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Tom Adelstein

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How-to Write an Antagonist
By Tom Adelstein   
Rated "PG13" by the Author.
Last edited: Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Posted: Saturday, July 14, 2012

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One dimensional antagonists will stunt the development of your main character. Where the fun in beating-up Snidely Whiplash?

 ..if I can make you understand her (Annie Wilkes) madness-then perhaps I can make her someone you can sympathize or even identify with. The result? She's more frightening than ever because she's so close to real.  Stephen King "On Writing

 
 
How confused do you feel when thinking about an anti-hero, opposition character or antagonist?  Some say make him/her evil, evil, evil. That's easy, but it doesn't work if you're attempting to write great books.
 
We can usually write the protagonist without a problem. We essentially write about ourselves: Mr./Ms. Nice Guy. As I begin to conceive my antagonist, I recognize how wimpy my main character comes across.
 
When I start a book, I write about forty pages from the viewpoint of the prog and then begin to write the antagonist's story. At that point,  I realize how boring I started off.
 
Mr. Nice Guy wants no conflict in his life. Everything needs to have an order. He's a gentle lover. In other words, a boring recluse.
 
Fortunately, I don't waste those forty pages. When my antagonist raises his head, I go back and make the main character edgy, a little hyper, fiesty and tough. He or she takes on some of the characteristics of  the dark side of the story.
 
The protagonist has to be someone that will do whatever it takes to win, especially when you're going to have him or her fail at everything until the last couple of scenes. The appearance of the opposition brings that out. Without a challenge, we just get fat and lazy.
 
The more destructive you create the antagonist, the stronger your main character will become. If you haven't had that experience in your writing, it's time you do.
 
An opposition character cannot exist outside the context of your other characters. You may think that you can set up a plot where the hero goes after the antagonist, but even in Dragonslayer Ulrich of Craggenmoor and Galen Bradwarden  aren't pursuing the antagonist. Galen is pursuing Valerian, so he can ride off in the sunset with her, win her love and have consensual sex. To do that, he has to kill the dragon. In Dragonslayer, the Dragon is a pro-active opposition character.
 
In the context of your story, the antagonist has to win until the last scene. You can call him Jason and put a hockey helmet over his head and he becomes pretty evil as he slashes his way through screaming teenage actors. Whatever costume you put on him, he's only a character in a plot and he serves to oppose your main viewpoint characters' story goal.
 
The antagonist or opposition character isn't always evil. He/she simply plays a conflicting role. For example, Arthur wants his wife, Elaine, back and to stop the divorce proceedings. Billy Bob Jackson, Elaine's attorney, opposes his client reconciling. He does everything in his legal power to prevent the reconciliation.
 
If you decide your opposition needs to be evil. Go to a search site and type in Pathological Predator. If you need evil, then you will find something like this:
 
Dr. Hervey Cleckley wrote about antisocial personalities, on which I have fallen back when I need to describe an antagonist for a crime or suspense novel. The creature about whom he wrote was a psychopath and he had some interesting descriptions. For example, the psychopath when in his/her "solemn perjuries" has  "no difficulty at all in looking anyone tranquilly in the eyes." They will "lie about any matter, under any circumstances." They can look you straight in the eye and appear convincingly honest and authentic when telling a blatant lie.
 
How easy is it to get inside the skin of someone like that and make them real? Unless you want a stereotype of the bad guy like Snidely Whiplash tying the lovely damsel to the railroad tracks, you have some serious work to do.
 
I saw Sean Bean (Boromir in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy) interviewed once about playing the "bad guy".
 
He talked about taking on the roles of a villain. (His first notable Hollywood role was  of an Irish republican terrorist in the 1992 film adaptation of Patriot Games. He played Alec Trevelyan (MI6's 006) and James Bond's nemesis in the 1995 film GoldenEye; the weak-stomached Spence  in Ronin; a wife-beating ex-con in Essex Boys; the malevolent kidnapper-jewel thief in Don't Say a Word. He was also widely recognised as villainous treasure hunter Ian Howe in the popular National Treasure opposite Nicolas Cage. He played a villainous scientist in The Island and a dedicated husband in Silent Hill. In the independent film, Far North, he played a Russian mercenary, lost in the tundra and rescued by an Inuit woman and her daughter; he ends up pitting his two female rescuers against one another.)
 
I'm paraphrasing here, but when asked about his role in "Don't Say a Word", he discussed the need for passion and a singularity of purpose to reach the character's goal of getting the prized ruby.
 
We aren't great actors like Sean Bean. We're writers and since you're reading this article, I would guess you have aspirations of becoming a great writer. That probably means also becoming great at writing the antagonist.
 
Who wrote the part played by Sir Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs?  Hannibal Lecter is no stereotype mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash. He's the creation of crime novelist Thomas Harris, but Ted Tally brought him to life on the screen and slam-dunked a bunch of Oscars in the process. How many Oscars and how significant a part did his antagonist play?
 
Silence of the Lambs won Oscars in all the top five categories: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. In 2011, the Library of Congress (one of my old bosses) designated the film as  "culturally, historically or aesthetically" significant and was selected to be preserved in the National Film Registry. Ted Tally is your man.
 
 
In an interview with IGN Entertainment, Tally said:
 
...it was hard to write Dr. Hannibal Lecter's dialogue at times because, Well, he's crazy! ...and he's brilliant, too... it's not an easy character to channel in that way, as a writer, you have to kind of put your imagination into weird, dark places where it doesn't want to go...he's coming from all over the place and he's very witty, and he's got to be three or four steps ahead of everybody else – including the audience. He just has such a capacity for meanness, and mischievous, and he's always amusing himself.
 
When you write, consider adding dimensions to the antagonist. What if you portray the antagonist as someone whose life when taken from another point of view has goals similar to the hero or protagonist? Case in point could be a conflict between a sheepherder and a cattle rancher like in County Chairman. You could have a high tech gold miner and panhandlers such as in Pale Rider by Clint Eastwood.
 
You might give your most evil antagonist a high-brow hobby. Let him love to paint with oils like General Bethlehem (Will Patton) in The Postman (film).
 
Did you get a kick out of Al Capone's tears at the opera shortly after bludgeoning one of his cohorts to death with a baseball bat in front of his friends at a dinner table?
 
You want the audience or reader to not only fear an evil character, but have some respect for him.
 
In Clint Eastwood's movie, Gran Torino, one of the gang members recites, in an elegant and educated manner, the specifications of a car 30 years older than him. I want to tell you, that made the gang more scary to me.  Not only were they mean, they were smart.
 
What's worse than a smart, well educated antagonist? Such a character is not just on a spree, he/she is cold, calculating and formidable.
 
You'll find writing about psychopaths as an easy way to portray an anti-hero, especially in Suspense and Thrillers. Since they always justify their actions, no matter how brutal you have a perfect guy/gal here.
 
They have, "an ability to rationalize their behavior so that it appears warranted, reasonable, and justified," wrote  Dr. Hervey Milton Cleckley (1903 - January 28, 1984) author of  "The Mask of Sanity". Cleckley's observations were that psychopaths, unlike people with major mental disorders, can appear  normal and even engaging, while typically not suffering overtly from hallucinations or delusions. The "mask" covers a concealed disorder.
 
Antagonists always win until the end. That makes them so critical to the floundering protagonist. Existentially, an antagonist may even win in the end, because he or she is a force of change affecting the characters personality in such a way that they can never "go back". Some people consider that personal growth.
 
Well, one of the viewpoint characters certainly with have transformed.
 
Can I tell you how to write your antagonist? I can only point to a few. One of the scripts I study for it's remarkable ability to interweave: story, conflict, emotion and rational goal setting on rapid sequence changes is a YA movie,  It's A Boy Girl Thing written by Geoff Deane. I have beat my head against the wall trying to identify the antagonist. At one point, I concluded that Aztec god Tezcatlipoca held the title.
 
Old Tez isn't a bad antagonist. In many ways he's benign. He's a hidden one, but he antagonized the characters. Once done, the action goes into hyper-drive.
 
The key to identifying came in a fairly innocuous sequence when Alex Nussbaum's character Mr. Zbornak says:
 
 
OK, just a minute! Take a look at this odd looking fella! 
 
Texcatlipoca - the ancient Aztek god of sorcery. Associated... with the notion of destiny. 
 
Tex here has an interesting resume: He was the god of night, lord of the smoking mirror. A shape shifter - a powerful SOB. 
 
He certainly antagonizes the hell out of two high school seniors who hate each other at the start and in the end become lovers. However, the real antagonist in the story is Nell's mother. 
 
Now, enough of me. Go forth and write a multi-dimensional antagonist.
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

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