Well, we want to make our antagonist good for our story anyway. *smile*
Kristen Lamb has been running a fantastic series on antagonists (Part One, Part Two, Villains, Balancing Evil, Inner and Outer Demons). She shares more gems than I can capture here, so definitely check out her posts.
For what I want to talk about today, the important point to understand is that antagonists are not necessarily villains or evil, and even in “he’s his own worst enemy” stories, something has to drive the character arc. As Kristen says:
[The] antagonist is who or what upsets the course of the protagonist’s life … if your protag is a self-destructive alcoholic, his [antagonist] is whoever takes away his booze.
The antagonist is what forces the plot forward. Do you have that in your story? If you do, great—but you’re not done yet.
Using Your Antagonist to Explore Themes
The conflict between the protagonist and antagonist can be deeper than just two characters butting heads. That conflict can be used to reveal the theme of our story. And I love exploring themes in my writing (most of which my muse sneaks in without my conscious effort).
Let’s take the common theme of “love will overcome.” That’s been done a bazillion times and that phrase by its lonesome feels tired. But whether or not a story based on that theme feels tired depends on how the conflict plays out.
A very flat—and yes, tired—way of expressing that theme would be a heroine winning the heart of the hero despite the machinations of a bitchy rival. *yawn* Been there, done that.
The conflict is just lying there. It doesn’t add anything to the story beyond creating an obstacle for the hero and heroine. The antagonist isn’t helping make the story deeper.
But what if the conflict tied into the theme? The theme can be what differentiates the players, with the protagonist on one side of the divide and the antagonist on the other. Their beliefs and attitudes toward the concept can be the cause of their conflict. Then the conflict isn’t merely an obstacle, but a deeper examination of the validity of the theme with character motivations built right in.
For our example above, what if the antagonist wasn’t a femme fatale, but the heroine’s best friend? Maybe the best friend had been badly burned by love before and thought she was looking out for the heroine by interfering.
That’s still not a great story, but at least it has the added layer of conflict. Now the heroine has to overcome not only the antagonist’s sabotage, but also the emotional arc of the antagonist. She has to help her best friend see beyond the hurt of her past and open up to the possibilities and power of love.
Now we have internal and external conflict, character arcs for everyone, and a deeper exploration of the theme. Better, right?
As we’re developing stories, we can use the conflict(s) with the antagonist(s) to reveal aspects of the theme. Stories about trust can have antagonists who bring trust issues to the forefront. Stories about family can have conflicts that undermine or diminish families. Stories about loyalty can have antagonists who force protagonists to question their loyalties.
I need to take my own advice here and make sure I’m interweaving antagonists, conflict, and theme. My fully developed and/or already written stories have this attribute, but I think it might be lacking in some of my less-developed stories. Which is quite possibly why I’m stuck on how the plot should go. *smile*
What do you think of this method to add depth to our stories? Do your stories follow this approach? Could pantsers use this technique too? Can you think of examples (from your own or published stories) to share?Pin It