Tag Archives: antagonist

Every Character Has a Role to Play

a very potter musicalAs you can tell, quite a few of us at Fictorians love David Farland’s workshops. I’m no exception, so I admit that this post is based on information I received at his outlining workshop. I won’t do him justice, but maybe my perspective on this topic will be of use.

(Btw, did they spell awesomeness wrong in the picture to the left? Not just me, right? OK, let’s move on.)

So, every story has a protagonist and an antagonist, right? The thing is, the best stories have so much more, though I’ll start with the basics:

Protagonist: Our protagonist is our main girl/guy, but remember that a story can have more than one protagonist. You can have a main protagonist and a secondary protagonist, both of whose stories weave together in synchronicity.

*In Harry Potter, though Ron and Hermione might be considered protagonists, the entire story is told from Harry’s pov, and the focus of the story is Harry. I see him as the only real protagonist.

Antagonist: The main bad dude/dudette. The person, place, or thing that stands in the way of our protagonist(s) achieving their goal(s).  Yep, I said it, the antagonist does not have to be a person. It can be nature as in mountains in the middle of nowhere, crippling emotions, a monster, or any of a  vast number of possibilities. Don’t limit yourself.

*Harry Potter: Duh, Voldemort.

Contagonist: I think of the contagonist as the antagonist’s knowing (or unknowing) minion. This is the one getting in the way, but not the one originally instigating the problems. Having a contagonist allows for plot twists and surprises. They’re a great way to lead the reader in one direction then twist them entirely around into another.

*Harry Potter: Some might say Malfoy, but I consider Severus Snape to be the main contagonist. We’re always unsure of his motives, and he makes himself entirely dislikable, so dying for Harry becomes a great reveal.

Heckler: The thorn in the protagonist’s side, always willing to jeer, taunt, make life difficult, and generally get in the way. Not necessarily against the protagonist’s goals, but always willing to take our protagonist down a peg or two.

*Harry Potter: Through most of the series, this role goes almost entirely to Draco Malfoy. And we love to hate him SO MUCH.

Love Interest: It’s meant to be! *insert pink and red hearts* This is the person your protagonist likes, comes to love, hates but can’t deny their attraction to. Whatever, this is the one who makes the sparks fly.

*Harry Potter: Ginny Weasley, though it sure takes them a while, and their kiss in the movie is beyond lame, in my personal opinion.

Seducer: This is the person who diverts the protagonist from the love interest, whether intentionally or otherwise. This helps the tension in the romantic subplot.

*Harry Potter: Cho Chang, though their Valentine’s date made me a bit nauseous.

Sidekick: This is the supporting character, there when the hero(ine) needs them, giving advice, an extra hand, or just moral support.

*Harry Potter: This is where Ron and Hermione really come in. Chess anyone?

Jester: The funny one. In every book, we need someone to make us laugh, lighten the mood when the drama gets too intense, or just play slapstick.

*Harry Potter: Neville Longbottom, though he definitely grew out of this role as the series progressed.

Mentor: The one who takes our protagonist’s hand, teaches him the ropes, protects him in the early stages, and almost always dies. The mentor gets our protagonist started until he/she can stand on their own.

*Harry Potter: Dumbledore, so of course he had to die.

I’m sure the list could go on, but these are the ones that stuck out to me. You see, I think the best stories have all of these character aspects. One person can embody more than one. The contagonist can also be the heckler. The seducer can also be the jester. But if you have multiple characters playing multiple roles in one story, then you might have some unnecessary characters. And if you don’t have anyone playing one of these roles then you might seriously consider, why not?

Each of these roles, whether their participation is highlighted or in the background, brings depth to a story. You might ask why I used Harry Potter as my example; because it is so easy to spot these roles in the Harry Potter stories and because they change as the story progresses. And remember, people aren’t the only ones able to play some of these roles. In the last couple of books, Harry’s seducer is his quest, pulling him away from Ginny.

And one of the funnest aspects of these character roles, is how they can change over the course of a book or a series. A sidekick may turn out to be a contagonist, the seducer may end up being the true love after all. The possibilities, just as the characters who play them, are endless.

Why do I like you when you’re standing in my way? The likable antagonist.

yes noLeigh talked a bit about writing good villains earlier this month.  I’m going to touch on a related topic – how do you make your antagonist likable? You might not always want a likable antagonist. But when you do, how do you pull it off?

I’m going to borrow a definition from Writing Excuse’s podcast on the Hollywood Formula.  An antagonist is not always the villain. Heck, in the really good stories the antagonist is often a friend or confident of the hero. So, using the Hollywood Formula an antagonist is “person who places obstacles to that goal in the path of the protagonist. . . . The antagonist is the one whose goals are diametrically opposed to the protagonist, and they’re the one who is blocking the protagonist’s journey.”

As an example from Writing Excuses, in the Dark Knight movie, Batman is the protagonist. His goal is to quit the dark knight gig and return to  a “normal” life with the woman he loves. The person who stands in his way of that goal is the antagonist. Who is it?

One hint: it’s not the Joker.

It’s Harvey Dent, the prosecutor who loves the same woman. When it looks like Dent and the love interest can’t both be saved, Dent begs Batman to save the girl.  In the end, because Harvey won’t be the man he could be, Bruce has to don the cowl and become the dark knight. Harvey’s your antagonist. but he’s not very likable. Is he?

Why not? Well, read on.

Let me take another example: Victor Laslo in Casablanca. Casablanca has the same love triangle that Dark Knight does. Follow the movie beats, they’re a lot of similar notes. Rick wants the girl, but Laslo already has her. Like Dent, Laslo represents more than just himself. When it looks like Elsa and he can’t escape, Laslo begs Rick to save Elsa. In the end, because Laslo is honorable and stays true to his goal, he makes Rick want to be a better person and rekindles his faded patriotism.

Plot-wise. Casablanca and the Dark Knight are more similar than dissimilar.

So, why do I like Laslo but not Dent? To me the difference between Harvey Dent and Victor Laslo, is that Laslo is willing to give up everything for the greater good. Dent isn’t. Fundamentally, Dent is selfish. He’s more interested in catching the headlines than catching the crooks. He’s not the best boyfriend. When he falls, he falls hard.

So, how do you make the antagonist likable?

1. Just like your protagonist and villain, your antagonist needs a goal (other than messing with the protagonist for the heck of it). I tend to like characters whose motivations I can understand and ring true.

2. The antagonist has his own morals and strengths. I dislike Harvey because once you take the shine off, he’s selfish and immature. He refuses to accept the truth Batman sees – that he (Dent) is a symbol of more than self. Dent is a weak character. First he’s seduced by power and fame. Then, the Joker seduces him with the idea of revenge. I don’t tend to like people I can’t respect. Dent loses my respect over the course of the movie.

3. The conflict with the antagonist makes the protagonist “better” in the long run.  Rick’s hope rises from Pandora’s box, but Batman is condemned to a life he tried to escape. Batman is worse off in the end.  

4. Even though the antagonist stands opposed to my protagonist, I almost want the antagonist to win. This goes back to the first few points. I want to be able to identify with this character and feel good about it. I’d like to be Laslo. Not so much Harvey Dent.

Have you come across a likable antagonist? If so, what made you like him or her?

An Exercise to Exorcise Personal Demons

Pretty much this entire year, thus far, I have been struggling with depression.  I’m doing better now, but I had to shed a lot of responsibilities that I had over committed myself to in order to get there.  That’s another story, and I won’t bore you with it here  🙂

  But, during all this, I wasn’t writing.  Wasn’t doing research, wasn’t brainstorming, wasn’t journaling, wasn’t working on my story – nada.  The only writing I was actually able to make myself do was the few blog posts I had committed to doing – like this one. That’s it.  This was not helping my depression either because I felt guilty I wasn’t working and I felt, acutely, the loss of my creativity.

I was talking to a friend (thank you, Wendy), who had just come out of some rough times herself and is also a writer.  What she had done and suggested I do was to listen to a dark song and write a character sketch for an antagonist with no intent to necessarily use the character.  Just to get dark feelings out.  Any song that took me to a dark place would do.   It took me a few songs and I had to get some suggestions, but I found one (Closer by Nine Inch Nails – the uncensored version – if you’re curious) that was sufficiently dark to me.  So, I listened to it a few times and started writing this antagonist.

What happened half way through was that I could see all the potential for a story using this character.  When I finished with him, I started sketching out the hero and heroine (I write romance – remember).  Already, I was feeling better and inspired.  Then I started writing some rough plot points, followed by the intro to the story.


And now, I’m writing.  It worked.  I hadn’t done any writing in months and through one cool exercise, I was back.  It is such a relief to be feeling more like myself and being creative.  So, I would suggest this exercise to anyone who needs to shake off some darkness from within.

How do you get through rough times when you’re struggling to create?