Why the Antagonist is the Most Important Character in Your Novel

DevilAntagonists.  They’re the bad guys our protagonist is up against but who are they really? This is the question we must ask ourselves if we want our protagonist to leap off the page and be someone we remember long after we finish the story. Anything less will be B-O-R-I-N-G.

So what makes us remember the protagonist?  Her antagonist.  Her adversary.  The battle she must fight.  She must have a worthy adversary or she will not have to work very hard to rise above her situation and prevail.  Her journey will be ho hum and no more than meh.

B-O-R-I-N-G!

This happens all the time in real life and the person who immediately comes to my mind is Rosa Parks.  This woman will never fade into obscurity because she stood up to something bigger than her and prevailed.  It is unfortunate the adversary she was up against (racism) is something so powerful that because of the way humanity is, we will spend until the end of time battling it into submission.  She had to know that, but she did not let even that deter her.

That, my friends, is the hallmark of a memorable character.

The antagonist drives the protagonist and the growth of our protagonist is directly correlated to the power of her antagonist.  That is why the antagonist is the most important character in your novel.

When I first started writing, I wrote my antagonist as a two dimensional character.  Fully bad with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.  But a funny thing happened on the way to the end of the novel.  I had heard and read to not do that so I started to explore who this person was and why he was the way he was.  As I got further to know him, I found that I wanted to blur the line between bad and good with him.  I wanted to make him more human.  Not so he wouldn’t be so bad, but so my writing would be more complex and more rich.  I didn’t want to cheat him (and my readers) by just making him a stereotypical character.

Michael Shannon as General Zod.  Courtesy Wikipedia
Michael Shannon as General Zod. Courtesy Wikipedia

In the 2013 Superman movie, Man of Steel, I think the writers did an exceptional job with the antagonist General Zod.

SPOILER ALERT!

If you have not watched this movie, scroll down to the red words to skip this section.

There’s a lot of different issues that can be explored with this movie but today I’m only going to talk about General Zod’s motivations.

General Zod, like every other Kryptonian except for Superman, was bred for a specific purpose.

Jor-el says to his son:

Every child was designed to perform a predetermined role in our society as a worker, a warrior, a leader, and so on. Your mother and I believed Krypton lost something precious, the element of choice, of chance. What if a child dreamed of becoming something other than what society had intended? What if a child aspired to something greater? You were the embodiment of that belief Kal. Krypton’s first natural birth in centuries. That’s why we risked so much to save you.

Superman’s parents packed the genetic material of the Kryptonian population within their son in the form of a codex and sent him to Earth, just as Krypton blew up.

Zod, however, is supremely bad to the inhabitants of Earth.  His goal is to kill humans and set things in motion to terraform Earth into a place more habitable to those from Krypton then resurrect his people from the codex.  But after watching the movie two or three more times I started to feel sorry for him and it all boiled down to his motivations.

In his words:

I exist only to protect Krypton. That is the sole purpose for which I was born. And every action I take, no matter how violent or how cruel, is for the greater good of my people.

He was bred to be a patriot to the nth degree and now that Krypton was no more, he was fulfilling that destiny by trying to find a new place for his people to reside.

Superman rises to the challenge and meets it head on until he is finally forced to make the painful choice of either letting his people survive or letting the people of earth survive.

We all are creations of our upbringing and that’s exactly what Zod is.  Because of the way he was bred, he could not change.  And that made him a worthy adversary to Superman.

SPOILER ALERT OVER

Sure Zod is bad.  He’s done horrific things.  But haven’t we all?  We are all an incredibly mixed up bag of good and bad but that is what contributes to the richness and complexity of humanity.

The antagonist can be anything.  It can be a person (General Zod) or an idea (racism) the protagonist is struggling against.  It can be the weather (the movie Twister).  One caveat:  if the protagonist is not a person, there must be a human face to symbolize it otherwise it’s nothing tangible for the protagonist struggle with.  Once we find out who and what our antagonist really is and what drives him, only then will our protagonist rise above the story and live with us long after it is over.

Karina

Shakespeare Did Not Have An MFA. Where Did He Learn His Stuff?

Emily Ann Theatre & GardensIt’s August in Central Texas and that means it’s Shakespeare season at the Emily Ann Theatre and Gardens in Wimberley, Texas.

For the fourth year now, Miss E. auditioned and won herself a spot on the cast.  This year they did Richard III and oh my, oh my, oh my.  This particular piece of work is a full historical, dense, with umpteen million lines.  Even after the artistic director cut out a few monologues the play still ran nearly two hours.

Can you imagine a cast of middle and high schoolers memorizing all those lines?  I can’t.  It must be because their minds, like their bodies, are young and nimble.

Shakespeare was a fairly prolific writer.  His plays run the gamut from historicals, tragedies, and comedies and if that’s not enough, he also wrote poetry.  He was busy in his short life of 52 years and he was one of those people who was unafraid to write about the human condition.

So where did he learn this stuff?  There were no writing classes for him to attend, no MFA’s to enroll in.  Yet, he was, simply put, an amazing scrivener of everything that makes us human and today, his work is being performed all the time.

My kingdom for a horse!
A horse!  My kingdom for a horse!

Whoever he was, Shakespeare was bold and masterful in writing exactly what he wanted to write, without regard to what anyone else thought or said.  He wrote from his heart and because of that, he was the cream of the crop when it came to interpreting the human condition and putting it out there where all can see.

That’s how we should write.

Let’s shift gears for a moment and think about the two sides of fiction:  literary versus commercial (or genre).  Today, there is a great debate on the merits of these two sides of that coin and the outcome so far is that many readers and writers alike are viewing commercial fiction with disdain.  Commercial fiction is getting bullied on the playground and is being insulted and given the finger because it’s not good enough.  It’s not “art.”

Pffft.

How many of you like rock and roll music?  What about country?  Classical?  Rap?  I think this whole fiction debate thing is akin to saying that classical music is the ONLY music to listen to because it’s the only type of music that’s art.  Everything else you like?  Fugitaboutit.

Even Shakespeare embraced diversity in his writing.  Think about Romeo and Juliet.  If it weren’t for the ending, I think it would fit very well on modern day romance shelves.

I for one, am thankful that we have both literary and commercial fiction.  This world would be a boring place to live if all I could read was literary fiction because, dagnabbit, there are times in which I simply want to be entertained.

Each type of human creation whether it be music, drama, visual arts, or the written word is worthy.  Sure some may take your breath away and others may make you roll your eyes (and for those of you who still read non-digital books, even some of those may make you want to throw them against the wall because they’re written so badly) but so what?  They are still creations.

Where am I going with this?  If you’re a writer or wannabe writer, don’t buy into the “this type of fiction is good and that other one is not” because no one genre is any better than the other.

I repeat:  no one genre is any better than the other.

Write what moves you, what excites you.  Write what makes you happy, sad, or scared.  Even terrified.  Let it flow out of you in whatever form it presents itself whether it be plays, screenplays, poetry or prose.  If you want to write literary fiction.  Do it.  If you want to write commercial fiction.  Go for it.  No genre is any better than the other.  Just be aware that there are different audiences for the various types of writing.

Like Shakespeare, be fearless and be bold.  And like Shakespeare, write from your heart.

Henry VII, Earl of Richmond
Henry VII, Earl of Richmond

Sometimes I Get Jealous of Those Parents Whose Child Has Died

Courtesy Andreas Cappell via Wikimedia Commons;
Courtesy Andreas Cappell via Wikimedia Commons;

Children are like sheep.  They look all precious and simply loveable and you just want to hold and snuggle with them and caress them and keep them at your side until the end of your days.  But they don’t want that.  Our children would rather throw off our arms and find ways to get dirty, covered in mud and brambles and the muck of the world as they find their way.

And as much as it tears our hearts to see that happen, as parents we have to let that happen.

When children are little, they step on our toes.  When they grow up, they step on our hearts.

Ain’t that the truth.

We have a prodigal son and have neither seen nor heard from him in over two years.  It was his choice but, like life that is always connected in its myriad of ways, we had a hand in it.  Mr. P. was an adult and if he was going to live with us, we insisted on certain rules and behavior and if he didn’t want to abide by them it was time for him to leave.  So he did and set me on a path I never thought I’d have to travel.

At the six month mark of his disappearance, I had a melt-down. In situations like this, it’s terribly hard to hang onto hope.  Where is he?  What is he doing?  Is he ok?  Is he eating well?  Is he in jail?  Or worse:  is he dead and I don’t even know it?  Oh god, I hope not.

Sometimes I get jealous of those parents whose child has died.   To be sure this is one of the most terrible things a parent is ever called upon to endure.  Parents should never ever ever ever have to bury their children.  Ever.  I’ve seen that terrible heart-rending heartbreak in my own family and the vision of that small coffin will haunt me forever.  But at least those parents KNOW.  They KNOW where their child is.  They will eventually KNOW their child is in a better place.  And if the death came about after suffering, at least there is some peace that the suffering is no more.  They can also visit their child’s mortal remains whenever they want.  They may not realize it but in that, they are blessed.

Me?  My child may be an adult but he is still my child and the gods of the universe have played the ultimate joke on me because I know absolutely nothing about him anymore.

I don’t need to know what he’s doing, where he works or even where he lives.  Sure, I’d like to hear of his triumphs and his travails and how his life is generally going but at this point, that’s not what’s most important.  All I really want to know is whether he’s all right.  A small note dropped in the mail or a short email or text that says he’s doing fine and to not worry will go miles in bringing rest to my heart.

I had a dream about him a couple of days ago:

Me and My Dude were at home and like all young people do, my son swept into the house like a whirlwind.  He looked different since I last saw him.  He was still young looking but it looked as if he had been eating fairly well because he was not all skin and bones.  Thank goodness.

When he was on the way back out I asked for a hug and he gave it to me.  When I asked him to call, he nodded.

I woke up with a feeling of comfort.  He won’t call.  I know it because I know him.  But I’m going to believe that, at least for now, he seems to be doing all right as he finds his way in the world.