In this post, I’m going to talk about my antagonists, and why I prefer to use specific characters as antagonists, rather than general ideas or groups of people. I was very tempted to make a list here, but I promise to fight the urge.
So, on to the point. Antagonists are the entity or entities that make life hard for the protagonist. They are essential to the creation of conflict; indeed, in many stories they are the sole force behind the conflict. In terms of who or what an antagonist is, the answer is very murky. An antagonist can be misunderstood, justifiable, or completely deranged and evil—or none of these. Antagonists don’t have to be people at all (at least, according to my Senior English teacher).
As an author, I believe the idea that antagonists can be society in general or an ideal to be quite terrible. Evil—or at least, conflict—must manifest in order to take action, and action is essential for a good novel. Further, flaws and likable traits make an evil seem more real, which is pretty key for anything other than a children’s book. If I have a faceless society that ‘persecutes’ the protagonist by making it impossible for him to move out of his dead-end job, the story I tell is of necessity going to be naturalistic (not character-driven). Whereas, if I give a face to that society—let’s call him Hugh Pennysworth—now that persecution can be attributed to a single character.
With two dynamic characters, it becomes possible to have a direct conflict of wills. I can’t speak for everyone, but that’s why I read books: to hear stories about human struggles. In fact, if I may go a little further, I would submit that this is the reason most people don’t read history for enjoyment. There isn’t any set good or evil most of the time, and scores can be settled by such terrible villains as floods or thunderstorms. Children remember details about WWII because Adolf was clearly the ‘bad guy’, and watch Braveheart because William Wallace is a sympathetic protagonist. The few times when history gives humanity a clear story—black, white, with a satisfying ending—we eat it up, churning out movies and novelizations.
Remember Braveheart? King Edward, the antagonist, takes clear actions that are shown to have a direct impact on William Wallace’s life (the implementation of prima noctae, English occupation of Scotland), and Wallace sets himself against him. What plays out on screen is a protracted war between the pair, and everything that happens moves that tale along. But so much of that is incorrect. There is no evidence of King Edward implementing prima noctae, and the murder of Scottish aristocracy at the opening didn’t happen either. But they are in the movie, because that turns Edward into a person the audience can dislike, and gives Wallace personal motivation for his actions. If the movie had been historically accurate, Wallace would have been fighting for—and against—abstract concepts (freedom and tyranny), which is a lot less interesting.
Sorry, I shouldn’t allow myself to stray so far. The gist of what I’m saying is that, in the same way I talked about lightning strikes killing off the villain as being unsatisfying for readers, a struggle against concepts and abstracts is unsatisfying. The antagonist should be a person who acts, and can in turn be defeated (leading to a more satisfying ending).
Thoughts? Comments? Let me know in the comments below.