Friday, September 24, 2010

The Many Layered Antagonist

Now with television references!

As a participant of The Great Blogging Experiment (you should read the experiment name in a loud announcer voice), I'm supposed to talk about creating compelling characters.

The most important thing to remember is that your characters can't be one dimensional. They all need to have some depth that helps them be relatable to the reader. Yes, even the spare change guy that tips off your hero in Chapter 3.

Of course, not all the characters you come up with will have the same level of depth. The bigger the character, the more levels they should have. For me, the most compelling characters are always the antagonist of a story. This is because as a writer, we're trying to justify why the antagonist* is an ass.

Almost by definition, antagonists have to be multi-faceted. After some thinking, all adversaries should have the following 4 levels of characterization.

Surface Level. This what we see from jump. They're snarky, malicious, and lie all the time, shove you in a locker. They're bad ass and, in real life, we'd avoid them at all costs. Think Spike in early Buffy.

Intelligence Level. Almost always, the antagonist is clever, even if not smart. If not, then you're dealing with Jessie and James from Team Rocket. If the reader and the antagonist think the same, the humanizing process begins.

Mr. Softie Level. Just like your protagonist should have that streak that's less-than-honorable, your antagonist should have something that softens them up instead. This is another way to show how no matter how shitty of a person they are, they still feel something. Dr. Claw did have a cat.

Justification Level. This is the final part of the character puzzle the reader and your protagonist sees. It's a slow process that, as writers, we try to craft from page 1, aka The Why Of It All. What happened to them that taunt your protagonist's *insert deep meaningful relationship tie here* every possible minute. The justification doesn't have to make logical sense, but your antagonist needs to believe it. The backbone to The Why Of It All usually ends up being A Great Hurt that a reader can relate to. They were betrayed by their mother; the Fates decided to fuck around again; the girlfriend screwed with their head too many times; or Serena gets all the attention and I mean ALL.

What other layers should your antagonist have?

* Antagonist in this case is being used in villain terms only.
_______ hit of the day:  You by Candlebox

REMINDER: Music Month is still happening for two more weeks. The best comment of the week gets a mix CD.


  1. I like the "Mr. Softie Level"! My first bad-guy fell flat because he didn't have that humanizing factor - he was just an asshole. As soon as I began looking into his past though, all sorts of humanizing elements came up and I like him much better now.

  2. Mr. Softie Level is there to humanize the character.
    Wow I wish I had something of interest to say but I don't. I'm commenting on blogs right now to avoid grading.

  3. Love the levels you describe, as well as the implication that if an author doesn't them, the character will be blasting off again!

  4. I love the way you approached this - love it! The level idea is so original, but perfect. :-)

  5. Oh my heck! I HATED Team Rocket. And I watched a lot of Pokemon with my son. Holy crap. I thought those days were behind me. *shudder*

    I love the intelligence level. I think the MC has to be smart too. I love all your levels, especially the last one. There must be a reason for people to be the way they are.

  6. Give him someplace to go, somehow to grow and something to know that no one else does.

  7. I really like that softie-level--it makes for a much more believable and compelling antagonist.

  8. I love it when people analyze characters. I use to analyze characters with all my cool comic book friends. I grew up with Marvel comics and Final Fantasy, so a lot of the character plots didn't run by me until I was kicking off puberty. I think that's when I put down my pencil crayons and said, "I'm going to write!"

    Do you notice in most protagonist teams, the leader usually has a long range weapon unless it's a sword. Do you notice that mostly every team has a leader, an angry super fighter who could never be leader, and an intelligence character. Those, I feel, are the three most pivotal team mates. The warrior princess, the comic relief, the overly depressing quiet one, are all marginal characters.

    Anyways, I'm ranting. . . . nom nom nom

  9. Unfortunately, unlike Elana, I have no children to blame for my understanding of Jessie, James, and Meowth. lol

  10. First, thanks for stopping by everyone and I apologize for any PTSD that Team Rocket might have triggered. (I, for one, watched it occasionally in college with no children in sight.)

    The softie level and the reasoning level are both the most overlooked when building a believable bad guy.

    Wendy, I love your add on layers. I'll have to work on that.

    Elana, this was a great experiment. I can't believe the turn out.

    Again, thanks for stopping by and delurking. Come back next week.

  11. I love, love, love that you focused on the villains! They are always my favorite. I think you nailed what needs to be done with every villain.

  12. Great approach to the topic... Awesome post!

  13. Great idea about all the different levels. Love that you focused on the antagonist... :)

  14. omg, Team Rocket! My younger siblings used to watch Pokemon all the time.

    *Ahem* Anyhow, great post. I love your levels. Villains are my favorite characters to create.


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