Elizabeth: Activate your Antagonist

A rendering of an archetype of a villain With permission from Wikipedia Commons

A rendering of an archetype of a villain
With permission from Wikipedia Commons

While going through my email this morning, I came across this post from the delightful Ainsley Brooks, author of The Star Prophecy: Book One of The Daughters of Prophecy.

“I’ve been stuck on my WIP. I just got myself unstuck, and it occurs to me that I always get stuck for the same reason. My villain isn’t doing enough. So that’s my tip for the day. If your story isn’t moving forward, maybe your antagonist isn’t active enough.”

Since my story has currently slowed to a crawl in Act II, this really made me stop and think. Although we talked about antagonists during the McDaniel program and in posts here, here and here at Eight Ladies, I hadn’t realized that my own antagonist isn’t doing enough. He’s causing trouble and making things difficult for my hero, but not too much trouble and not too difficult. Things are uncomfortable for my hero, but not too uncomfortable.

He’s barely breaking a sweat.  That can’t be good.

My antagonist is right there at the beginning of the story, getting things moving, but then turns into a “hands-off” kind of guy, fading into the background and letting others do the dirty work for him. Now part of that makes sense. His identity is unknown until close to the end of the story, so he can’t be too obvious, but he needs to be doing more and be more of a presence.  I need to turn him from a two-dimensional archetype into a well-rounded antagonist so my hero has something to push back against.

I’ll be spending my writing sessions this week making sure my antagonist is in action. Thanks for the tip Ainsley.

So what are some examples (book, movie, anything) of active antagonists I can look to for inspiration?

13 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Activate your Antagonist

  1. Thanks, Elizabeth! I tend to put twists in my plots too, and that does make it difficult to have the antagonist front and center. But conflict is the engine’s grease, and without enough of it, the whole thing locks up. Stuck. Stuckety stuck stuck. I know this, yet I still find myself here with every WIP.

    • Ainsley, you’re right. Conflict is so important, though it seems to be something that needs to be re-learned with every story (at least for me so far).

  2. Humperdinck from The Princess Bride. Other than the whole Dread Pirate Roberts trauma Wesley experiences off the page, Humperdinck is responsible for all the threats posed to Wesley and Buttercup, his influence driving every scene.

    • Love The Princess Bride!

      And what about Federation President Barry Fife in Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom? He’s the architect of all Scott’s problems, he’s a hugely enjoyable antagonist and he gets some great lines.

      • Jilly – I’m not familiar with Strictly Ballroom. Must add that to the video queue. If I don’t get writing done this weekend, I’ll attribute that to you 🙂

    • Jennifer – Humperdinck is a great example. Obviously I need to re-watch the movie immediately, just to make sure 🙂

      • One of the few movies that does justice to the book. Swordplay is so much more fun on the screen than on the page! Actually, I was trying to remember where in the movie we find out that Vizzini was hired by Humperdinck. All the villainous machinations were explained more thoroughly in the book, naturally, since there is more time for that. Doesn’t make the book better than the movie, though, just different.

  3. This isn’t really an example of an off-screen antagonist doing anything, but last night my husband and I watched the “Red Wedding” episode from Game of Thrones. As much as I was shocked by the slaughter, I was impressed with George HH Martin’s gumption to kill off an entire wedding party, including several key characters (happened at the end of Season 1, too). He seems to do that a lot and it certainly makes for an interesting plot twist (not to mention all of us wondering “Now what?”).

    I’m not suggesting you start killing off characters, unless that’s warranted, but perhaps think of a real off-the-wall type thing your antagonist could do (presuming he didn’t have to hide himself), then figure out a way to get some other character to do it.

    While not an antagonist, I realized that I was making it too easy for Nate to woo Susannah, so now I have Susannah pursuing a totally different guy for her marriage-in-name-only. Naturally, Nate will have to “eliminate” the other guy, leaving Susannah with no choice but him.

    • Justine – Adding more complications for Nate sounds like an excellent choice. Nothing like putting any of the characters under pressure to get some really interesting results.

  4. The strength of the antagonist makes the difference between the good books I’ve read in a series and the great books I’ve loved from that same series. “Mirror Dance” by Lois McMaster Bujold has her most terrifying villain of the entire Vorkosigan saga, and it’s no coincidence that it’s that book that comes to mind when I think about the strength of her protagonists.

    If it weren’t for Moriarty, Holmes wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.

    • Scott – yes, Moriarty is a great example. He’s not only active, he’s smart and active, so he presents a great challenge.

      Not sure I’ll add “Mirror Dance” to my reading list though. “Most terrifying villain” might be just a smidge out of my comfort zone 🙂

    • LOL, I’m so glad someone squeed about Bujold before I did. She does the best villains — Mirror Dance really is intense, so it might not be the place to start.

      She does a lot of sequential villains. And one of the best villains is a natural force — the malices in the Wide Green World series. They are just one damn thing after another, without any goal except a terrible tendency toward destruction. The books have other conflicts, though.

      I suspect that Bujold’s antagonist is often the protagonist — defeating the “can’t do” side of oneself. But the subplots carry enough villains for each scene that things work out.

      The section where the hero, Miles, and Emperor Gregor (who is running away from responsibilities) fight Cavilo (a kick-ass female villain who is absolutely Machiavellian in her twistiness) is probably a great example of the antagonist being quite active and personal. (The Vor Game actually starts out with a short story that has been recycled. So, it’s a bit choppy segue, but then it REALLY WORKS.)

      You need a villain worthy of your hero — Jenny often said something like, the villain needs to be smarter, better, twistier (maybe just plain crazier) than your hero. It makes the showdown feel even more personal and triumphant for the hero.

  5. I thought of another background villain — Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious in the Star Wars saga. He uses and abuses the Jedi, the Trade Federation, and Anakin to bring about the Clone Wars and the Death Star.

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