Kat: Love Your Antagonist (Say What?)

Last week ArghInk featured a post detailing the importance of loving the antagonist in our story. It’s not a new concept to me (we talked about it at McD) but I disregarded all that because my antagonist, Hawk, is not the hero. He’s Cheyenne’s half uncle and up until now he’s been the quintessential “bad guy”. In other words, one-dimensional, predictable, and boring. Which is why until now my focus (and sympathy) has been on Cheyenne.

Cheyenne’s mother, Rose, gave her up for adoption when she was a baby, but when she leaves the family house and land to her, she presents her with an opportunity to claim her heritage. Cheyenne wants nothing to do with her mother, but she’s in a jam and needs money. She accepts her mother’s challenge (Rose stipulates she live in the house sixty days) with the intention of selling everything off to pay off her debts.

Hawk wants the land too, but not for the money. To him the land equals family and heritage and he’ll do whatever is necessary to make sure Cheyenne doesn’t inherit, including undermining her growing sense of family and belonging by forcing her out of the house before the sixty days are up.

When writing him, I’ve been primarily focused on the actions he takes to stop Cheyenne. I’ve pictured him as old and bitter, mean, and willing to ruin Cheyenne’s shot at happiness with Reed and River in order to win.  Not exactly the characteristics of a loveable or three-dimensional character.

Then I began planning the research part of my upcoming trip to Arizona. During that process, I discovered that Hawk is part Navajo. The significance of this detail has become clear as I’ve researched the history, customs, and traditions of the Navajo people. They have a long history of fighting to retain and preserve their home (Monument Valley, AZ) and that history is marked with a tragic period known as “The Long Walk”.

I won’t go into the back story that resulted in this horrific event, but the impact of it (a devastating number of Navajo died) continues to haunt the Navajo today. The story of The Long Walk is embedded in their culture.

What does that have to do with my story? Learning about the Navajo has changed the way I view Hawk. Hawk’s self-identity is Navajo. He loves the land and has heard the stories of The Long Walk. He knows the devastating toll that occurred the last time the land was snatched away. Knowing this about him puts a whole new twist on writing Hawk. In his mind, he’s been restrained in the battle to win back his family land from usurper Cheyenne.

No one is more surprised than I am to find that I love my antagonist now. I have a deep sense of empathy for Hawk. Fighting for his heritage is deeply ingrained in his psyche, and in some respects I think he deserves to win.

What do you love most about your antagonist? Is there one defining positive “human” characteristic that defines your antagonist, and if so how has it shaped your story?

17 thoughts on “Kat: Love Your Antagonist (Say What?)

  1. To some people, my guy George might be the “evil developer.” But the thing is, he’s really smart, and he loves his town, and he hates to see it dying like so many other small towns. He gets this idea to build an “ecomall” in the caves just outside of town — they are close enough to Kansas City to attract tourists who will enjoy the cool shopping year-round, and will enjoy touring the caves. He figures he’ll protect the “good parts” of the caves, and also provide a much needed to boost not only to his own wallet, but to everyone in town.

    He’d be a hero, except for the fact that he doesn’t look on the supernatural creatures living in the caves as sentient creatures, and he thinks nothing of destroying their homes to save his own town.

    Everyone’s got to have a fatal flaw — sometimes those are the best bad guys. Mr. Wonderful except for that one fatal flaw. (And I go back to George Wickham again — super guy, well-spoken and genteel, except he looks upon other people as walking cash machines to fund his comfortable lifestyle — and there’s no problem in humiliating a walking cash machine. Also — the original Wickham had trouble seeing women as sentient beings — they were more like mobile sex dolls. He may have had problems seeing men as sentient beings as well . . . . Pretty big blind spots to have.)

  2. Chuck Wendig had a great post about this (perhaps someone mentioned this the other day, I’ve not had chance to catch up with the last few days’ posts), but just in case no one has, here’s the link: http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2012/07/24/25-things-you-should-know-about-antagonists/

    For me, it’s summed up by the thought that everyone is the hero of their own story, so doing the mental exercise of thinking about what the story would be if the antagonist were written as the protagonist is quite fruitful. I’m writing a comic romantic mystery, so where I struggle is that we don’t know who the antagonist is until the murderer is revealed at the end. I’d love to know if anyone else has that problem and how it affects their thinking about antagonists.

    Thanks for the great post Kat – I remember your story quite well from when it Jenny had the series where you all asked for input on titles – can’t wait to see how it pans out.

    • Oh, me too. I’m looking forward to writing the ending 🙂

      Like, you, Jenny C also believes that we should write the antagonist as if they think they are the protagonist, and for me that’s working pretty well. Hawk is growing as a character and getting deeper into his head is helping me as I write act III.

      Thanks for including the link to Terrible Minds, too. This must be antagonist week.

  3. Hawk sounds awesome.

    My favorite thing about the antagonist in my WIP is that he is true to himself. He has values, warped though they be, and he lives by them. He is a big believer in fairness (according to his values). This not only shapes the story, it is the story.

  4. I was about 1/3 in when I realized that my antagonists were not only not getting enough real estate on the page, they didn’t have any depth. So I’ve been working on that, making them the protagonists of their own story, and now, I think if they just explained what they wanted to the real protagonist, she would totally understand. Sigh.

    • Isn’t it funny how most of us have started out writing a one dimensional antagonist? Maybe it’s because we’re so focused on the protagonist and blocking his/her goals. I know in my case, I simply used Hawk as the delivery method for whatever action I needed to block Cheyenne.

      Now he’s got a life of his own on the page which makes him (I hope) more interesting.

  5. I started to love my antagonist when Jenny C made us write an A-Z story and I wrote about Sasha as a super-wealthy, super-smart, very damaged teenager facing up to her tyrant of a father because she wanted to go to school abroad (as far away from him as possible). She was just an interesting minor character at the time, but I really felt for her, even liked her, and understood what made her such a driven bitch as an adult.

    After McD I upgraded her to antagonist, gave her a much bigger role in the story, and realised she also needed a voice and a lot more back-story. I wondered how she spent her free time at home and later at school, and then what happened to her after school until her father died and she inherited his business empire aged 25. My hubby gave me a fanastic idea, which became even better when I realised that Jennifer O’Brien could fill in a million missing details, tell me if it was possible, and generally help me figure it out (thank you soo much, Jennifer!). So now I know where Sasha spent her missing years, and I know in her heart of hearts she desperately still wants to be there, not in London taking over a business empire and proving herself to her dead father. Which makes her even more of an intelligent, damaged, crazy, antisocial megalomaniac superbitch.

    I think it was Michille who gave me the place-holder for Sasha’s looks – the model Tania Coleridge in George Michael’s Father Figure video.

    I really, really love this woman. Eventually I want to write her story, but she has some very bad stuff to do first 🙂

  6. It’s so cool that you’ve figured this out, Kat! I look forward to learning about The Long Walk when you visit in April. 🙂

    My antagonist became multi-dimensional when I hooked him up with a girl…not Susannah, but his “true love.” Everything he’s doing is for the love of this woman, so while it seems like he’s an ass, to him, his heart (and his actions) are in the right place. And I’m hoping I can write him well enough that the reader has some sympathy for how whipped he is, because I don’t think that his love will be reciprocated.

  7. With my current settings, the setting itself is the antagonist in its own way. In one, a world-ending apocalypse defines everything, and the various reactions to (or lack of knowledge about) said apocalypse forms the basis of conflict for the entire book.

    In the other, the antagonist is restrictions to human capability implemented in a computer program. If you’re within the norm, no problem live as you like (without doing outright crime). For my protagonists, who intentionally operate outside the norm, getting caught is the fear and the antagonist, an ever-present specter without a true face.

    Though this post does remind me that I do need to create some stories with some typical antagonists to empathize and/or hate.

    • I really like this idea–setting as antagonist. You hear about “setting as character,” when the setting is so important to the story that the story couldn’t take place anywhere else. But I haven’t thought of setting as antagonist. It makes perfect sense–not just for apocalypses (and how perfect is that?) but also those frozen-tundra type stories, too.

Let Us Know What You Think

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s