Monday, August 15, 2011

Develop your Antagonist

Do you have a great antagonist?

I've been seeing a lot of posts recently about antagonists, and they've been making me think (I love to think).

One of the things that makes a great baddie is the sense that this person might have been a good guy if not for certain small details of backstory. Some prime motivating event, perhaps, or a key element of character. This I find plausible because it makes sense for the antagonist to have quite a lot of strengths.

Another key element for an antagonist is a sense of vulnerability. I always loved that the dragon Smaug had a single scale missing in the middle of his chest - and was in denial about it. I mean, hey, that little flaw is awfully convenient for the good guys, right? But a good vulnerable point for an antagonist can be more than just convenient. It can be a major driver for that person's evil deeds: I know that I have this flaw, and that it may end me (whether a soothsayer has detected this depends on the story!) so I have to protect myself in whatever unethical way I can! Another possibility is to give your antagonist a flaw that also gives them strength. My character Nekantor is obsessive compulsive, and this is a real problem for him, but it also makes him very good at certain things like pattern detection (something of a bad guy version of Adrian Monk's situation).

But say you've got all this. Say your antagonist rocks in the evil, backstory, and vulnerability departments. Don't just set her loose in the story and let that be it! Not when you could be doing so much more.

This is what I mean by develop your antagonist.

Your antagonist deserves to have a fully developed character arc, as much as anyone else. Don't let her, or him, sit back in a corner and just do the same thing over and over to cause everyone trouble. Let your antagonist learn from mistakes. You've designed a creature of great power. Let it grow.

One way to grow an antagonist is the more common one: to let your antagonist react to ongoing events and have that change their attitude, their level of desperation, etc. We watched Kung Fu Panda 2 yesterday and it was a lot of fun to see Shen get more frustrated, angry and desperate as time went by, because that made his reactions more extreme and exposed his not-so-noble side. This is a great way to raise the stakes, because the antagonist will go farther and father in the attempt to prevail, making the task of the protagonists more and more difficult.

Lately though, I've been exploring another way to develop my antagonist - by letting story events increase his propensity for evil. This opportunity has come up because I'm working with a prequel-like situation, which is part of a much much larger story arc. So I'm actually in the middle of what was once my antagonist's backstory, and what it's teaching me is that antagonists don't need to be entirely reactive. They should be proactive, and they should be flexible in developing their strategies.

After all, how would the bad guys get to be so powerful if they couldn't grow and learn? Do they simply get to have other older bad guys willing to set them up in positions of power (how convenient for them)? But why in the world would big bad guys with power be interested in a new bad guy who could potentially cause trouble for them? There must be something awfully compelling about this small shark's characteristics that would make the bigger ones feel ready to risk meeting its teeth themselves. Why, and how, does an antagonist develop his skills at deception? Is it easy for him, or is it difficult?

If you can consider these questions, you may be able to bring an entirely new and exciting dimension to your antagonist.

It's something to think about.