Wednesday, January 11, 2012

My Aunt Agonist is a Person Too!

Bryan Grubbs is an English and Art teacher. He is also a member of Greater Ft Worth Writers and is secretary of the GFW Writers critique group. Members of the group will tell you he can pick out redundant words at forty feet and is quite willing to show what paragraphs or sentences are not compelling. He is a husband and father of three beautiful girls, enjoys writing science fiction/ urban fantasy/ horror, sketching, or playing video games in his free time.


                                                   By Bryan Grubbs
The key to any good story is conflict. It’s what drives the reader to keep turning the page; to keep picking up the book after they’ve put it down for the day. Don’t get me wrong, intriguing characters and a strong narrative are essential as well, but nobody wants to hear about Mr/Mrs. Awesome’s perfect day at the beach, especially if it takes more than one sitting to get through. Evil Dr. McRuinstuff, your presence is needed center stage.

Antagonists are defined as anything that stands between a protagonist and his/her/its goal. So technically, if little Jimmy wants to go play at the park, but there’s a big brick wall in the way, the brick wall is the antagonist. Bad wall!

The terrible thing is when I’m trying to read through a book and the main villain is given as much thought as said wall. Villains are written as static characters that enter the story for one reason and one reason only, to stop the monotony of your insipid self-discovery whiney bullshit. Well no more! Antagonists are sick of being cannon fodder for your epic romance and have a few things to say for themselves!

Anybody who’s ever held a newborn baby can attest to the fact that none of us are born evil (except Rosemary, but that bitch was crazy!) So how do we up and one day decide… “you know what sounds great? Destroying everybody in the world!” I’m not saying it’s impossible… I’m pretty sure those exact words flow from my mouth every morning as I’m staring down my alarm clock with enough animosity to make it snooze itself. What I’m poking at is the all-encompassing favorite question of every freaking four year old that crosses my path: Why?

It is the duty of every writer worth their salt  to know and understand the ins and outs of their world, including all who dwell in it. So when you tell me that the antagonist has it in for the main character over a prejudice, you’d better be able to back it up with more than, “Cuz his daddy hates (insert racial slur here)”

Think about Batman and the various villains. Every single one of them has a tragic backstory with a specific turning point, the most tragic of all belonging to Harvey Dent, otherwise known as Two-Face.

Outside of sociopaths, people react negatively for two reasons – Pain and fear. If you think about it, anybody that you’ve ever held an ounce of hatred against was either because they hurt you or somebody you love, or they intimidated you in some way. If neither of these two senses make an impact, the person in question usually doesn’t earn a second thought and any wrong done against you is pushed back to the darker recesses of your mind to join in on a game of hopscotch.

The most effective antagonists are the ones with a clear set of morals (even if a few of them are a bit shaky) that brings about a level of sympathy from the reader. Obviously not too much, otherwise the audience is likely to jump teams and, next thing you know, everybody wants to be Darth Vader for Halloween…

As the writer and therefore creator/God of this world, you should never hate your antagonist. They are as much a part of you as the main character. Any attempts to disassociate this person from yourself is going to end up with a 2-Dimensional cartoon character that bounds around in dastardly deeds and sequesters nothing more than irritation from the readers.

If you’re playing 20 questions to get to know your protagonist, do the same for the antagonist. Who knows, they may end up becoming a treasured ally, friend or love interest in a sequel! But more than likely they’ll just come back continuing to be a dick.


J.A. Bennett said...

Bryan, this was one of the most helpful articles I've read on story building. Thank you so much!

SusieSheehey said...

Very well put. And is one of the main things wrong with my other manuscript- thanks for pointing it out!
Everything reverts back to Goals, Motivations and Conflict, even on the 'bad side.'

Ally Broadfield said...

Very well said (and fun to read). I'm currently working on my first ms that has an actual human as the antagonist, so this is very timely advice for me.

George said...

Most writing gurus are inclined to use examples of pro-and-antags from deep dark classic literature. Your’s are better -- I can remember them and use them as curbs to control conflict an/or weak characterization. Good article. Thank you.

Jerrie Alexander said...

Great post and right on the money! I enjoyed reading and reminding myself that goal, motivation and conflict is what the story is all about.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Bryan, well said. The hero isn't a hero unless the villain is strong.

Jeff Turner said...

Very good points on fiction writing sir.

C. A. Szarek said...

Very good stuff here Bryan! Thanx for sharing it. VERY helpful :)

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