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