In the midst of working on a new manuscript, I suddenly found myself asking a question that SHOULD have had an obvious answer—especially because the story I am telling involves manipulation, crime, even murder:
WHO IS THE BAD GUY IN THIS STORY? MY MC’s FOE? THE ANTAGONIST?
While I could easily write down the name of the killer, he wasn’t really the foe of the MC. I could name the characters who manipulated others or kept guilty secrets, but none of them were cut-and-dried baddies out to destroy my narrators. This question got me to thinking about the question of literary antagonists.
In genre fiction, where the term “villain” can frequently be substituted for the word “antagonist” (and correspondingly, the protagonist can be seen as a “hero,” naming the main character’s foe can be fairly simple. Here are a few examples:
- HARRY POTTER series by J. K. Rowling. ANTAGONIST: Voldemort (shhhh!)
- CINDER (Lunar Chronicles) by Marissa Meyer: ANTAGONISTS: Cinder’s stepmother; the evil Lunar Queen
- THE FIFTH WAVE by Rick Yancey: ANTAGONISTS: The Others, Commander Vosch
- GRACELING by Kristin Cashore: ANTAGONISTS: King Randa, King Leck
- In the JAMES BOND oeuvre, there’s an actual catchphrase - “Bond Villain” – not unlike the “Dark Side” of the STAR WARS universe.
However, let’s try this same exercise with new and old realistic fiction titles:
- ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES by Jennifer Niven: ANTAGONIST(S): Mental illness; Theodore Finch (also a protagonist – and his own worst enemy)
- THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green: ANTAGONIST: Cancer
- THE TRUTH ABOUT FOREVER by Sarah Dessen: ANTAGONIST: The past; the pain of loss that prevents feeling
- THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald. ANTAGONIST: Tom Buchanan? OR Narrator Nick Carraway’s dream of being with Buchanan’s wife, Daisy? OR everything that kills the American Dream?
- THE CATCHER IN THE RYE by J. D. Salinger. ANTAGONIST: Holden Caulfield (protagonist) is his own antagonist through his cynicism, distrust and inability to conform with social norms.
I realize I am not inventing any wheels here. This is basic stuff. HEROISM can be political, social, physical or emotional. VILLAINS can be external enemies or internal demons. You can confirm these basics with good old Merriam-Webster, who defines ANTAGONIST is “…one that contends with or opposes another” or at LiteraryDevices.net where ANTAGONIST is described as “…a character or a group of characters which stand in opposition to the protagonist or the main character...from Greek word “antagonistēs” that means opponent, competitor or rival.”
Nonetheless, it is a worthy exercise to clarify the kind of ANTAGONISTIC characters, emotions, or other elements at play in your story and to develop them as fully as you do your PROTAGONIST and supporting “positive” characters.
Try holding your current manuscript up to the examples listed above. Which title most closely aligns with your story’s protagonist/antagonist dynamic? Can you think of another book which is a better match? Consider reading that title to see how the author fleshes out these elements and apply these insights to enriching your own story.