Every story has an antagonist, in some form, whether that’s human, a corporation, a government, an animal, something environmental, something elemental, mechanical, robotic or even other worldly.
But how important is it to have a clearly defined antagonist?
The role of the antagonist is to thwart, impede or cause all manner of problems in order to stop your main character reaching his or her goal. Antagonists come in all forms and usually represent the immoral, negative side to the often moral, ethical and positive side of the protagonist. They are often portrayed as evil, nasty and villainous, but they can also be none of those. An antagonist doesn’t have to be evil, but he or she should be well drawn out and realistic in his or her behaviour.
That means they also have a goal to reach within the story, which will bring them into conflict with the main character. Why and how is important for writers to explore and cultivate, just as they would do with the main character. These characters revolve around each other and the plot.
Often stories have a gamut of leading characters and it’s not always easy to figure out just whose story it is, because they haven’t clearly defined those characters. This is a common mistake by writers. The reader has to know whose story it is, who is involved and why. This alone is good reason to clearly define such characters – clarity is so important in fiction.
And just because your hero gets star billing doesn’t mean you can leave the antagonist in the shadows. They have a story to tell, too, which is always linked to the main character somehow. They have to leap from the page in just the same way your protagonist does. They must therefore have motivation – reasons why they do what they do or behave in certain ways – and they should also have goals and backstory. And just like the hero, they, too, must develop and evolve throughout the story. That’s what makes them real. But it also marks them from other secondary characters that inhabit your story.
These things define your antagonist.
Without an antagonist, the story may lack depth and structure, since the protagonist won’t have much to do in the way achieving his or her goal if he doesn’t have someone causing problems and obstacles at every turn. Without such a character, where will the conflict come from? Conflict is so important in any story, otherwise there isn’t a story to tell. How can conflict arise if there is no antagonism?
Antagonists are often the very reason readers become so invested in a story, because they want the hero to overcome the bad guy, they want some form of comeuppance, they want the satisfaction of seeing the antagonist defeated. That’s one of the reasons that keep them gripped to the story.
Develop your antagonist as much as you can. Make them as complex, formidable and multidimensional as your hero. Make him or her real enough for your reader to provoke reaction and emotions from your reader, especially when he or she gets the upper hand over the main character and seems unstoppable. We desperately want the hero to fight back, to regain control, to overcome all obstacles to defeat the bad guy.
Antagonists should stand out from the secondary characters. They should be introduced early within the story develop in all their antagonistic glory. They must appear real to the reader, in everything they do.
Love them or hate them, they have place within our stories and a vital role to play, so yes, it’s important they should be clearly defined. If not, your story won’t be a strong as you think it is.
And neither will your hero.
Next week: Creating contrasting description