Here it is: the squeezed-in blog on the Antagonist, from Aristotle’s Essential Characters (with funky names) to our modern take on those pesky evil-doers we love to hate.
Any antagonist—the primary conflict-creator—should seek a goal that is mirrored to the protagonist.
For writers, this is reflecting the protagonist’s goal.
The conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist may occur over the same treasure, the same career advancement, or the same approbation from the community. The antagonist may want the destruction of what the protagonist is trying to create. S/he will twist any concept that the protagonist developed to improve the world.
In the previous blog, I asked a seemingly simple question: If enemies oppose the protagonist, are they evil? It’s time to consider the three types of characters who are viewed as enemies.
Shapeshifter. Villain. Shadow.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty, “which is to be master–that’s all.”
These three characters who provide “Tests from Enemies” have strong associations with evil thoughts and evil deeds, but only one of them is truly evil. One could be but isn’t–or isn’t considered so but is. And one will be evil with the wrong choices.
Confused yet? So was Alice with Humpty.
Shifter characters take one of two forms in order to be considered enemies:
1st = seemingly allied to the protagonist but actually working for the antagonist.
2nd = seemingly supportive of the antagonist but actually not supportive.
This form has the angst. Misread, misunderstood, isolated by perception, and excluded before they open their mouths, these characters may wish to support the protagonist. Circumstances create a trap. Relationships may gag the truth they so desperately want to reveal.
Building a believable angst for the audience is difficult. Even when building a story with the omniscient viewpoint, the writer needs to select carefully which viewpoints will inform the audience. Enemies that aren’t actually enemies don’t need to be viewpoint characters.
Withholding this shapeshifter’s angst until the end creates an even more potent revelation after the antagonist’s defeat.
Snippets of body language convey this trapped situation:
The mouth opened to speak only to close with a shake of the head.
The aborted gesture to stop.
The step forward then back.
These behaviors are minor touches that express a repressed drive.
Think Sirius Black in the Harry Potter film. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.
This shapeshifter form is the double agent, back-stabber, hypocrite, secret mole, and two-faced dastardly being who tricks the protagonist. First form projects total loyalty, an ally—even as s/he fulfills the antagonist’s commands.
Friendly connivers, First Form enemies are wholly trusted. Until the truth is revealed.
Think Loki in the first Thor film. Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity. Wyckham, antagonistic to P&P‘s Darcy.
Revelation of the true alliance occurs in the Tests stage or is held (preferably so) until the Approach to the Inmost Cave, the crucial Ordeal, or the Resurrection Stages.
Totally evil dudes. Totally enemies.
The best examples in story are the goblins and ogres and trolls of the Tolkien realm. A true villain, unlike an antagonist, will have no redeeming traits. Goblins lie and steal and kill even their comrades.
Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyers created their own versions of vampires with redeeming qualities. The saturnine Louis captured hearts; Lestat reminds audiences of the vampire’s true nature. Meyer’s Twilight turned vampires “vegetarian”. I remember reading the first 50 pages or so of the first book and thinking, “Okay, yes, this is going somewhere” only to have great disappointment as the danger just dissipated.
Hannibal Lechter in Silence of the Lambs has no redeeming qualities—any help he gives is only to help himself escape and resume his evil desires.
After Silence…Lambs came out as a film, enthralled fans clamored for more Hannibal. The author then proceeded to write Hannibal as a warning of what true evil is.
Never mistake villains. They have NO redeeming qualities.
The Shadow avatar reveals the dark side of the protagonist. This is the reflection of what the protagonist can become if s/he gives in to evil.
Dark secrets, dark instincts, dark emotions: release these in the protagonist during a test to have a fall from worthiness. The protagonist must then deny, overcome, reject, or defeat these self-enemies.
Luke Skywalker has the same potential for evil as his dark father, yet he rejects it and triumphs.
In Austen’s Mansfield Park, Mary Crawford could be a second protagonist. (She isn’t. See below.) She gives into the dark greed of contemplating Edmund’s advance into his brother’s shoes while the true protagonist Fanny Price thinks only of helping brother Tom recover his health. It takes a while for Edmund to recognize Fanny’s sweetness, which rewards her long and steadfast love for him.
Very much antagonistic, the Shadow self struggles with negative forces intermixed with positive ones. While repressing dark for the light, the destroying aspects will ultimately control the Shadowy protagonist.
This is totally Mary Crawford. Hints of the negative forces that shaped her are explored in 2007 Mansfield Park (totally missing in the 1999 version, my favorite even as the 2007 fascinates me). She is alluring, fascinating, witty, assured, sophisticated–but the dark desire of greed compels her.
Recovering standing after collapsing into the temporary satisfaction of the dark becomes a great test for the protagonist. Unforeseen repercussions ripple outward from that cold, hard pebble.
This is truly Walter Neff in the classic Double Indemnity:
Nevertheless, the best Shadows are antagonistic foils of the protagonist: “There but for the grace of God go I,” an arrogance in itself but also a truth. See, Mary Crawford belongs here.
As a character separate from the protagonist, the Shadow needs to tempt and even call up the darkness in the hero/ine (Double Indemnity again, Barbara Stanwyck’s character. If you have never seen this film noir classic, please do). The protagonist must reject the Shadow because it treads too closely to the path that the antagonist has taken.
And the protagonist must reject the antagonistic path. S/he cannot tread the evil ways without transforming into evil.
Ally (and potentially the Love Interest)
Not all of these allies and enemies are necessary in stories. They also need not occur only in the testing stage.
A protagonist who overcomes the tests presented by these characters is more prepared for the next stage: Approach to the Inmost Cave.
The cave itself is the Dark Moment, the Ordeal. Before reaching this cataclysmic encounter with the antagonist, however, the protagonist must continue through the Approach.
And after the Ordeal? Well, it’s still not an easy downhill slide.
What do the items in this oddly-matched list have in common?
These stories all have origins with the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Sitting around fires after a day of hunting and gathering, the first writers developed techniques to influence their audiences.
Those techniques have thousands of years of use and still hold true for capturing audiences.
The ancient Greeks (and Romans) of classical antiquity viewed the stories and dramas that were enduring. And just like writers today, they searched and defined and classified the best techniques to create writings that pleased their audiences.
These old geeky Greeks laid the foundations. Many of their techniques are still in use. Ideas original to them are re-packaged as glittery infographics and Wham-Pow webinars and three-point seminars with exclusive insights to Buy Now!
Clear and Quick Information
Old Geeky Greeks: Write Stories with Ancient Techinques presents such ideas as the Blood Tragedy and dulce etutile in a clear, organized method for writers who want to write rather than invest hours getting three snippets of information.
Chapters in OGG cover understanding characters to the five stages that established the modern protagonist from the ancient hero. Aristotle’s requirements for plot precede a survey of the oldest plot formula, the Blood (or Revenge) Tragedy. Concepts such as in medias res and dulce et utile can help writers solve sticky problems and develop new ideas.
Old Geeky Greeks (and Romans) looked at successful plays and other story-telling methods to determine what influenced the audience.
Which characters were still talked about weeks and months after a performance?
Which play structures failed—and which were consistently winners?
And which ideas helped writers develop their celebrated writings?
Writers today are still searching for the answers to these questions.
The bright minds of Classical Antiquity first explored these questions. Their answers are applicable even in the age of the internet, open-source software, special effects, and infographics.
Aristotle, Seneca, Plato, Horace, and many other ancient geeks have their ideas matched to Harry Potter, Avatar, Last of the Mohicans, and Shakespeare.
Whether we’re writing novels or plays, blogs or non-fiction, poems and songs, Old Geeky Greeks (written by M.A. Lee and Emily R. Dunn) is a seminar in 28,000 words, just published on Amazon Kindle.
Every man has three characters: that which he exhibits, that which he has, and that which he thinks he has. ~ Alphonse Kerr
We start life as a tabula rasa. Then we transform ourselves as we mature.
Who we are . . .
is not who we want to be . . .
and not who we should be.
All of us struggle with a duality, positive in conflict with negativity and only rarely in balance. While we strive to improve, we are also tugged to wallow in a morass.
In the ancient monomyth, the Hero’s Journey did not just exhibit how an ordinary person became extraordinary. It also developed how a shallow community member became a strong individual, a leader who inspired others to change.
The first stage of the Hero’s Journey—the Ordinary World—presents who we are before the transforming journey occurs.
Start with Duality
Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit (my favorite Tolkien) is complacent, self-absorbed, content
but certainly not satisfied. He must be pushed and tempted into the journey There and Back Again. This trailer shows the strength of a well-written Ordinary World and Call to Adventure.
Frodo in Lord of the Rings certainly feels his dissatisfaction, but he lacks both the impetus and will to take the first brave steps alone. Thus, we have the necessity of his friends at the onset of the journey, each who have their own individual transformation to come.
A character’s dual nature can be two sides of the personality, can be two sides of the genetic inheritance (as it is for Bilbo), or can be two of the Tripartite Being in conflict.
Take care when presenting the primary characters during the Ordinary World. The primaries should not become so arrogant that the audience can’t stand them. Any bad trait should be counterbalanced with a good trait.
The Ordinary World (OW) stage of the Hero’s Journey—however brief—is necessary to show the unchanged primaries. Obviously, the protagonist is necessary to introduce. Presentation of the other primaries is necessary only if their transformation is key to the protagonist’s.
In The Hobbit film, Thorin Oakenshield’s OWie is presented in flashback, a story recounted in heroic fashion to Bilbo.
The problem with flashback and the reason it is kept for limited use are that it disrupts the story flow. In film, this disruption traps the audience—unless we control the remote and skip ahead. In a book we can skip it or skim it—although we rarely do. Flashback used to present OW information becomes info dump, which is always to be avoided.
How do we write an Ordinary World start to our story without turning it into info dump?
Marion Zimmer Bradley said often to start a story at the first onset of trouble.
However, we need a bit to set up how that onset came in as trouble.
So, find the moment right before the onset of trouble.
1st Story Stage: the Ordinary World
Build the OW with the Latin 7.
WHO is here?
The protagonist, of course. The actual question should be who else is here? Any primaries? Are these primaries allies? How will the antagonist enter this scene? Who else do we need?
WHAT is the sacrifice?
The What can be person, thing, object, place, and idea.
What thing needs destruction in order to start the protagonist on the journey? How is that thing cherished by the protagonist?
The destruction, which is the 2nd Story Stage, is an explosion, literal and figurative. Our job in the OW is to start rolling toward that destruction.
For example, if the destruction is the revelation of a lie, what dream will the lie destroy? That dream becomes the protagonist’s OW focus.
The cherished thing to be sacrificed should be so strong that the antagonist can’t just turn away.
WHY is the cherished thing so dear?
Know the reason. We may not write the reason into the 1st Stage. We should certainly state it by the end of the 3rd Stage. Yet we need to know it now, as we start.
HOW will the sacrifice occur?
Writers also need an early knowledge of the How, for we must set up for it.
BY WHOSE AID?
This is a two-sided question.
1st: The sacrifice needs to be important to the protagonist and another (one or more). This increases the need for the protagonist to embark on the difficult Hero’s Journey. Whether the genre is contemporary mainstream, historical romance, fantasy adventure, or another one, the destruction of the sacrifice should shock more than the protagonist.
2nd: The other side of “by whose aid” focuses on the participants in the destruction.
Know the reason that the antagonist is able to focus on the sacrifice. This may come out at any point in the story, especially if the antagonist has a moment to gloat over the destruction of the dear. The antagonist should also “know” the protagonist well enough to understand how the destruction will hurt the protagonist and other primaries.
Sidestep to a Side Character
A side element is the character who conveys information about the sacrifice to the antagonist. This character needs to be familiar with the protagonist: the degree of this side character’s perfidy is up to us writers. And the revelation of the perfidy—that is also up to us.
WHEN and WHERE
The last two of the Latin 7 seem simple.
WHEN is a moment when destruction is least expected. A moment of happiness is typical: wedding, family gathering, holiday celebration. Try to break the typical.
Pick an ordinary moment: driving home, going to a restaurant, Saturday errands.
WHERE should be a place of security for the protagonist. Then the sacrifice of the cherished thing becomes even greater, for security is sacrificed as well.
Just as with the WHEN, the destruction’s occurrence in an ordinary place destroys the semblance of security.
Start the Story
“Begin with the end in mind,” Stephen Covey said in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. As it works in business, so it works in story.
Writers should start by knowing where the story is going, so we can lay traps for our protagonists. And our first traps start in the Ordinary World.
Here are the 12 Stages of the Hero’s Journey. We are working our way through them, two stages per month. Join us for the next stage on the 20th of May ~~ and a promo for one of my books on the 1st.