What is an Antagonist?

We have already covered the term ‘protagonist,’ which means the Lead or main character of a fictional work. But what do we mean when we talk about the ‘antagonist?’

The antagonist is the opposing force, usually in the form of a person, that thwarts the protagonist in whatever goal that protagonist is working towards.

Sometimes an antagonist is called ‘the villain.’ A villain is not only an antagonist who opposes the protagonist’s efforts, but he is a morally corrupt force. If the antagonist of your story beats an innocent person to death with a baseball bat, he is probably a villain, and a bad one.

An antagonist doesn’t have to be a villain or a bad guy. Maybe he opposes the protagonist for the protagonist’s own good, or for the good of the community. If you have a flawed or ‘anti-hero’ type protagonist, your antagonist could even be an honest law enforcement officer!

Your antagonist, whether morally upright or a villain, provides an important service to the story— he gives your protagonist a challenge. Imagine if Frodo’s quest to dispose of the One Ring was a walk in the woods with no opposition? Would the story be interesting or exciting? Would Frodo be seen as a heroic character?

Because you want your readers to identify with the protagonist, you have to be careful how you craft your antagonist. You don’t want your readers to like the antagonist best and cry when the protagonist defeats him!

So if your antagonist is morally upright, you probably should give him a flaw. Make him a corrupt law enforcement officer, or a cold and unforgiving person, or a person who dislikes the protagonist due to a prejudice.

A villain, even a wicked one, can become too popular. Think of the villain Negan in the television series The Walking Dead. He’s a popular character even though he’s killed people in gruesome ways. If a villain is both massively powerful and charismatic enough to win over readers, the eventual victory of the protagonist becomes less believable.

The antagonist shapes the story by giving the protagonist someone to measure himself against. The antagonist is often presented at the start as someone your hero simply cannot beat. Readers feel your protagonist is doomed even though they know that protagonists rarely are doomed in a story about them, and in fact the protagonist nearly always wins. Protagonists often have to grow into someone who can measure up to their antagonists.

Can there be more than one antagonist in a work of fiction? Yes, because your protagonist can face more than one person opposing him. Often, though, to unify the story there is a Big Antagonist and many/most of the minor antagonists work for him. In literary or more realistic fiction, there may be a number of unrelated antagonists each with his own motive for being in opposition.

We may fall it love with the fictional protagonists that we create, but often it’s the antagonists that make our fiction more compelling. We need to pay attention to them!

Thanks for stopping by my blog,

Nissa Annakindt


Are you working on a current fiction story with an antagonist? What is that antagonist like? Is the antagonist male or female, powerful or less so, good or evil? Share it in a comment!


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What is a Protagonist?

A protagonist is the most important character in a short story or novel. The word ‘protagonist’ comes from the Greek and literally means ‘first actor.’ Other words for the protagonist are: main character, lead or lead character, or hero.

Just as an ancient Greek play could only have one actor who was the first actor, a story can only have one protagonist. Other important characters are not co-protagonists. The protagonist’s best friend or his sidekick are not co-protagonists. His allies in the story are not co-protagonists. His boss or his king are not co-protagonists.

The protagonist is not the same thing as the viewpoint character. In some novels there is only one viewpoint character— often the protagonist. In other novels many characters are viewpoint characters in scenes. We see the scene from the point-of-view of the viewpoint character. But a viewpoint character is not the same thing as the protagonist.

Harry Potter is the protagonist of the Harry Potter series. Katniss Everdeen is the protagonist of The Hunger Games. Scarlett O’Hara is the protagonist of Gone With The Wind. Thomas Nolan is the protagonist of Deus Vult (by Declan Finn.) William Laurence is the protagonist of the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik (even though the dragon Temeraire is the viewpoint character in some scenes.)

The plot of a story is centered around the protagonist. What does the protagonist want? What sort of trouble is in his life that he must fix? What is he in the middle of? Those things determine your plot.

Some writers come up with a plot or situation first and then craft a protagonist to suit it. Some have ideas for a protagonist and then must craft a plot— or some trouble for the protagonist to get into. Either way, since your readers will be following your protagonist around for the whole of the story, it pays to develop an interesting or at least a consistent protagonist.

Some stories actually do seem to have more than one protagonist. As an example I give you “Worldwar: In the Balance” by Harry Turtledove. It is a global story, an alternate history telling of an alien invasion of Earth during the midst of World War II. There are scenes set among the aliens, and in various places on the Earth. Each set of scenes seems to have a protagonist among the group of characters in that place/setting.

I find it is best to think of books like that as being a collection of shorter stories interwoven together to tell a big, complex story. Each of the shorter stories does have a protagonist for that story. Does ‘Worldwar: In the Balance’ have an overall protagonist for the whole book? I didn’t detect on in my reading, though in my opinion Sam Yeager, baseball player turned expert-on-aliens, comes close to fulfilling that role. His adventures are fairly important to the story as a whole and he is present in all the novels of the Worldwar/Colonization series, as well as in the final novel ‘Homeward Bound.’

The key thing to remember about the protagonist is that his wants/needs/troubles are the center of your story. He is there to help your reader connect with the story. He makes the story personal. (In the complex Worldwar novels, the various protagonists of the interwoven smaller stories fulfill that role in their section of the novel.) This is why we create our protagonists with some care.

What is one specific thing about your current protagonist that is different, unique or interesting? Is that protagonist similar to or different from other protagonists you have created? As a reader, what things to do you like in a protagonist?

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Abstract/General and Concrete/Specific: What Does This Mean?

Sometimes a book of writing advice will suggest that you need to put in a concrete or specific detail, and avoid using general or abstract language. It’s good advice, but sadly a lot of otherwise well-informed people have no clue what that means.

OK, reach for your dictionary. (A real writer always has one with arm’s reach— I have my Webster’s and my Wells Esperanto dictionary on a small shelf on my writing desk along with Bibles in English, German and Esperanto, two Catholic catechisms, a Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style and a thesaurus.) Look up the words abstract, concrete, general and specific. Go ahead, I’m doing it myself right now (and I know what those words mean.)

Write down those meanings of those words that have a bearing on what we are talking about. (Writing things down— it’s the writerly thing to do.) Do you understand a little better what that writing advice means about concrete or specific details?

Here is a little story: a man had a new concrete (the building material) walkway put in, and while it was still wet the neighborhood children wrote some not-nice words in the wet concrete. I won’t repeat the words, but assume they meant something along the line of Teufel and Scheisse (pardon my German.)

The man was annoyed and said ‘I like children in the abstract but not in the concrete.’ You will note that the word ‘concrete’ in that sentence has two meanings which both apply. Also, the concrete walkway with the rude words in it was a concrete/specific detail of the little story.

Here are two sentences:

  1. Gregor Samsa was engaged in the struggle of man against nature.
  2. Gregor Samsa woke up one morning to find he had been transformed into an insect.

Which of the two sentences puts a stronger picture in your mind, the first one, which is abstract/general, or the second one, which is concrete, specific, and about an insect? (Both are descriptions of Kafka’s Die Verwandlung which you can read on the internet for free, both in German and English.)

Abstract/General sentences tend to distance readers and make them feel they are not reading the actual story but a bad description of the story. Concrete/specific details make a story seem more real and memorable. That’s why we sometimes remember things from the movies made from our favorite books more than the books themselves— who can forget Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, both dressed in black, dancing in a roomful of people in colorful clothes (Gone With The Wind.) Movies are compelling because they have nothing but specific visual details to tell a story with.

What about bloggers or non-fiction writers? You have to worry about providing concrete/specific details too! You also need to keep readers reading, and you need to use any good-writing tricks to make your words resonate with the readers. And blog posts and non-fiction works often demand very specific details. Imagine reading a recipe that called for ‘a lot’ of ‘some vegetable,’ or henhouse building instructions that called for ‘a bunch’ of wood and ‘some metal things’ (nails? screws? chicken wire?)

ASSIGNMENT:

Think of one specific detail from the last good book you read. Mention it and the book in a comment. Extra point: Also mention that detail in a too-abstract way.

Why I Don’t Want to Be Critiqued

Amateur and new writers everywhere constantly cry out to have their work ‘critiqued.’ How do you get a critique? How do you find a cheap ‘editor’ (meaning ‘book doctor’ or other hired hand) to look at your work? But I have finally grown beyond that point.

The problem with the concept of ‘critique’ is that the word brings to mind the word ‘criticism.’ Criticism tears a person down. Sometimes in life criticism is needed, as when an employee starts showing up for work late and a little drunk. But it’s a tearing-down process even then. Criticism hurts, it destroys our souls, even if it’s prissily-worded ‘constructive criticism.’ Why would people ask for that experience? Here are the reasons as I work them out.

WE WANT THE BLESSING OF ‘OTHER PEOPLE’

Somewhere in our subconscious minds, we have the notion that we are small, weak, and inept, and that everything we do must have the blessing of other people, who are larger, stronger and more talented. If we show our writing to other people— any other people— and they say they like it, that means we are OK as a writer. We don’t even want to think about what would happen if the other person said ‘wow, that’s a piece of dreck!’

FIX: Now that we are grownups, we don’t need other people to approve of our work like we did in kindergarten. When it comes to writing, random other people may know less than nothing.

WE WANT GUARANTEED IMPROVEMENT SUGGESTIONS

If you have already decided to violated Heinlein’s Third Rule of writing (You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.), you want a guarantee that the rewrite you labor over will improve, rather than dis-improve, your work. Some of us have a naive confidence that any suggestion by another person, if carried out in a rewrite, will fix the writing and make it magically publishable.

Others of us hold out for someone we can believe is an expert. We may hire ‘book doctors’ (‘editors’ for hire) to give us advice we hope will guarantee that our rewrite process will create a better book.

The truth is, most people who suggest something about your work won’t get it. Like the beta reader who returns your sci-fi epic with a frown, saying ‘Your novel is no good. It has a time machine in it. There is no such thing as a time machine. You’ll have to take it out and start over.’

WE MAY WANT OUR EGO SOOTHED

Many of us have egos battered by life. We spend hours working on something for school or for work, and when we are done, our work gets pissed on, ever so genteelly, by the people that count. We are accused of not having done any real work on the project at all.

What some of us feel the need for, when we let others look at our work, is validation. We really need some writing authority figure to pat us on the head and say ‘Good little writer! You worked hard, so of course your writing is excellent!’

This is why some people, asked to critique, say how excellent everything is, even first novels by writers who don’t yet know how novels work. They think what the writer really wants is reassurance.

The problem is, when I get a reassuring response to my work, I tend to just feel the work was so pathetic that the person felt I needed reassurance and perhaps mental health help, rather than to hear the truth. Even when I know in my soul that my work is good, I feel that way.

GROWING BEYOND THE NEED FOR APPROVAL

If, instead of becoming a writer, you had decided to become a plumber, after you learned the basics you would not bother with approval-seeking. If the toilet you installed flushed, you knew you had done your job.

As writers, we need to get beyond the childish level of needing someone, anyone to approve of our work. They may say you can’t ‘critique’ your own writing, but I know I find plenty of things to fix in it. Seeking critiques to get more things to fix might be a way to avoid finishing a writing project.

Heinlein’s Rules 4 and 5 state that you should submit your finished work and keep submitting it until it sells. Dean Wesley Smith says in today’s self-publishing world it’s acceptable to self-publish as long as you keep the work available instead of pulling it down in a fit of self-doubt. Getting your work published— or having it sell well if self-published— is the main kind of feedback we writers need.

Personal Note: Yes, I’m scared to let other people see my work. So I put up a short story, The Skin Shirt, on Wattpad, and intend to add a children’s story, The Dust Mouse, in a day or two. I’m also working on another short story intended for Wattpad. Because of my Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a hard time with the idea of sending my work out (though I did it with my poetry years ago) and so publishing on Wattpad is a step in the right direction. My Wattpad account, if you are morbidly curious, is at: https://www.wattpad.com/user/NissaAnnakindt

Learning the Three-Act Story Structure

One problem some of us have during NaNoWriMo is difficulty pacing our stories. The beginning goes on for 40000 words, or we reach the final battle around word 10000. If our goal is a complete 50000 word novel, that doesn’t work. (We may be OK with writing 50000 words of a longer novel, or completing a short story, however.)

Knowing about the Three Act structure will help you pace your story. The first act is where you set-up your story. In the second act you develop it, and in the third you conclude it. If you skimp on any of the acts, your story will feel unbalanced and weird.

Plotters will deal with the structure in the outlining phase. Pantsers may be keeping it in mind as they write, or using the structure to sort out the mess of randomly written scenes they have produced. In either case, at some point you need to think about structure.

ACT ONE

The first act is the first 12500 words of a 50000 word novel, or the first 1/4 of a longer novel. James Scott Bell, in his book Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing The Power of Story, gives us the following ‘signposts’ that should happen in the first act:

The Disturbance (to the Lead character’s ordinary world)

The Care Package (to show that the Lead cares about someone)

The Argument Against Transformation (Because your Lead is likely to resist the changes coming to his life.)

Trouble Brewing (Hint of the major story conflict to come)

Doorway of No Return #1 (Major change, Lead is now committed to the confrontation/conflict of Act 2)

ACT TWO

The Lead is now committed to leaving his Ordinary World for the world of the story’s conflict/challenge. In a detective novel, this change may be in taking the case. In The Hunger Games, it’s when Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place as tribute. In Act Two, the Lead’s life has changed in a big way.

Act Two is longer than Act One— 25000 words in a 50000 word story. About 1/2 of the novel’s total acreage. Act Two can drag if you let it. Here are the signposts that James Scott Bell gives us for Act Two:

A Kick in the Shins (Lead must face an obstacle— trouble related to overall story)

The Mirror Moment (Midpoint— Lead is reflective, realizes he must change or die)

Pet the Dog (Lead character shows compassion to animal or human, in spite of danger)

Doorway of No Return #2 (Lead is now committed to Final Confrontation)

ACT THREE

The Lead is now committed to the Final Confrontation that the story has been pointing to. No chance to back out. This final act is the climax of the story, the pay-off that the previous acts have been pointing to. This act is about 1/4 of the novel, or the last 12500 words of a 50000 word novel. The Final Battle should take care of the major conflict of the story, and other loose ends must be wrapped up as well, so the Reader feels the story is done. The signposts:

Mounting Forces (The Lead’s Opposition is closing in)

Lights Out (The darkest point: all seems lost, Lead can’t win)

The Q Factor (Lead receives what he needs to win: encouragement, a weapon, knowledge)

Final Battle (Climax of the story; this battle will solve the story problem, kill or defeat villain)

Transformation (After the battle, Lead has been changed— show this)

Plotters will use the Three Act structure and the signposts before the writing of the story begins. You can use them as the framework of your outline. And, as you write, you can revise elements of that outline to make it more reflective of what you have in fact actually written.

Pantsers aren’t going to work all these things out in advance. They MAY use the signposts and the Three-Act structure to help them set the pace, and to work out what they should write next. OR, they may ignore much of the structure until the second draft stage. Yes, pantsers sometimes outline AFTER they’ve written a first draft, as a way to organize a batch of randomly written scenes into parts of a structured novel.

Have You Tortured Your Characters Today?

If you haven’t yet done something cruel, vile and shocking to a fictional character, you haven’t been writing. That’s the fiction writer’s job— to torture characters.

Look at some examples— in the Game of Thrones books, one character loses his sword hand, another most of his nose, another several fingers and toes. Well, that’s a bloody violent series. What about children’s books? Harry Potter has his parents murdered because of an evil wizard who was really targeting Harry, and in the Hunger Games, Katniss, the breadwinner of her impoverished family, feels compelled to volunteer for a combat to the death in order to spare her younger sister from that fate.

Even in the mildest of Amish romances, the Lead character will suffer. Perhaps she’ll find her intended kissing another girl behind the barn— or perhaps he’s discussing complicated Bible passages with her. Maybe the Bible discussion would be worse. Or perhaps she’s suspected of stealing something or of doing something that could get her shunned. Even in a mild romance, life isn’t all roses.

The reason for that is that crisis helps us identify with the Lead character and his struggles. Maybe we don’t really care whether Jordun Bigmuscles ever finds that magic sword. But we’ll care when he’s tortured by a wizard— particularly if he gets tortured because he’s saving someone else from that fate. We care if his brother or his mother is killed by his particular enemy— and we perhaps identify with his attempts to get justice. And this identification with the character helps us identify with the rest of the Lead character’s quest.

Each genre and sub-genre has its own rules for what level of character-torture is permitted. In an Amish romance, Lead character Bethany’s enemy is more likely to steal her apple pie recipe than to lop off her arm with a sword. And Mommy and Daddy don’t get murdered in a baby’s picture book. In other genres like spy novels or epic fantasy, a lot of character-torture is permitted.

One caution before you go too far, though. Really extreme events— your Lead character getting his eyes gouged out and his limbs amputated— can take you to the point where the reader stops identifying with the character because it’s just too painful. I know a nurse who quit watching The Walking Dead the time that Bob was captured by some guys who cut off his leg and ate it. If you want a wide readership, you have to restrain your natural sadism a little.

What bad things are happening to the characters you are working with right now? Are you harming them enough? Remember, no one reads books where everyone is happy about everything right from the start. There’s nowhere to go from complete bliss.

Understanding the Edit-As-You-Go Writing Method

The world of writers is made up of ‘plotters’ and ‘pantsers,’ each of these groups using a different method to get to the same goal of having a finished work of fiction.

‘Plotters’ are writers who use outlines. Some plotters write long, detailed formal outlines, and others make do with much shorter outlines. Plotters transfer the excitement of discovering their new story from the first-draft stage to the outlining stage.

Subsets of the ‘plotters’ include those who use the Snowflake Method and Plot Gardening to come up with their outline.

My problem, when trying to be a plotter, was that once I’d finished the enormous goal of writing an outline, I was done with the story. The outline made it feel too flat and lifeless to actually write.

‘Pantsers’ are writers who just sit down and write the ideas in their head without an outline to get in the way. Pantsing is looked down upon by some how-to-write authors— there is even one book called ‘Pull Up Your Pants,’ which I assume encourages pantsers to become plotters.

But since writers like Stephen King and George R. R. Martin are pantsers, using that method doesn’t have to be death to your writing career.

I don’t know how much the average successful pantser has in his head about the contents of a chapter when he sits down to write it. Probably it’s different for different writers. Many of the ideas come during the process of writing.

My problem when trying to be a pantser is that I end up with a lot of chapters that don’t match each other. The mess gets bigger the more chapters I accumulate. Is it any wonder that I prefer to write short poems, which can at least be contained in my head and don’t have to match anything?

The answer to that problem is a subset of pantsing called ‘Edit-As-You-Go’ writing. In the book ‘Fiction Writing for Dummies’ by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy, pages 62-64 are dedicated to Edit-As-You-Go writing, and the book states that Dean Koontz uses that method.

I looked up an article on the Great God Internet: ‘Edit As You Go And Why You Must Try’ by Ryan J. Pelton. He says that Edit-As-You-Go is what writers Lee Child, Stephen King, Dean Wesley Smith, and Elmore Leonard do.

How EAYG works is that you write a chapter or three as a pantser— no outline to bind you, no editing, just see where your story is taking you. And then you go back and start to edit-as-you-go.

If you have already written chapter two or chapter three before you go back to EAYG chapter one, you can make the adjustments that your later chapters demand. Perhaps you have created a minor character in the later chapters who needs to exist in chapter one, or at least be mentioned. Maybe later still in the story you will have to go back to your earliest chapters to add characters or plot elements, or merge a couple of minor characters into one.

The reward for using EAYG is that you don’t end up with a wild, meandering first draft that needs more editing effort than you can supply. When you write ‘The End’ it is really the end, or close to it, not the beginning of 6 months to two years of rewriting hell.

This is how it is working for me. I had written a bunch of chapters and chapter-fragments for my current WIP (which is nameless.) Some of these don’t even have the same Lead character! These chapters are set in 2 different fantasy kingdoms (which border on each other.) After a few chapters, I had worked out that the Lead is a girl from Kingdom 1 who escapes to Kingdom 2 to get beyond the reach of a King that has evil intentions towards the girl’s family, who are noted for their skill in working with dragons.

I chose a chapter that seemed like it could become a fully functional first chapter. After finishing it, I began rewriting. I had to correct some mistakes, like failing to mention that a viewpoint character was a dwarf, and using Lord Zeeman’s name without having bothered to introduce him to the other characters or the reader.

I am also going ahead and ‘pantsing’ the successor chapter, which is in a different setting and introduces the Lead character’s father just as he is imprisoned by the tyrant king. This will replace a partial chapter I wrote earlier in the process, when I was still discovering the story.

I think EAYG will work out for me, as I learn more about doing it. It’s clear that the other methods I’ve tried don’t work out that well for me as an individual writer. I don’t say that what works for me is what will work for you. You have your own brain and your own natural working methods. Maybe you love outlining and feel that makes you a better writer. I’m not saying, don’t do it. I’m saying, if it doesn’t work for you, here is another method to try.

Some Books (NOT affiliate links, alas):

The Snowflake Method: Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy

The Plot Gardening Method: Plot Gardening by Chris Fox

The Article:

Edit As You Go and Why You Should Try by Ryan J. Pelton