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What it means to be an antagonist

September 3, 2013

Last time, we talked about what it means to be a protagonist. A compelling story also has that one character whose actions hinder the protagonist at every turn. But being an antagonist isn’t as easy or as simple as simply making sure that the hero never gets what he wants. No. A real antagonist wants more.

What makes an antagonist?

We know that a protagonist is the primary actor in a story. And the word antagonist comes from the ancient Greek word ἀνταγωνιστής, or ‘antagōnistēs’. When we break this word down we see that an antagonist is the opposing actor in a story. His actions are in opposition to the protagonist.

Acting for antagonists

Just like the protagonist, the antagonist also has goals in life. He has plans and dreams. And he means to achieve them. While other characters will react to events, the antagonist works to make sure he gets what he wants. And his plan doesn’t need to be to stop the protagonist. It’s merely to get what he wants in life.

What makes the antagonist important to the story is that his success prevents the protagonist from getting what he wants. The two goals may be in direct opposition, or the protagonist’s plans may be no more than collateral damage. But at all times the antagonist has reasons and motivations that are every bit as real and valid as the protagonist. These motivating factors set the scene for the conflict of the story, that climaxes as the opposing goals finally clash irrevocably.

Narrative demand

While an active protagonist makes for a compelling story, the antagonist’s actions gives context to both his own motives and that of the hero. He must be more than just the “bad guy”. Let’s consider a character named Darius, who is now working against our former protagonist Alexander. We’ll take the independent scenarios from the last essay and write them from Darius’s point of view.

Scenario 1:

Most days, Darius was able to time his walks out to his car so that he ran into Alexander. Today was no exception. “Good morning! Nothing like a quick drive to Coffee Corner and back to start the day!” Darius patted the roof of his sports car as he looked over it at Alexander.

“Oh, you know, the nice thing about working in an office is you get a change of scenery.” Alexander forced a smile as he squeezed into his coupe.

Darius hopped into his car and called over the picket fence. “My gorgeous wife’s the only scenery I need!” 384 horses turned over under the hood and Darius was off on his daily coffee run before returning to his home office to yell at subordinates over the phone.

Around 3 in the afternoon, Darius went out to get his mail. He stopped in his tracks as he saw two sports cars–his own, and this year’s model across the fence, in Alexander’s driveway.

The next morning, he listened to the news of a surprise inheritance. “Oh yes, well, I know you love your car so much. I thought I’d take the advice of an expert,” Alexander explained, then backed his car up and headed to work.

Once the newer sports car turned the corner, Darius threw his traveler’s coffee cup at his doghouse. The dog yelped in fear at the sound. “So he thinks he deserves a better car than me, does he?” he growled under his breath. “We’ll just see about that.” He stormed back toward the house.

Scenario 2:

Darius watched the paycheck being waved in front of everyone at the table. He was disappointed. He’d been on a losing streak too, but he knew where to draw the line.

Alexander placed it in front of his cards. “I’m still in.”

“It’s your call,” the dealer said. He burned a card and flipped over the river. 3 of Clubs.

Everyone stayed. Alexander turned over his card. Darius turned over his own. “Full house!” he exclaimed. Joy swelled up in his chest. He’d been sure to play honest this night and his luck had finally turned.

The next hand went quickly. There was another betting war, although Darius though Alexander didn’t seem to notice. At the turn, things were still looking up. He raised and imagined his hands. Anything low was likely to result in a strong hand. Bets were placed, but Alexander just sat there.

Darius’s patience ran out. “Hey, Alex, we’re ready for the next card!”.

Alexander picked up the deck. “Of course.” His hand lingered on the top card, then he dealt an Ace of Spades. The players threw their cards on the table with curses and groans. Alexander pulled the money toward him. “I guess that’s just the house advantage,” he said, grinning.

Darius couldn’t stand that smug look on Alexander’s face. As he stared at that grin, a sudden realization sparked in his brain. His fury began to boil inside of him as he thought of the hands he’d lost. His fist slammed down on the table.

The others jumped back in their seats. “Wait a minute.” Darius reached inside his jacket. His voice rose. “You didn’t burn a card before the river!”

As the players’ shock turned to realization, Alexander slipped a hand beneath the table. He leaned forward and met Darius’ gaze. “What did you just say?”

Darius would be damned if he was going to lose to an amateur cheat. “You heard me.”

Hero of his own story

A well-rounded antagonist is going to be the hero of his own story. Even though his actions are framed against that of the protagonist, in his mind our antagonist should be convinced that his actions are justified at all times.

In the first scenario, Darius likes to hold his wealth over Alexander. He likes to yell at and intimidate his employees in conference meetings and throws things at his dog. He sees Alexander with a newer model of his car and immediately wants to deprive his neighbor of it. Without knowing the reason behind any of these actions, the antagonist is flat and two-dimensional.

In the second scenario, Darius is a slightly shady poker player who decided to turn over a new leaf when his luck dries out. When he sees Alexander cheat, he loses his temper. We know that he’s insulted at being cheated against. Maybe he is feeling guilt at his past cheating and projects that anger onto Alexander. But Darius transforms from the hot-tempered player from the last essay into a living, breathing human being just as Alexander did when he started making decisions.

Villainy for new writers

During the planning and first draft stage, it’s easy to build a strong protagonist but place a clichéd dark lord in his way who simply wants him to fail. This leads to flat plots where the antagonist has nothing at stake. This lowers the impact of the protagonist’s struggle.

Another common trap is that any attempt to make the Darius we meet in scenario 1 more interesting is going to cause him to overshadow the reactionary Alexander as a compelling character. If the protagonist isn’t fleshed out enough, the reader may actually become more emotionally engaged with the antagonist. The careful balance of opposing motives and goals makes the plot richer and ultimately more fulfilling.

Luckily for writers, the same concepts that make a compelling protagonist actually have the same effect when applied to the antagonist. An adversary who acts in believable and consistent ways will inform the choices and actions of the strong protagonist. And a book filled with interesting characters who want different things will find it difficult to lose the reader’s interest.