As promised earlier, it's time to discuss characters in more detail. Today - the Antagonist
The antagonist is the bad guy, the character the reader wants to see fail. The antagonist is frequently the most fun to develop because the writer gets to do things through this character that he most likely would never do in reality—murder, mayhem, chaos—what a glorious ride! Creating the bad guy allows the writer’s imagination to run amok in more directions than with the protagonist. And yet, the goal of the writer is to make sure that his antagonist fails in the end at the hands of the protagonist.
Example: In Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, the antagonist is Mrs. Danvers. This woman is the housekeeper and was the best friend of the first Mrs. de Winter—Rebecca. She is inconsolable at Rebecca’s death and is unable to accept anyone replacing Rebecca as the lady of the house. She recognizes the insecurities of the second Mrs. de Winter and designs all of her actions toward making this woman fail in any attempts to take on that role.
One of the most interesting things about the antagonist is that this character need not be human. In stories with themes such as man against nature, it is nature that can be the antagonist.
Example: In Peter Benchley’s Jaws, the antagonist is the shark. In developing this antagonist, Benchley personified this animal with human characteristics, in that it seems to have the ability to know it is in a life-and-death struggle, and it is able to seek out its hunters and challenge their very lives.
In developing a well-rounded, three-dimensional antagonist, the writer should look closely before applying stereotypical traits for no particular reason other than it is easy to do that. On the whole, a solid antagonist will exhibit some of the following characteristics:
Sadism or Bullying: This character will deliberately cause someone to suffer and have no remorse over her actions.
Revenge: The commission of crimes will only make a character into a villain if she commits the crime(s) for selfish reasons—if the crime hurts people who do not deserve to be hurt. If she avenges crimes committed by others, she becomes more of a hero, and sheds the ‘antagonist’ image.
Selfishness: Narcissists get no sympathy in fiction, and sympathy is not an emotion the reader wants to expend on the antagonist. Arrogance and selfishness are great targets to place on the back of the antagonist.
Lying: The audience does not like the character who breaks promises unless the reason for doing so is important to the story. If that is the case, the writer must be careful not to change the antagonist into a protagonist because of her actions. Oathbreakers are deliberate liars – someone we love to hate.
Redeeming virtues: Villains may have something redeeming in their background, and it is the writer’s challenge to discover what that virtue is, without moving the character into the sympathetic mode. Give the antagonist some positive characteristics to flesh out her personality.
Mental instability is a characteristic that can produce a sympathetic character. The writer’s goal in creating the antagonist is to design a character the reader does not cheer for. It’s a challenge to use any form of mental instability when developing the antagonist to make sure that sympathy does not creep into the reader’s view of the antagonist.
In many books today, we see the antagonist as more than one individual—perhaps the church, government, an educational institution, etc. In these instances, there is usually a main character who takes on the leadership of that antagonistic presence, but some writers today go back to a larger body to “give the orders” to that one main character, and in the end the writer demolishes the larger entity.
To form our antagonist, let's talk about his or her traits.
Primary Character Traits
Role (Major; Minor; Background; Absent): Explain the role this character plays in your story.
Name: Does this character have a name; what is it? How the author came up with this name, especially if it is unusual or far out of the realm of the ordinary, will require some explanation—is it a family name? A religious reference? An omen or some superstitious reference? Unusual names that are not explained, even in the simplest of terms, will distract the reader. Also, avoid using names that start with the same initials for major characters.
Age: What is this character’s age? Is it a factor in the story?
Physical Attributes: What does this character look like: height, weight, beauty marks, deformities; does her physical appearance affect the story? How? Think of Quasimodo in Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame—how does his appearance affect the story?
Dominant Character Trait(s): A character needs one dominant trait for short stories, several for longer fiction. Dominant traits generally do not change. One of the writer’s challenges in developing character is to keep the dominant traits consistent, while still allowing the character to grow through her experiences. Examples that may not change: honesty; dishonesty; shrewdness; flamboyance. Examples that may change: naiveté; reticence; self-confidence.
Secondary Character Trait(s): These are simple, minor traits that help further define any character. Secondary traits are less significant; they may change as the character changes and the plot evolves.
Manner and mode of speech: These establish a character’s physical presence and his nature. Gestures such as a tilt of the head, nail biting, an eye twitch, a limp, or talking with one’s hands; vocal characteristics such as a stutter, lisp, raspy voice, language, tone, volume. Do any of these characteristics fit in the stereotype mode? If they do, are they distracting to the development of the character or do they round out the character?
Interests/Tastes: Clothes, food, books, talents and abilities, habits and patterns all help to show character.
Others’ opinion of this character: This technique gives the reader a picture of a character based on what another or other character(s) think; it also gives the reader a picture of the observer.
Environment: How does the character behave when removed from her familiar environment and placed in one totally different from what she is used to? Is she neat or sloppy?
Location: The reader will learn a great deal about the character by how she reacts to her setting, past and present. Where and how does she live—NYC or Appalachia or the Midwest; does she live where she was born or is she nomadic?
Occupation: Does this character have an occupation? What is it? How does this occupation relate to the situation/story? How does the job affect the character?
Background / Reputation: What is the character’s background, ethical, cultural, era.
A word about stereotypes. Stereotypes are comfortable. Stereotypes provide no surprises. Stereotypical characters may be dull and, in many instances, offensive to the reader. While the writer may consciously decide to avoid the use of all stereotype traits, this can be difficult. Cultural tendencies, speech patterns, physical characteristics may be stereotypical of a group and may play a role in defining the character(s), but there is no guarantee that such traits apply to all individuals in a group. When developing characters, use stereotypes judiciously and consider if the overuse of stereotypical traits will compromise the reader’s surprise or interest in the character or offend him.
Consistency and potential for change: The character’s “changes” must remain consistent with some of her traits.
Motivations: What moves her; what are her passions? Characters are set in motion through conflicting motives—their desires, fears, accomplishments, etc. Examine and combine the character’s internal motivations (e.g., work ethic) and external motivations (e.g., boss’s demands). Motivations that could drive the character to take action include sex, money, power, love, adultery, greed, and envy. The seven deadly sins are wonderful motivators to work with. Motive shows the reader why the character acts as she does.
Attitude: In order to effect change, the character must have an attitude about the events that occur around her. Attitude is the way she reacts to outside events.
Biographical Sketch Form
Refer to the discussion above to help in filling out this form. This form may be duplicated.
General Character Traits
Role: (Major; Minor; Background; Absent) Explain the role this character plays in your story.
Name: Does this character have a name? What is it? Discuss how the author came up with this name.
Age: What is this character’s age?
Physical Attributes: What does this character look like: height, weight, beauty marks, deformities? How does his or her physical appearance affect the story?
Manner and Mode of Speech: These establish a character’s physical presence and his nature. Gestures (tilt of the head, nail-biting, eye twitch, limp, talks with hands); stutter; lisp; raspy voice; language; tone; volume.
Dominant Character Traits
Endow your character with one dominant trait for short stories, several for longer fiction. Dominant traits are constant and generally do not change; examples that do not change: honesty; dishonesty; shrewdness; flamboyance. Examples that may change: naiveté; reticence; self-confidence.
Secondary Character Traits
Minor traits that help further define the character. Secondary traits are less significant; they may change as the character changes. Examples: dabbles in the occult; eats with his mouth open; always talks on the phone; always on a diet.
Interests / Tastes: clothes, food, books, talents and abilities; habits and patterns.
Others’ perceptions of this character: This technique gives the reader a picture of a character other character(s) viewpoints: it also reveals something of the perceiver.
Setting and Character
Environment: How does the character behave when removed from his familiar environment and placed in a totally unfamiliar one?
Location: The reader will learn a great deal about the character by how he/she reacts to the setting, past and present: Where and how do they live (e.g., neat, sloppy)? —What country/location (New York City or Appalachia or the Midwest)? Do they live where they were born or have they moved (Chicago -> Miami -> Maryland)?
Situation and Character
Occupation: Is the character employed? How does this character make a living? How does this occupation or lack of, relate to the situations/story?
Background/Reputation: What is the character’s background, ethical, cultural, era? How does the background relate to the situation/story, and genre, (i.e. Romance/Science Fiction/Thriller)