The Antagonist

This is the week of Milestone Friday for us at Life List Club. We’ll all be posting our regular blogs between now and then, but Friday’s blogs will be devoted to reports on our progress toward our goals.

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If you ask the typical layman who the most important person in a story is, he would probably say the hero, or protagonist. A lot of writers would say that, too. Until we got into Warrior Writers’ Boot Camp, yours truly would have been among them.

We would have been wrong. The protagonist is the person we want our readers to love and identify with. He or she is the person we want the reader to pull for—the person we all want to see win. But the protagonist does not drive the story.

That’s the job of the antagonist. His or her agenda is at cross purposes with that of our protagonist, and that is where the conflict comes in.

When we first began talking about antagonists at WWBC, we all had the idea this person had to be a mass murderer or serial rapist—or at least the guy in the old movies who always tied the heroine to the railroad tracks. Had to have a skinny handlebar moustache and skulk around going “Bwa-ha-ha!” in an evil voice.

Not so. An antagonist can be Adolph Hitler or John Wayne Gacy or the Unibomber, but he doesn’t have to be. An antagonist is simply the person whose agenda conflicts with that of the protagonist, causing the conflict that drives the story.

In the movie Double Jeopardy Ashly Judd is the protagonist. She was framed by her husband to take the fall for killing him. Knowing she was innocent, she figured he wasn’t really dead, and when she was paroled from prison she set out to try to find him and either exonerate herself or kill him.

Tommy Lee Jones is the antagonist. He’s not a serial killer or anything like that. He’s her parole officer. When she violates her parole, he goes after her. Not a bad guy—just a man doing a legitimate job. But his job is at cross-purposes with Judd’s agenda, which makes him the antagonist and creates the conflict driving the story.

In the movie You’ve Got Mail Meg Ryan is the protagonist. She owns a small independent bookstore and just wants to run her own business and maybe find love.

Tom Hanks, the antagonist, is not a villain. He just happens to run a family-owned chain of bookstores that puts independents out of business whenever it comes into a neighborhood. When he begins exchanging emails with Meg Ryan, he has no nefarious scheme in mind. He’s also seeking love, just like she is. Two basically good guys with conflicting agendas that drive a good story.

Your antagonist may be a thoroughly despicable criminal, like Alan Arkin in Wait Until Dark, or Patrick McGoohan in Silver Streak, but he or she doesn’t have to be. All that’s needed is that the antagonist must have a goal or purpose that keeps the protagonist from achieving his or her goal.

Since our antagonist is the driving force of the story—the one that makes the reader continue to turn pages—we need to be careful in designing his or her character. No room for playing by ear here.

Remember those seven novels I told you about? The ones the publishing industry failed to snap up and turn into mega-million sellers? Want to know how I built my antagonist in those stories? I didn’t.

That’s right. I didn’t. I just sat down and began to write the stories, giving little or no thought to what kind of people my characters were. I ended up with plastic, one-dimentional characters who all looked, acted and sounded like me.

To avoid making this blog too long, we’ll wait until next week to talk about how to build an antagonist with his or her own character traits. Someone with his or her own distinct personality, who doesn’t look just like you or like your other characters.

Have a good week, and we’ll meet again next Monday.

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About David N. Walker

David N. Walker is a Christian husband, father and grandfather, a grounded pilot and a near-scratch golfer who had to give up the game because of shoulder problems. A graduate of Duke University, he spent 42 years in the health insurance industry, during which time he traveled much of the United States. He started writing about 20 years ago and has been a member and leader in several writers' groups. Christianity 101: The Simplified Christian Life, the devotional Heaven Sent and the novella series, Fancy, are now available in paperback and in Kindle and Nook formats, as well as through Smashwords and Kobo. See information about both of these by clicking "Books" above.
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12 Responses to The Antagonist

  1. Pingback: Your Health! « Kate Wood's Blog

  2. hawleywood40 says:

    This is so very true, David! An interesting experience I’ve had with reading the Song of Ice and Fire Series is that certain characters end up both antagonist and protagonist. Each chapter is told from a different character’s point of view, so you are often seeing the same person in both roles depending on which narrator has the reigns. As a writer, I’ve been fascinated by Martin’s ability to portray his characters in both lights so well.

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  3. Marji Laine says:

    So glad I read this. My antagonist in my WIP isn’t a bad person, and I worried that I’d written her poorly. Loved the point that it’s just the person whose agenda conflicts with my heroine. Yay! Thanks for the confirmation!

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    • It took Kristen and me a while to come to grips with that. We thought the antag had to be a serial rapist or some such thing. In my favorite tv show, The Closer, there are, of course, different criminals in every episode, but the real antagonist is her boss, Asst Chief Will Pope, who’s always forcing her to scrimp on overtime or other budget items or to make deals with subjects that end up blowing up in his face.

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  4. conniemaria says:

    Hi David – great post. I actually learned a lot here! I mean I knew the difference between the protagonist and antagonist but you’re right – I immediately envisioned the antagonist as a super evil bad dude. 😛 Thanks for sharing – this was fantastic info 🙂

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  5. DM says:

    It’s always nice to review things like this. The antagonist is integral to the story. Thanks for this blog.

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  6. Thanks, Jill. You’re always so supportive. That’s why I love you even if you do support the team that started the demise of the Big-12.

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  7. Jillian Dodd - Glitter, Bliss and Perfect Chaos says:

    I’m excited for this series of posts! I have learned so much at WWBC and I know it’s going to make my stories better!

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