Friday, June 22, 2012

Day 28: Understanding Antagonists

31/5/10 Baca / Campo tornado
Photo Credit:  Willoughby Owen
When you think of an antagonist what do you picture?  A mustache-twirling villain may be the first thing that comes to mind, but is it the only thing?  It shouldn't be.  Because there is a big difference between a villain and an antagonist.

According to a villain is a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime, whereas an antagonist only need be the adversary of the hero and can take on many forms.

There are 6 standard types of antagonists that we see in literature:
1) Man Against Man:  family, friends, enemies, lovers.  (This is the category in which the villain falls).  
The list of family, friends, etc, doesn't mean these people have to be bad; all that is required to be an antagonist is that a character's goals are in conflict with the hero's goals.  For example, in the Twilight Saga there are many antagonists, but the one that is the most difficult for Bella to fight is the one she loves, Edward.  Her goal is to become immortal so she can remain with him.  His goal is to keep her human.  Despite loving each other, Edward is Bella's antagonist through the first three books.

2) Man Against Nature:  any kinds of natural disasters, natural laws, physical disabilities (blindness, mental illness).  
These antagonists are pretty easy to spot.  Stories like Hatchet, or Dante's Peak, in which a character must fight to physically stay alive (and it's not a person that's trying to kill them), are obviously the pinnacle of man against nature.

3) Man Against Society:  governments, social customs, mob mentality, religious institutions.  
I can think of a few examples of this - novels as diverse as Pride and Prejudice and The Hunger Games - but my favorite example of this is To Kill A Mockingbird.  Atticus Finch may not be physically fighting anyone, but his determination to give Tom Robinson, a black man, a good defense in an Alabama court is obviously going to be difficult.  We see in the end that, despite the undeniable innocence of the man, Tom is found guilty because a jury is more comfortable convicting an innocent black man than a (clearly guilty) white man.  

4) Man Against Machine:  motorized vehicles, robots, computers.  
The Matrix series is all about man against machine with Neo trying to free humanity from the control of "the machines" (yeah, they are literally called the machines).  Another one I love is the movie I, Robot where we watch Will Smith try to prove that the robots humans use as servants are actually dangerous and cannot be controlled.

5) Man Against God:  spiritual beliefs.
This one isn't one I've come across much in my readings or movie viewings.  It's important to note that any examples of an antagonist can ultimately fit within the man against God category if the book is inherently about a man's spiritual journey.  If physical illness or broken relationships lead the hero to question why God has allowed bad things to happen to him, then the overall theme will be the hero's journey to finding his faith. 

6) Man Against Himself:  past mistakes, fears, flaws, doubts, moral choices.  (Some of the most powerful antagonists).
Every story is going to have at least a small element of man against himself because no character is perfect (at least they shouldn't be or they'd be really boring).  To make it the main antagonist however, a character needs to be placed in a situation in which their own behaviors are bringing about their failures.  If a woman goes through a string of men trying to find the right guy, no guy in particular is the antagonist.  Rather, something within her is sabotaging these relationships and she must find it and overcome it in order to triumph. 

Uses of Antagonists
The antagonist serves the obvious purpose of creating conflict, but the strategic use of antagonists throughout your scenes can enhance your protagonist.  After all, a hero is only as good as his antagonist is bad.  

Though we see the antagonist in the first Act and we see all of the power the antagonist has in the third Act, think about going back to Act II (when you've finished the 30 day challenge) and amping up the conflict by adding more antagonists.  That's right, there can be more than one antagonist.  I was watching Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol the other night and was thrilled to see this principle in action.  There's a scene in which Tom Cruise must scale a sheer glass hotel in order to reach a floor above and disable the hotel's firewall.  First, his super-special, impossibly-high-building-scaling-gloves have some battery issues and Tom almost falls to his death  (Man Vs. Machine).  Next, the bad guys arrive ahead of schedule and Tom has to speed his little operation up (Man Vs. Man).  As if that's not enough, a massive sandstorm is headed his way (Man Vs. Nature).  So yeah, a little bit of anxiety and suspense going on in just that one scene.

If you're struggling with a dull middle, throw in a storm, a broken down car, a fight with a boyfriend, or any other antagonist you can possibly thing of.
"The character can have all of the skills that they need ... in order to achieve what they want at the climax, however they don't know they have those skills...  The [skills] are going to be uncovered through the interaction with the antagonists...." (Martha Alderson, YouTube Series: How to Plot a Novel, Memoir, or Screenplay, Step 13).

If you just need yourself a good villain
If your main antagonist is going to be a bad guy, there are a few things you need to remember in order to make him more authentic and relatable to your readers (taken from Victoria Lynn Schmidt's Book in a Month, page 179).

1) The villain cannot be pure evil.  Every villain needs to have at least one redeeming quality; something that shows the reader that the villain might have been a good guy had he not had X, Y, or Z happen to him.  I think the strongest villain is one who is acting out of misguided ideals.  Take the crazy albino in The Da Vinci Code, for example.

2) Your villain needs a skill that equals or surpasses the hero's skill.  There isn't much of a battle brewing if your villain is only sort of good at what he does.  A comical example of this is at the beginning of the movie Megamind when the giant-headed villain fails to elicit fear in any of his victims because his villainy skills are less than sub-par.  (Or is it more than sub-par?  I never understand these sports metaphors).  At the end of the movie we see the true villain is a "super hero" with far more power and abilities than Megamind, but Megamind uses his brains to overcome.

3) The villain needs a weakness that can be exploited so the hero can conquer in the end.  Your hero's weakness will be found out by the villain, but the villain will be unable to triumph because the hero has learned to overcome that weakness.  The overcoming of weaknesses is exactly what makes the hero heroic.

What are the antagonists in your life that keep you from your writing?

MY DAY 28:  I lost a lot of enthusiasm because it was pretty obvious I wasn't going to be finishing the book in 30 days.  Nevertheless, I kept chipping away at it, writing one scene at a time.

1 comment:

  1. What a great post today, Rachel!!! So much great information and I love that picture!!! There is so much drama in a single shot!!! Thank you.