In the companion post, Enter: The Antagonist, no scratch that, Enter: The Antagonists, Plural, I talk about the 13 Antagonist Archetypes. Starting with Pure Evil and continuing to the Enemy Within, I explain who the different antagonists are and what they can do.
Here, we are going to look at how we can romance these antagonists. This is an Antagonists 101—nine tips to help with the nuts and bolts of writing Villains, Sidekicks, Flames, and the other antagonists that make stories unforgettable.
1. Give the Antagonist Top Billing Sandra Nickel 13 Antagonist Archetypes
Some people think of their main antagonist as the alter ego of the protagonist or her reflection or shadow. I think of him as a dance partner, always clasping hands, where neither he nor the protagonist can step forward or back without the other taking the opposite step. The main antagonist is also often a pivotal point. A baby boy survives a murderer’s attack, only to be linked to the murderer and his thoughts for the rest of his life.* A girl is drawn to a strong and fascinating woman, only to discover that the woman is her mother and she is cutting children away from their spirits.* A loveable creature warns the reader about a monster lurking in the pages of the book, only to confess at the end that he is the monster.*
This is all to say, since your antagonist is just as pivotal to the story as your protagonist, give her top billing. Introduce her as soon as possible in the set-up. As a guiding rule in novels, try to include your main antagonist no later than page 10.
- Voldemort is first mentioned on page 4.
- The Man Jack enters on the 1st page of text—even before we see Bod in The Graveyard Book.
- Donkey, Pig & Sheep appear on the opening page of Chick-O-Saurus Rex.
- The monster at the end of the book is mentioned in the title!
2. Catch the Antagonist with a Finger in the Catalyst Pie
If it works for your story, make sure your antagonist has her finger in the catalyst pie—a hand in the event that propels your protagonist into action. If Voldemort hadn’t tried to kill Harry, if the Man Jack hadn’t murdered Bod’s family, if Donkey, Pig & Sheep hadn’t banned Little Chick from the tree house, there would have been no stories to tell.
3. Crank Up the Rumour Mill
Next Step? In the first 30 pages of a novel, start the rumour mill about what the antagonists are capable of doing. JK Rowling, as usual, is brilliant at this aspect of antagonists. To build the dark aura around Voldemort, she uses everything from Uncle Vernon’s eavesdropping to Dumbledore and McGonagall’s hushed and anxious conversation to the nickname He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Then, as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone progresses, she uses gossip, bragging, story-telling and more to heighten the reader’s dread and understanding of what Voldemort is capable of doing.
4. Make Sure Everybody Wins Sandra Nickel 13 Antagonist Archetypes
Before the final face-off between the antagonist and protagonist, let each of them win minor battles. This bolsters the tension for the final ‘battle.’ We’ve seen each of them win, so the outcome is up for grabs.
When I say ‘battle’ here, I use it both realistically and figuratively. As I said in Enter the Antagonist, no scratch that, Enter the Antagonists, Plural, inner demons can fight just as hard and dirty as physical ones. In The Fault in Our Stars, we see both Hazel and Augustus win and lose battles with their cancers, so as the story progresses, the reader is prepped to hope for miracles, but also to dread the worst.
5. Put the Antagonist and Protagonist Face to Face Sandra Nickel 13 Antagonist Archetypes
The antagonist and protagonist need to come face to face, even if the antagonist isn’t deliberately throwing up obstacles in front of the protagonist.
A writer once told me that his antagonists tended to be larger than life, far away from the reader and therefore difficult to relate to. This isn’t an antagonist. This is atmosphere. At best, a problem. But neither lurking problems in the distance or creepy and dangerous atmosphere are antagonists in themselves. Even a distant realm should have a representative—a real live person or creature—that crosses the protagonist’s path and becomes a specific obstacle. Larger than life? Great. Far away and difficult to relate to? No. Bring the antagonists close in, face to face, and make them so easy to relate to that your reader squirms in his chair.
6. Sharpen the Reflection, Nuance the Shadow Sandra Nickel 13 Antagonist Archetypes
As the story continues, put your antagonist through the same characterization work as your protagonist.
- Give your antagonist good justification for being how he is.
Show some backstory that gives him motivation for acting as he acts. Yes, the Wicked Witch of the West is scary, but, let’s admit it, she does have a point about the ruby slippers. They belonged to her sister and it does seem at least a little unfair that Dorothy took them. Giving good justification is especially important if your antagonist doesn’t change—and in some stories it’s appropriate that he doesn’t—especially with Pure Evil. Voldemort doesn’t change, but more and more of his story is revealed, which makes him fuller.
- Make your antagonist think she is right. Sandra Nickel 13 Antagonist Archetypes
Show that from her point of view, she is going to gain something fabulous if she wins—for herself and maybe for her world. As frightening as Mrs. Coulter is, she believes she is doing the right thing for the world. And Sam-I-Am really believes he is offering a beautiful gift to the unnamed creature by introducing him to green eggs and ham.
- Give your antagonist some attractive qualities to make her more rounded.
Tina in Eleanor & Park treats Eleanor horribly, but she dated Park in sixth grade, which makes us think she can’t be all that bad and we hold out hope for her. And, as irritating as Lily is to Chester and Wilson in Chester’s Way, the reader loves her for her irrepressible joie de vivre.
- Make your antagonist smart and a genius at adapting to circumstances.
If the antagonists learn from the protagonist and constantly change how they fight against her, the story won’t have the lifelessness that it will if the antagonists always push against the protagonist in the same way. In the Hunger Games, for example, when Katniss is thrown into the arena, the Gamemakers don’t just send tribute after tribute to chase her down. They create new antagonists at each juncture.** The point is, the Gamemakers adapt and raise the stakes each time. They don’t just repeat their same action. And the injustice of it alone burns strongly in the reader.
7. Give the Antagonists Roles in the Great Debate
The Villains, Sidekicks, Flames, Thorns in the Side, and Enemies Within are superb at bringing out the theme of the story. When the protagonist comes into contact with others who see the world differently than she does, she enters into what I think of as the Great Debate. She says her point of view. The antagonist says his point of view. And then the protagonist has to decide whether she will continue on as before or change her way of doing things.
For some books, the debate takes center stage. In I’ll Give You the Sun, the twins’ stories are parallel debates about how to resolve the ‘bad’ that has happened to them and the ‘bad’ that they have caused. For Jude, one of her main debating partner-antagonists is her dead grandmother. We see Jude internally tussling with her ghost throughout the story. Similarly, in White Darkness, Sym debates with an imagined version of the arctic explorer Captain Oates, and in Wintergirls, Lia debates with the ghost of her friend Cassie.
But ghosts and imagined voices are only two devices. The debate can be spoken out loud in normal conversation. A.A. Milne had Pooh Bear say, ‘Good morning,’ and Eeyore respond, ‘If it is a good morning, which I doubt.’ Two simple lines. A simple debate. Yet, it has resonated in our collective consciousness like few others.
8. Dance the Dance Sandra Nickel 13 Antagonist Archetypes
Remember that this is an old fashioned dance, where the antagonist and protagonist always touch in some way. This is not modern dance where protagonist can veer off to the other side of the dance floor and get lost in the music on his own. Every action on the part of the antagonist must create a reaction, otherwise the antagonist isn’t doing his job.
An antagonist is not ambiance. An antagonist is not a problem. An antagonist is linked to the protagonist in the dance and a move by one creates a move by the other.
9. Make Your Mantra ‘Long Live the Villain’
And last, but not least, the final tip for Romancing the Antagonists is to keep your Villain alive until the climax. I know this seems obvious. Yet, I still run across stories where the author has killed off the strongest antagonist before killing off weaker antagonists. In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder says kill off the antagonists in ascending order. Not surprisingly, Rowling did just this at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.*** Keep in mind that if you take out your strongest Villain even 40 pages before the end of your novel, you will be sucking the life out of your story. The tension will plummet.
I hope this Antagonists 101 has been helpful. Please feel free to use it and the 13 Antagonist Archetypes while teaching and writing about storytelling and creative writing. All I ask is that you mention my name and refer to Enter the Antagonist–no scratch that–Enter the Antagonists, Plural and Romancing the Antagonists. Anyone teaching writing to a younger crowd? After popular demand, I put together a Buzzfeed with the 13 Antagonist Archetypes. It’s short and sweet. Well, not exactly sweet, but you know what I mean. Harry Potter & the 13 Antagonist Archetypes
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*SPOILERS: The three stories with pivotal antagonists are the Harry Potter series, The Golden Compass, and The Monster at the End of this Book.
**SPOILERS: The Gamekeepers create fire, tracker jackers, and mutant dogs.
***SPOILERS: Nagini and Bellatrix Lestrange—who themselves are very close to Pure Evil—last to the end, yet they have to be killed before Voldemort.
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