Saturday, 27 June 2015
There is a lot to cover where protagonists are concerned – probably more so that creating bad guys, so in the first part of this three part series, we’ll take a look at what a protagonist is, what he or she does for a story and the different types.
What is a Protagonist?
The protagonist is the main character, the person whose story you are telling, and is also commonly referred to as the hero or the good guy. The story will centre on them; so much of it will be from their perspective. Every protagonist will have a problem to solve, and only they can do it (with the help of other characters).
Every story needs a protagonist – what type they are and how they behave is down to the writer – because without that main character, there is no story to tell. It’s the protagonist’s story. They carry the story.
Are There Different Types of protagonist?
Strangely enough, different types of protagonist do exist. There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ where main characters are concerned. While there may be umpteen sub groups for them, the main group consists of the following:-
The Classic Hero – Usually male, the classic hero is handsome and strong, brave and gallant and rescues fair maidens from peril. Generally found in historical saga, romance or fantasy novels, this hero is what every woman wants her man to be.
The Anti-Hero – This one can be male or female, and he or she can epitomise both good and bad traits. Ostensibly they are good people, but they can overstep the mark and do bad things in order to get what they want. They will often flout rules and they don’t do things by the book.
The Tragic Hero – A fatally flawed character, beset by more problems than most, but who garners sympathy from the reader by generally overcoming everything that is thrown at him or her. They tend to be very unlucky. Tragic heroes often die for their cause.
The Modern Hero – The modern hero is a balanced type of all the hero characteristics – determined, likeable, good looking, slightly flawed and not afraid to take risks.
So how do you create a good guy that can shoulder the story, do heroic things, make the reader identify with him or her and also make them likeable, interesting and realistic enough for the reader to actually care what happens to them and want to be involved in the story?
Think of all the facets that make up a real person. There are way too many to list, but you’ll find everyone has a past, a history. Everyone has unique traits and behaviours. Everyone does things differently, we’re built differently, think differently. Everyone acts and reacts differently. Your main character should be no different – someone who is multifaceted and complex.
Ultimately, the people we are drawn to are the people who show the same traits as us, so we instantly find a connection. This is also true with your protagonist. They must connect with the reader in the same way. They should have traits and characteristics that readers can identify with. For instance:-
A) They have flaws and foibles, just like the rest of us. They make mistakes; they make bad or stupid choices. Just like we do. They should never be perfect – no one is.
Don’t be afraid to exploit your main character’s weaknesses – make them vulnerable at every opportunity. This will evoke empathy and sympathy in the reader, thus strengthening that connectivity and immediacy.
B) They want something bad enough to embark on a journey to get it – a fight for justice perhaps. Or a need to right a wrong. Or what about saving someone or something, to defend others? A moral fight always endears a reader, because they will share the same ethical remit.
C) They are compelling and interesting – perhaps determined and strong, or they have a fair moral code. Perhaps they are quirky or contradictory. Maybe they are emotional and warm. Maybe they find courage in the face of danger. Perhaps they are passionate about something that matters to them. These are things we see in ourselves; these things draw us towards them.
D) They have personal issues or problems, just like real people. We all carry emotional baggage. And heroes carry the same baggage, too. It could be anything – maybe they didn’t have a father growing up. Maybe they lost a loved one. Perhaps someone did something bad to them when they were a child.
We all carry burdens from childhood to adulthood. Our main characters do, too. This helps readers connect to them on a deep, emotional level.
The Protagonist Has a Job to Do
Your protagonist is vital to moving the story forward and ensuring it reaches a satisfactory conclusion, which means he or she will have a major objective, a goal or target to achieve, be it love, revenge, survival or happiness etc.
All this means your protagonist must have various motives to act; there must be something that is driving him/her. These motives form part of the plot, the very reason for the story and it’s important that writers understand these motives before they start writing, so time spent outlining out your characters and getting their backstories in place is time well spent.
Get the details right to begin with will save a lot of hassle halfway through the novel when things start to get a little tangled.
In Part 2 we’ll look at the importance of motives to the protagonist and the kind of things that makes a ‘good guy’ good.
Next week: How to Create a Convincing Good Guy – Part 2
Saturday, 20 June 2015
In the last part of this series, we’ll take a look at the anatomy of a bad guy – all the things that make a bad guy ‘bad’.
The life we’ve lived shapes who we are in the present, so it’s inevitable that incidents in the past will affect how your antagonist sees the world, and how they deal with the problems life throws at them. Just as in real life, some people can be nasty and horrible to others, while others are subversive and shifty – but whoever they are, they will have reasons for their behaviour. And those reasons drive them through the story, they provide character motive.
So what might be those reasons?
The antagonist has a personal problem with the protagonist, be in in the past or in the present, something that triggers the catalyst of actions that course through the story. Perhaps the protagonist did something to make the antagonist angry, and that rage is exacerbated by the protagonist’s actions.
Secrets and Lies
Antagonists always have plenty to hide, things that could lead to varying consequences if anyone found out; be them secrets, lies, deceit or certain weaknesses that the bad guy doesn’t want the good guy to discover, for fear of being exploited. No one likes to be seen as weak, after all.
Sometimes a child’s upbringing can have a measured effect on their behaviours in adulthood. That’s not to say that disadvantaged kids become monsters, because the majority don’t. But there are those who will have suffered in childhood, perhaps through neglect or abuse, and if those traumas are not dealt with, then the children sometimes carry those physical and emotional scars into their adulthood where they have to find alternative outlets to let go of those repressed emotions or anger, where certain behaviours develop because of personality and mental disorders, on top of those learned during childhood.
Influences & Experiences
Most people are impressionable. Most people are influenced by a lot of things – mostly positive ones. But there are occasions where people are exposed to negative influences, which are learned or copied, therefore bad experiences can also have a negative effect on the antagonist.
These are reason enough to shape who they are.
That’s just a few reasons why your bad guy might be bad, but there are also certain traits that bad guys have that writers should take note of, especially from a behavioural point of view.
These traits are what build a bad guy’s anatomy – they are traits that we recognise in real people, since some people can be one or many of those listed. We’ve all come across the spiteful type, the manipulative type, the unbalanced type, the insecure type...These are the things that bad guys are made of.
Universally recognised bad guy traits:-
- Manipulative or Machiavellian
- Spiteful, resentful
- Angry and unable to control themselves
- Sociopathic or psychopathic
- Crazy/ mentally unbalanced
- Unhappy/detached or depressed
- Under the influence of drugs
- Manipulated by someone else
- Evil, plain and simple.
Bad guys are multifaceted and complex, because of the many characteristics they exhibit. In other words, there isn’t simply one thing that makes that person bad; it’s many things. A combination of these traits makes the person; as does their history and backstory.
Some Caveats to Consider
There are some limitations where bad guys are concerned. Sometimes the bad guys win. It’s a myth that the hero always wins.
There are times when neither the antagonist nor protagonist gets what they want and both characters may end the story empty-handed.
Not all bad guys are bad and not all good guys are good. Writers love shaking things up by reversing the roles, by making bad guys good and good guys bad.
Never make the mistake of turning the antagonist into a caricature bad guy. You’re writing a novel, not a James Bond villain of megalomaniac proportions.
If you decide to kill the bad guy, make sure it’s a satisfactory end for him or her – the reader won’t settle for anything less. The retribution must fit.
Whoever your villain is, he or she needs to be well thought out, complex, well written and just as essential to the story as your hero.
Next week: How to create a convincing good guy.
Saturday, 13 June 2015
Part 1 of this series looked at why we have bad guys in our stories and why we need them, so this week we’ll take a look at how you bring your antagonist to life and fully develop the character in order to give them that purpose. This is where things get interesting.
Just like your main character, your bad guy should be well thought out and fully developed before you embark with writing. This is important because although they may not share the same amount of ‘page’ time as your main character, they will still require the same thorough detail.
Spend time characterising. Pay as much attention to him/her as you would the hero. It’s vital that you give credence to the character. There are a lot of aspects that make up a really good antagonist – the kind that the reader will remember long after they’ve finished reading your story, so it’s important to get it right.
The one thing that is noticeable with bad guys is that many writers create their antagonist with the opposite emotional characteristics to their protagonist (this parallelism creates conflict because the very things that make the main character ‘good’ are the things that make the bad guy ‘bad’). That said, your bad guy – by virtue of being bad – should also have flaws, like we all do. Remember, no character is perfect. Imperfections and flaws are what helps readers identify with your characters; it makes the people in your fictional world as close to reality as possible.
Your antagonist should not only have bad traits, but a few good traits too. Yes, even bad people can be good. This is what helps them establish the connection with the reader – as much as they may want to hate the villain, they will also appreciate his or her better qualities. Bad people are not bad 24 hours of the day.
But to fully realize your antagonist, you need to establish quite a few things first:-
Why is the antagonist challenging the protagonist?
Is it because the bad guy has something the hero has? Is it because the antagonist is jealous and bitter over something? Is it truly personal, perhaps a relative who is hell bent on revenge? Did something happen to them in the past to cause the antagonism? Did the actions of the protagonist somehow cause conflict with the antagonist?
Sometimes it’s a simple as one person – usually the bad guy – hiding something, usually a huge secret, and doing everything in their power to stop the hero from finding out.
Ensure that you establish the kind of challenge and the root cause of the conflict.
What kind of antagonism is it?
There are different types. Is it the underhanded, sly type? Perhaps it’s just intimidation and sometimes aggressive, or maybe it’s the violent or even psychotic type?
Know what type of antagonist you want from the outset and decide just how far he or she is willing to go to get what they want. As writer, you control this.
Some of the best villains have used mind games with the hero rather than physical conflict – psychological thriller and crime genres employ this effectively, simply because being a bad guy isn’t always about wanton killing and blowing stuff up. It’s the fear of what the bad guy can do that is scary for the reader.
Ensure you know the type of bad guy you want before you start writing. This makes it so much easier during the process. You have to establish for the reader why there is a rivalry and a need for the antagonist’s actions and how all this relates to the story. It has to form part of the plot.
What is the antagonist’s ultimate goal?
This is something else to know before you start writing. What are his or her goals? Does he or she want to humiliate or destroy the hero in some way?
Does the antagonist want some sort of revenge? Does he or she want to kill the hero? Does the bad guy want something that the hero has or that he wants to prevent the hero from getting? Whatever the reason, make this clear to the reader and enforce it throughout the story, through your antagonist’s actions.
The antagonist will not only try to prevent your hero reaching his or her goal by whatever means (which will be part of the overall plot), but he or she must also affect change in what they do or how they act. Perhaps they see the light and want to change as people, or they redeem themselves or become a better person because of the events in the story. Even if you kill off your villain, they should change somehow within the story, just as your hero must also change by the novel’s conclusion.
What’s the antagonist’s background?
Your bad guy needs a background. Just like your protagonist, your antagonist also needs history and backstory, because what he does in the story in the present will most likely have been affected by his or her past.
Learned behaviours and character traits play an integral part of who we are, so your bad guy will be no different. Did he or she have a bad childhood, or maybe a really good one (not all baddies are bad because of their upbringing, this is a stereotype). Did some terrible event occur to colour the antagonist’s views about certain things or certain people?
Remember, any antagonist should be just as complex as your protagonist.
Some other things to consider is that bad guys tend to act in certain ways or exhibit certain behaviours to cause conflict, problems, crises, enflame situations, and generally cause trouble.
Effective bad guys do the following at every opportunity:-
- Undermine the main character at every chance that arises
- Deliberately create conflict between others, such as friends or family members
- Physically, psychologically and emotionally threaten or attack the main character
- Take something from the main character – be it an object of significance or a person, such as a family member
- Intimidate and make threats of varying degrees or play mind games
- Use underhanded or manipulative means to get at the main character
- Betray or humiliate the good guy in some way, particularly if in the presence of others.
Escalate their behaviour
Think of your antagonist’s actions on a simple line graph. Your bad guy’s actions will be low-key to begin with, but as the story unfolds and develops, the intensity of his or her actions will start to escalate, so the line on the graph starts to climb higher and higher to a pinnacle – the final conflict in your story.
Study other books and you will notice this trend of behaviour escalation. This happens because the bad guy becomes more frustrated and angry and desperate as the story nears conclusion. This is because the hero has overcome everything the bad guy has thrown at him thus far. Things will escalate to the final showdown.
Lastly, never maker your antagonist a plot device. Instead, they should be integral to the story and should always be connected to your main character.
In the final part we’ll take a look at the anatomy of the bad guy.Next week: How to create a bad guy - Part 3
Saturday, 6 June 2015
When we write, generally the very first thing we think of is our main character, i.e. the protagonist - or more commonly known as the ‘good guy’. What we don’t always have in mind at that stage is a ‘bad guy’, the antagonist. That’s because we naturally focus on our main character first, since that is whose story we are telling, so when it comes to creating a bad guy, some writers struggle with the concept.
In this special three part series, we’ll take a look at how to create an antagonist and explore why we need them in our stories. There is a lot of ground to cover on this subject, so for Part1, let’s start with the obvious.
Why do we have antagonists?
The fundamental reason we have antagonists is to create conflict. They provide this conflict because this is the one element that drives every story. A story without an antagonist or much conflict isn’t much of a story at all.
Whoever your bad guy is, he or she will want to prevent the hero from achieving his or her goal (another driving force of any story). Antagonists are there to antagonise the main character at every turn, thus providing plenty of conflict, tension and emotion, hence the name ‘antagonist’.
The bad guy forms much of, or is part of, the many obstacles and challenges that your main character will face throughout the story. This is a great catalyst for all sorts of conflict, particularly when coupled with the setting and plot. The fact is, both characters want something and it is what they do to achieve what they want that fuels the fire of the story, so…just imagine your story without an antagonist.
Where is it going and what it will achieve if nothing and no one stands in your protagonist’s way?
What is their purpose?
The bad guy is a contrary foil who works against your protagonist on many levels, determined to prevent the protagonist from reaching his or her goal, while at the same time maintaining his/her own aims. He or she wants to succeed…but so does the protagonist. And there lies a nice little melting post of conflict.
The antagonist is there to thwart and oppose the protagonist throughout the story; therefore they are primed for confrontation, hostility and conflict, but by this very nature, it makes both characters compelling to the reader.
Of course, the other important reason we have them is to help drive the story forward. If you didn’t have an antagonist to cause problems for your hero, then just how much of a story would you have?
In truth, you wouldn’t have much to work with and your hero wouldn’t have a lot to do.
So what makes a great bad guy?
When we think of some of the best antagonists in fiction, we think of novels such as Misery’s Annie Wilkes or The Silence of the Lambs and the indomitable Hannibal Lecter. Or what about Long John Silver in Treasure Island? Or what about Voldemort from the Harry Potter books? We remember these baddies, long after we’ve read the books. Why?
We remember them because they’re well written, they are so compelling and terrifying at the same time. They make us love to hate them.
But the thing about antagonists is that they don’t have to be stereotypically ‘evil’ for readers to remember them. Bad guys are bad because they are always trying to thwart your main character from achieving his or her goal and always causing conflict and not necessarily because they are ‘evil’. No one is born evil. People develop in so many different ways that we are either considered a ‘good’ person or a ‘bad’ person by our behaviours and actions throughout life.
Bad guys don’t have to be the stereotypical James Bond-style megalomaniac who wants to take over the world, either. This kind of bad guy is almost a caricature. In truth, a bad guy can be anyone. It could be the guy in the bookstore. Your next door neighbour. The girl who serves you coffee. Your boss.
A bad guy doesn’t have to be overt in what he or she does. Sometimes the best bad guys just simply get under the main character’s skin so imperceptibly that they don’t become aware of it until a crucial moment in the story. Not only that, but they will get under your reader’s skin too. Hannibal Lector is this kind of ‘bad’ guy. He’s subtle yet chilling.
We all know that readers love to root for the hero. But they also love to hate the bad guy.
Protagonist v Antagonist Relationship
The key word here is opposition.
A relationship in opposition must exist for any story, with protagonist and antagonist pitted against each other, on opposing sides, but paradoxically, they must also be inextricably linked through the story arc and its themes.
In truth, they need each other, so it’s important that writers focus on what sort of people these characters are. Their paths will cross, or may have already crossed, they usually share the same needs or motivations, they will both have histories and backstory, they both to want to succeed, and more importantly, they will have changed as people (for better or worse) towards the end of the story.
Both characters drive the story forward. Both rely on each other. Both cannot evolve without each other.
Theirs is the most important relationship in your story. And getting them just right is the key thing to creating memorable, effective, but opposing characters.
In Part 2 we’ll look at what goes into creating an effective bad guy, one that will be unforgettable and compelling, multidimensional and very real for your reader.
Next week: How to Create a Bad Guy – Part 2