Nancy: The Ever-Important Antagonist

Protagonist vs Antagonist Face-to-Face

I hate to break the streak Michaeline and Jilly started, but alas, I have no fun flash fiction to share. What I do have is a great big pile of scenes and sequences and chapters of my WIP in various stages of revision. And then there are the over-arching issues…oh, the overarching issues.

Recently, as I was pondering the varied and sundry ways my first act went off the rails, I read a post about protagonists over at 8LW mentor Jenny Crusie’s blog. One little line in the post jumped out at me: “[The protagonist] does not make the story, though; that’s the antagonist who shapes the narrative in the way he or she pushes back.” And I said to myself, ‘yes, that!’

That was the moment that several things that had been swirling around in my brain coalesced into one concrete thought: my antagonist is not in Act 1. OK, that’s not entirely true. He is mentioned, discussed, and hanging over the life of my protagonist in ominous ways. We hear his voice and start to see his world view through the voicemails and texts he sends our girl. But he doesn’t show up physically until nearly the end of Act II. And for my story, it just isn’t working.

To get you quickly up to speed without presenting too many spoilers, I should tell you a little about this lead protagonist, Eileen, and her antagonist, Jim. It was a dark and stormy night…at least emotionally, the last time Eileen saw Jim. Because once upon a time, the two were married, until the night when controlling and emotionally abusive Jim turned physically violent. Jim is handsome, charming, wicked smart, and sociopathic. After going on a violent tear that started with beating Eileen and ended in trying to set fire to the house of the neighbor who tried to help Eileen, Jim went to prison. And Eileen got a divorce. But that’s all back story.

When the story of this book begins, Eileen has just learned that Jim is getting paroled, earlier than she expected.  The news gets Eileen laser focused, and she fast-tracks her plan to open her classic car restoration business. This is a side project she’s been developing for years so that she can 1) earn more money (money=protection/safety), and 2) show Jim that her life is now wholly her own and there is no place in it for him (he hated that she was skilled with cars and dreamed of leaving her adjunct teaching job at the college where they both worked to become a ‘grease monkey’).

In Act I, though, Jim isn’t yet back out on the streets, and Eileen certainly isn’t going to visit him in prison, so the reader doesn’t get a chance to see him, to observe his sociopathic, self-serving behavior even as he proclaims his love for Eileen and begs her forgiveness. He’s making phone calls and sending texts (he’s the type who would find a way to do that from prison) and Eileen is reacting, but even with little bits of the abuse backstory dropped into Act I, the feeling of urgency and story movement created by a strong antagonist pushing and pulling the protagonist just isn’t there. That’s not to say the offpage/offscreen antagonist can’t work; I just can’t make it work here. For this story, I need to spring Jim from the Big House earlier and get him back in town, in Eileen’s face. And then the real back-and-forth of antag pushing and protag reacting/pushing back can begin. Major overhaul of Act I, here I come.

Have you read/seen antagonists who are offpage/offscreen for big chunks of a story but still manage to shape the narrative? I guess I’m still holding out hope of finding an example that could help me salvage my current structure…And if you’re currently revising your WIP, please share your recent triumphs or setbacks in the comments (misery loves company :-().

11 thoughts on “Nancy: The Ever-Important Antagonist

  1. LOL, two isn’t a streak — three’s a streak. No worries!

    This is a very interesting question. My NaNo put the antagonist in a different country for the entire book. It worked for me to write a first draft because I was more interested in how the characters would tackle their difficulties than I was in the boyfriend/girlfriend conflict. I think it was really a story about the heroine conquering herself and her old habits. I think that kind of story can really work — I love a good makeover story. Not sure if I accomplished anything with it.

    The Crying Game (movie) is a story where the real antagonist is there at the start, drops out for a significant part of the story, and then comes back in to put pressure on the middle story. I don’t know HOW to describe the structure in that one, but it was a very satisfying story.

    Jane Austen handled things in an interesting fashion in Pride and Prejudice — the hero is implied right in the first sentence (although it’s really referring to Mr. Bingley at that point), but doesn’t show up for at least a chapter, if I’m remembering things right.

    In Ghostbuster, Gozer doesn’t show up at the beginning — It is foreshadowed by the ghost in the library — Its minions.

    Does your bad guy have any minions? A mother or a brother who can be a thorn in your heroine’s side until the Big Bad shows up? That’s another common pattern. In Sherlock (BBC), Moriarty didn’t show up until after the first show, IIRC. Fighting her way through an escalating number of bad guys (all somewhat related) could work in a contemporary . . . .

    Just brainstorming a little.

    • Good luck in getting your own antagonist back! Now that he’s had a nice long vacation, maybe he will come back and do lots of deliciously evil things to propel your protag’s story :-).

      Interesting question about the minions. There is something called stalking by proxy, and it tends to be an escalation that happens when the victim employs lots of roadblocks against the actual stalker. Such a thing just might make an appearance in a later act ;-), but in the beginning, Jim’s goal is to get Eileen back, and to do that, he will want to have the contact with her himself. Still pondering.

  2. Still thinking about a good offscreen antagonist, Nancy – maybe police procedurals or romantic suspense, where the bad guy holds the cards and the good guys have a lot of figuring out to do?

    But … just wondering … is there no way Eileen might HAVE to visit Jim in the Big House? Powerful inciting incident. If she gets a letter from him saying that he’ll be out soon and he’s soooo sorry (or whatever) so she has to go to see him to tell him face to face that she’s done [something important] that signals they are over and done for ever. Or he (manipulative bastard) says he’ll sign the papers but only if she brings them in person. Better for her to try to do it while he’s still safely inside. I think it would be much more powerful for the reader to see her trying to cut ties before he gets out, and him saying he’ll never let her go, and then she’ll be running for her life and every text and letter will be meaningful for the reader. Just a thought? Oh – maybe a little flavor of Silence Of The Lambs? Shiver.

    • What great food for thought! In the first Act, Jim will be on a ‘charm offensive’ (sorry, no Silence of the Lambs :-)). But I had originally thought about the parole board inviting Eileen to make a victim impact statement at the hearing. So maybe she does, and Jim charms the socks off the parole board while Eileen realizes some of the things he’s saying are veiled messages to her, and she thinks, ‘oh, shit, they’re going to let him out and he’s going to come after me’. And as things escalate in later acts, he can employ all sorts of evil plans, including minions.

      The writer brain gears are turning, slowly and creakily, but they are turning! Thanks for the great ideas, ladies!

  3. “Lost” is an example (I think) where the real antagonist doesn’t come out until waaay into the story (I’m going off memory of my husband discussing this, because I didn’t watch it very often). The antagonist was veiled, as in “Ghostbusters,” but I don’t think they knew who they were really fighting against until later in the show.

    Also, this is a bit unrelated, but my reader brain is wondering why she wouldn’t get a new cell number if he’s sending her unwelcome text messages? That’s the first thing I’d do if someone was threatening me.

    As far as getting him on the page, I think the suggestions of him getting her there in the jail to sign divorce papers or having her show up at a hearing are good ones. Any chance he could escape? Perhaps he’s having a relationship with a female jailer and he convinces her to let him out? If he’s that convincing and sociopathic, it might work. I’m almost picturing him like Joe Carrol from “The Following” (he was also a college professor, I think)…incredibly charismatic, convincing, and able to wrap people around his finger (and the leader of a cult).

  4. She does change her phone number, but phone numbers (even cell numbers) aren’t impossible to find if you or a hacker-type friend have certain skills. Jim isn’t quite as manipulative and able to dog her while he’s in jail, but as soon as he gets out, all hell can and does break loose. And that’s part of the scariness (I hope), making it clear that he’s not going to be deterred by changed phone numbers and restraining orders. And each time she ups her security in reaction to him, he finds new and terrifying ways to get to her. Or so the plan goes. Lots of that is not yet fully on the page :-/.

  5. You know, I hate to say it, but I think you’re going to have to bite the bullet on this one. I don’t see minions working—I think that will diffuse the tension. Threatening texts can be deleted, too. (Later, after he’s done something, a text can be scary as a warning.) Maybe you can have a chapter with him still in prison and being a sociopath there to other prisoners, so readers understand just how awful he his. But in terms of his torturing your protagonist, that guy needs to get out of jail fast and make trouble for her. Good luck! And hey, any time you need any cold water thrown, I’m your gal. 😦

    • I had already jumped into the cold water myself when I realized what I’d done, so no worries :-). I never cease to amaze myself with my ability to write, revise, revise again, and still have big structural problems to overcome. I know, it’s a process! But sometimes it’s such a long one.

      • Girl, I hear ya on that one. I have three new scenes to write and a few to revise because of a “great idea” I had that is messing with my existing plot. *sigh* I sure hope there’s some point where everything falls into place.

  6. Pingback: Elizabeth: A is for Antagonist | Eight Ladies Writing

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