Word by Word

Practical insights for writers

NaNoWriMo Week 2: How’s your ANTAGONIST coming along?

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 09•18

Well, I made it through the election, champagne and all. I’ve been working with a historical fiction writer, writing a short book about resonance (More on this soon), chopped and simmered another batch of soup–Italian wedding, picked more late-harvest tomatoes, visited an art show that has stayed within me, walked amid the golden colors of this ongoing autumn, and have started shopping for the holidays.

And you, of course, have been writing. Those of you who are immersed in NaNoWriMo, I hope you’re thriving,  having some fun, and experiencing creative breakthroughs. Don’t forget about quality protein and outdoor excursions. Be kind to your back.

Which brings us to  storytelling and your antagonist.  The antagonist is the person who forces your protagonist to change in the way he or she most needs to change. Antagonists are the main force that shape the protagonist’s character arc. They teach the protagonists the lessons needed to grow and they accomplish this via conflict and opposition.

On Day 9 of NaNoWriMo most writers have hit the 10K mark. That means your antagonist is now in play. In some stories such as a romance,  he or she is the co-star. Sometimes the role isn’t as important as the protagonist; in some stories the antagonist is a threat so potent that he/she shapes the trajectory and tone of the story. Because high-profile antagonists can run the table. And can be scary badass nightmares.

But let me clarify before we go further: the antagonist isn’t necessarily a bad guy or villain, though he/she can be. A villain is a subset within the antagonist role,  identified by his values, morals, and methods, along with direct antipathy  toward the protagonist. He is the most potent threat to the protagonist.  A villain’s actions will always have huge ramifications and create hardships and danger. A villain in the story means it has a darker tone and aura.

The main difference between villains and antagonists is that the villain’s presence in the story will always cause fear and apprehension in the reader. If the reader is not afraid of him/her, then the character is not an effective villain. Fear in humans is much more complex and unsettling than it is in animals. It has many degrees, physical reactions, and can be linked with other emotions that are activated while reading. Fear is unpleasant and yet thrilling, and a villain’s role in the story is to stir these emotions to the boiling point.

Here are some suggestions for writing the all-important antagonist:

Introduce the antagonist with flair. From the first words, this character must be memorable, charismatic, and intriguing.

The first quarter of your story sets your antagonist in motion. This means his or her first moves create consequences and a messy aftermath. These actions further push the plot rolling along  or set up the rising action–events leading up to the climax.

The antagonist also exists to reveal as much about the protagonist as possible, showcasing the protagonist’s primary traits in events that force him to act in specific ways. So while revealing the protagonist’s flaws and weaknesses, the antics of the antagonist also reveal his strengths and over the course of story events serves as the catalyst that reshapes the protagonist’s self concept. The main antagonists in the Harry Potter series–Malfoy, Snape, and Voldemort– are great examples of this.

The antagonist also exists as a contrast to the protagonist, to provide an opposing or at least different morality, viewpoint, and values. When an antagonist starts messing with your main character, then questions arise: Will the protagonist rise to the occasion, muddle through despite doubts and misgivings, falter, or succeed despite flaws and fears?

The more potent your antagonist, the more you need to know what makes him or her tick. As in backstory, motives, and goals. All need to add up to a seemingly unstoppable, unbeatable force and serious opposition.

You are setting the stage for a showdown or stand-off between the antagonist and protagonist. This is the major component of rising action.

You can create more than one antagonist. A good example of this is found in The Fault in our Stars. It has three: cancer and its grim realities, Peter van Houten, an author who has lost his daughter to cancer and wrote a novel about it, and Augustus Waters who shows Hazel how to love and really live with a fatal illness.

They all force Hazel, the protagonist, to rethink her values, outlook, and concerns. In other words, they force her character arc to unfold.

Stay tuned: The Role of Inner Conflict

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

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