Tag Archives: antagonists

FightWrite: Respect Your Adversaries

Remember the bad guys on those shows you used to watch on Saturday mornings? Well, these guys are not like those guys. They won’t exercise restraint because you’re children. They will kill you if they get the chance. Do not give them that chance.

Helen Parr, The Incredibles

There are a lot of quotes I’ll pull from for writing about combat. However, when I think about adversaries this is one from Helen Parr is the one I always come back to. It emphasizes a critical failing that most writers have in the initial setups with their villains, with their mooks, with enemies in general. They spend so much time thinking about the fight with the bad guy that they forget about the bad guys. They forget that whatever conventional rules or moral truths their hero clings to, their bad guy doesn’t have to share. They won’t play nice, they won’t pull punches, and they play by a completely different set of rules.

They will kill you if they get the chance.

Who are your characters adversaries? What do they do? What is their history? A character that has spent their life working as a mercenary and guerilla fighter for African warlords, poaching and running illegal goods is going to be on a very different and darker level than a teen practicing aikido and karate. They live their life with much higher stakes and are likely to respond accordingly. If you’re writing and this conflict set up is just to show that your protagonist is a bad ass, if you take this one on one fight like these characters exist in similar worlds then the scene really does have a problem. (Other than the fact the protagonist probably just opened the door to be greeted by a jury-rigged claymore. Boom.)

All combat histories are not the same, context changes everything. If you want the reader to take your story seriously, then you should take your antagonists seriously. Don’t be afraid to call your protagonist out for their overconfidence. Don’t be afraid to call them out on their protected status. This is especially true when writing about teens and other children facing adult enemies. If your teen has not lived a violent life (or even a violent but protected life) and is out on their own for the first time, they will discover the world they thought they had a grasp on is entirely different. Teens are always in a transitional stage, they are moving into adulthood, they are growing up but not there yet. Respect that they don’t know everything there is to know (even if they think they do), respect that they’re status has been protected by some other force as they grew through childhood and now they’re fair game. If they fuck up, they’re going to have to get themselves out of it and the cost of screwing around can no longer be bartered off to anyone else. Innocence is on the chopping block.

My favorite part about the Helen Parr quote is that it is not about Syndrome, it’s about his minions. The guys we laugh at in superhero movies, the duds, the screw ups, the window dressing, the guys the main characters never really have to worry about. Now, now they have to worry about them. Pixar wasn’t afraid to show us how fragile Dash was when after all his punches to one of the bad guy; it just takes one to knock him off the flyer. It wasn’t afraid to point out that when Violet thought she could disappear into the water and hide, the mook could problem solve by throwing dirt in the water to show her outline. Even though the kids did win, it was made clear that we shouldn’t take these characters lightly. They weren’t people who could be easily beaten by average children and that’s part of what made Violet and Dash’s victories sweeter as they grew into heroes.

If there are enemies in your novel who are dangerous, then they are dangerous for a reason. Pay your respects to these characters by making your protagonists way past them hard. Don’t cheapen the journey by making things easy or the fight one sided. Stack the deck against your heroes and let them find their own way through the darkness.

-Michi

On Villains: Some Thoughts

Personally, I love villains. Whether that villain is physically represented as a person, the crushing weight of external circumstances crushing down the hero, or their own internal antagonist pushing them around by their flaws and fears, a good villain is one piece that a story can’t do without.

What is the role of an antagonist?

The role of an antagonist is to create conflict within the story. This is their primary role. If they are not an acting catalyst for conflict in the narrative, then you’ve got a problem. (Your hero should also be creating conflict.)

Make Them Better Than Your Hero:

What is your hero’s goal in life? What is it they want most in the world? Who do they want to be? What do they want to be good at?

Give those traits to your villain.

When your villain is everything that your hero thinks that they want in life you can create great conflict by having them reevaluate those goals. You worry the reader because we know that the villain is a better X, be that a better leader, a better strategist, a better fighter, or a better politician. It gets even better if they fit into and are good at the things the hero is not good at. Your hero may be the greatest swordsman in the world, but he sucks at world play and politics. This may seem like an advantage at first, except that the villain can control all the inner workings of the city and control public opinion. Where the hero is a battering ram, the villain is a spider plucking at their web. The hero must find a way to get to them, but they have to do that without landing their ass in jail.

A great representation of this strategy (when it’s handled right) is Lex Luthor versus Superman. Lex Luthor is the corrupted version of all the ideals Superman has sworn to uphold. Superman can’t just go battering down Luthor’s door and deal out justice, he has to prove that Lex is in the wrong. But, Lex is protected by government officials and public opinion, every time Superman tries to catch him, Lex slips away. The same is also true for Lex, he sees in Superman all the power that he dreams of having. He wants to be the Lex Luthor version of Superman and it gnaws away at him.

Take Them to the Extreme Edge:

Hero: “I want to be free.”

Villain: “I want to be free and the only way I can be is if I enslave everyone else.”

See the difference?

Some antagonists live in extremes and they take it to the furthest edge. A noble goal on it’s own is just a noble goal and it may even be the same goal that the protagonist has. In fact, if your hero is someone who hates the status quo and wants to be free but is forced by the villain to defend it through the virtue of their own ideals then you have some great internal conflict. In the end, your hero and your villain want the same thing but the ways that they go about getting it is what makes all the difference.

Through the Mirror Darkly:

Some of the best villains and hero match ups are drawn from the same place with the added bonus fear that if the author flipped them around that they would each become the other. I always hold up Darth Vader versus Luke Skywalker in the Original Star Wars Trilogy as one of the premiere examples of this theme.  Vader represents Luke’s possible future, he is what Luke could become and what Luke fears he will become. Vader acts as a looming threat in the narrative, not just to the success of the heroes physical, real world goals but also their spiritual ones. As we learn more about Vader, we know that the monster was a man once and that leaves the possibility open that any Force wielder (in this case Luke) could become him. More than that, once we know the truth, we know that Luke will continue to put himself into danger to save Vader and that brings him into orbit of the villain that acted as the catalyst to make Vader what he is. As the narrative evolves between the three movies, what Vader’s role changes in what he represents thematically. However, without him, the narrative would completely fall apart.

-Michi

A villain must be a thing of power, handled with delicacy and grace. He must be wicked enough to excite our aversion, strong enough to arouse our fear, human enough to awaken some transient gleam of sympathy. We must triumph in his downfall, yet not barbarously nor with contempt, and the close of his career must be in harmony with all its previous development.

Agnes Repplier (1855-1950), Essayist and Biographer (via thewritingcafe)