
Let’s start with the simplest sort of antagonist—a fellow who’s just plain bad,
whose obvious role in the story is to cause all kinds of trouble for a main character who is all good. Think of the Big Bad Wolf from the story of Little Red Riding Hood. There’s nothing subtle about that guy; he’s just BAD inside and out.
Sometimes, when you’re writing a very short story (like for the writing challenge), you don’t really have time to develop your characters, and so your antagonist will have to be like the Big Bad Wolf—total malicious intent, with no shades of gray.
I’ve got an example of this kind of antagonist—almost—in Terrorizing Rachel
. The narrator, Lisa, has almost no redeeming characteristics, and she bullies her Christian classmate mercilessly. This sort of antagonist is fairly easy to write; you don’t have to give her any nuances of emotion or of motivation. Her purpose is to provide conflict for the main character, and she does it very well.
But a simple antagonist like this is a flat character
—another literary term—a character who, unlike real people, may have only one or two personality characteristics. You can do better than that and you should, unless your audience is children, who don’t always catch nuances (although even children do better than you’d think). You’ll notice, in the story I linked to above, that even horrible Lisa had a slight change of heart toward the end.
And that’s a better kind of antagonist to write: one who is a rounded character
, with complicated motivations and nuanced emotions, one who is not all bad, just as your main character is probably not all good. This kind of character is far more interesting to read, because he or she will set up a bit of conflict not only in your story, but in your reader’s spirit. Do I root against this person? But he’s not all bad! Will he change his ways?
I wrote a sympathetic antagonist in Little One, Relax.
The little boy in this story caused tremendous conflict for his foster mother, yet no one would say that he was malicious or evil.
Obviously, there will be a continuum of degrees of evilness and sympathy for any antagonist.
Some Christian writers have a certain amount of queasiness when writing an antagonist. It’s difficult and unpleasant to put oneself into the soul of a bad person, to write that person doing sinful acts or saying sinful things.
But none of us live in a world without conflict, and your writing will feel bland and pale without it. It’s not necessary to be graphic in your descriptions of antagonists’ behaviors; practice a kind of writing that implies sin or negativity without being offensive. The antagonist in Hope, With Wings
couches her evil (and that of her godless society) in an official manner and overly-sweet speech.
An antagonist is not always a person—it may be a group of people or a society, an animal or a force of nature, one’s own self, or some supernatural being. Each of those could be a lesson in itself (and perhaps they will be, at some point).
To summarize: almost all fiction will have conflict, and therefore an antagonist. The antagonist is a person (or thing) that is acting against the main character. Most antagonists are not entirely malicious; there will be varying degrees of sympathy or goodness in them, making them more interesting for readers. The writer’s job is to write the antagonist as a rounded character with complex motivations and emotions.
You may wonder why I’ve included this lesson, which doesn’t really have a lot of practical writing suggestions. I just believe that writers need to be familiar with the particular language of writing—it will help us to be better readers, to better analyze other writers’ works, and therefore to become better writers ourselves.HOMEWORK:
1. You don’t have to post these, but think about the following books, and who (or what) the antagonist is. To Kill a Mockingbird…The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe…The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn…The Old Man and the Sea…the Harry Potter Series…the Little House on the Prairie series…Gone With the Wind…The Scarlet Letter…The Crucible.
If you have comments or questions about any of those, post them here.
2. Make a comment or ask a question in general about anything in this lesson.
3. Post a link to a challenge entry in which you had a clear antagonist, and say something about that character.A reminder that I’m always open to suggestions about new topics. Next week I’ll cover the second judging criterion for the writing challenge: creativity. Also, please spread the word about this class to any FaithWriters you may know (I especially hope to reach Level 1 and 2 writers), and feel free to join the discussion on Facebook (search for “Faithwriters Writing Lessons”).