Your novel blows because... your antagonist is flat
I read a lot of books. Some a great, many are decent and some are either terrible or nondescript, like they have no soul. Point is, I see the same patterns repeating all the time and it's not always pretty. I want to help you get it right. In this series, I will tell you what I hate reading and why I hate reading it. Because if you get it right, my life become instantly better.
Today, we're going to talk about the character everybody thinks is the easiest, but is actually the most difficult to pull of : the antagonist.
The older I get, the more I empathize with the antagonist in every novel, movie or television show I come across. I'm probably not alone feeling a sense of kinship to evil as I get older and virtue becomes too complicated and idealistic, but here's something that might blow your mind: the antagonist is the most important character in your story. Not only he's going to dictate what happens, but he's also going to dictate who your character becomes. That's why, so many time, a book or a movie is boring. Because your antagonist has no fucking clue he's in control.
What makes a terrible antagonist?
I call bad antagonists "flat" because they only have one dimension, like a sheet of paper. Sure, any character can be flat, but it's easier to write a flat antagonist and think you've done a great job. A terrible bad guy is the living embodiment of something everyone is technically against: corporate tyranny, racial inequity, rape, pedophilia, etc. And they materialize in novels as the bosses who live for bossing everyone around, cops who love to shoot black people way too much *, sexual deviants who are the sum of their animal impulses, etc.
These antagonists aren't characters as much as they are something to be defeated. An obstacle between the protagonist and justice. Now, talented novelists can get away with writing villains like that because their work find its nuances elsewhere, but flat antagonists often results in a flat novel because there's only one course of action possible: confronting him and defeating him. They don't have anyone's trust and if they earn any support characters' support, it means these guys are either stupid, treacherous and/or as evil as your paper thin antagonist.
In other words, there cannot be unexpected twists and turns in your novel/movie if your antagonist doesn't orchestrate them. So, when you write a flat antagonist, you imagine himlike this:
But he really comes off like this:
What makes a good antagonist then?
Valid question. If you want to write a strong antagonist, you have to think of him as fondly as you think of your protagonist. Because they are more alike than they are different, you know? He's after the same things than your protagonist, but in a different way. If your protagonist has a love interest, the antagonist needs to be after her too whether it's to have her in his bed or to violently murder her. And if your antagonist's method for having his way involves chloroform and a creepy basement, maybe you don't have a novel in there. Maybe it's just a a short story or it involves the disappearance of many women.
And think about this : a serial rapist is either charming as hell or is a freakin' Delta Force level of sneaky when he decides to strike. Either way, there is more to him than just his impulses. Otherwise he'd get caught at page 40/20 minutes in.
But what if my antagonist is Satan, Ben? Or any form of supernatural entity. Valid question again. That's what I mean when I say your antagonist controls who your protagonist is and who he's going to become. If your antagonist is Satan (I'm reading Clive Barker right now), sure he's the embodiment of evil and everything, but it takes a special kind of dude to go after the Prince of Darkness. One that is obsessed with power and secrets. Most people don't even believe in religious principles, so if someone gets in trouble with the Dark Lord, he kind of asked for it in some way. If he didn't, he'd probably get wiped off existence quick.
A good antagonist informs a good protagonist. One's strengths is the other's weakness and vice versa. It's a balancing act.
Do you have any examples of good antagonists?
Of course. My two favorite antagonists in recent years come from television, where they had ample breathing room to reveal themselves and take a life of their own: Boyd Crowder, from Justified and Marlo Stanfield, from The Wire. What's so fascinating about them is that they couldn't be any more different, but they do exactly the same job: they're drug dealers and murderers. They also were, in my opinion, by far the most endearing characters in their respective television show **.
The first is the son and heir apparent of an outlaw clan after his older brother gets murdered by his own wife right before episode one. What makes him endearing is that he falls in love head-over-heels with the same woman who killed his brother in cold blood, because she's strong enough to hold a Crowder accountable for his actions. So, she's strong enough to be by his side. Boyd Crowder is a bad person, but he has values. A belief system that enables and empowers people who stand by his side.
Another thing I find fascinating with Crowder is that he's a dark reflection of Justified's protagonist Raylan Givens. They met at a crossroads in their life (when they were mining coal together) and while Raylan chose the law for his job, Boyd chose to become an outlaw. They have everything to be friends: they're both smart, witty and articulate. They both think on their feet and don't hesitate to draw the line by pulling the trigger and dropping bodies. What would've made them great friends is what makes them great enemies.
Marlo Stanfield doesn't have any direct counterpart. He's like an autoimmune reaction to the struggle between Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale for the direction of their drug empire. Marlo shows the brutality of Avon without the sentimentality and the business-like approach of Stringer without the delusions of "going legit." Marlo Stanfield is a self-made man who let his actions speak louder than his words in a series where everybody will talk your ear off. He comes off as smart, action oriented, distrustful and incredibly lonely.
Sure, he's a dictator with a child's face, but he's the character navigating the political spiderweb of Baltimore with the most gracefulness, like he weaved it himself. He takes control of his destiny where everyone else is losing control of theirs against the system. He's a complicated guy to love, but he's a complicated guy to hate too.
So, what do you think? Who are your favorite antagonists in pop culture? A strong bad guy will often make or break a novel because they're in control of what's going on. There wouldn't be a problem and there wouldn't be a narrative if they weren't. So, let that inform your writing process and stop with the embodiment of evils. This is boring and I never want to fucking read that again. Now that you have the tools to write a great antagonist, I am expecting you to kick my ass into the stratosphere.
* OK, these guys totally existed in the fifties, but the portrait is more complicated today.