Saturday, July 19, 2014

Embrace Your Antagonist!!

by Jewel Leann Williams,

Stephen R. Covey said it in his book SEVEN HABITS OF HIGHLY EFFECTIVE PEOPLE:
            Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
Of course, the late Dr. Covey didn’t mean it how I’m about to use it. This is, after all, a writer’s website, not a Franklin Planner seminar. So, what do I mean, “seek first to understand?”

I’m talking about your antagonist. First, let me throw another adage at you—

“Vice is a monster of so frightful mien
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.”

                                    Alexander Pope

            So, with regards to the writing…. what do these two things have in common? Well, since I already said I’m talking about your antagonist, what I propose is to really, really get inside the head and heart of your bad guy.

            I’ve actually been playing with the idea of writing my next story from the point of view of my antagonist FIRST, sort of as a pre-write, THEN writing it from the point of view of the protagonist. Then I stopped playing as I realized that I can’t even get a paragraph in any of my WIP’s written at all, let alone “pre-write” and silly things like that.  

C'mon, give 'em a big ol' HUG!!!

            But, think about it. If you write from first person, from your antagonist’s point of view, you can really see, feel, hear, taste, touch, love, hate—all of those emotions that we usually only reserve for our main character—doing it for your bad guy will not only deepen your portrayal of him, but also allow you to play with your readers a little. I don’t mean that in a bad way, either. I remember some of the books and stories that disturbed me the most were the ones where I invested my emotions in a character or event and then had that turned on its head, making me realize how flawed I was. The best example of that for me was “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. I still feel icky as I recall being caught up in the excitement of the town’s preparations for the yearly ritual. “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” The whole story is one of anticipation, and I couldn’t wait to see who won. Then BOOM. The lottery was to see who the town would stone to death. I had been excited about that. I felt complicit in the murder. Like I said, the story, the cautionary tale about the dangers of conformity, has stuck with me for my entire life, mainly because of how it made me feel.

            Would your story be well served by the reader identifying with the bad person, even just a little? Some stories really wouldn’t—but some would. When you want your antagonist to really be able to toy with the protagonist, have him toy with the reader. Have your audience AGREE with him, ROOT for him, and then drop the bomb—it will resonate, deeply.

            Even if your story doesn’t need that sort of turnabout, really understanding your antagonist can help you to see different facets of your protagonist—you can see him through the eyes of his enemy. Often we, as the creators of the story’s hero, tend to want to make him or her perfect. We may overlook flaws, or at least minimize them, like we would with our children, or our friends. Having the unvarnished, snarky, cruel truth exposed will allow you to see your protagonist’s little cracks and chinks, those things that make them real. Those “evil” insights will deepen your characterization.

            I hope I’m inspiring ways that you can get to know your antagonist—and reasons why you should. I love those stories where the bad guy is sooooooo good at being bad, and I suspect that the authors of those books really dive deep into learning who the antagonist really is, as much as they do their protagonist.

            It’s like I always say, “The bad guy is the protagonist in their own story.” (Really. I do say that. There’s even a story involving devil horns and red fuzzy handcuffs to illustrate how that’s MY saying. Ask me about it sometime.)            

            Do you have any great ideas for how to understand your antagonist better, or thoughts on how to use that understanding to further your plans to conquer the world write a better story? 


  1. I love this idea so hard! And The Lottery? One of my favorite short stories. When I first read Hunger Games, I immediately thought The Lottery was the inspiration.

    1. Thanks Katy! Let me know how it goes when you try it. I'm planning on working some of it into THE MYSTIC MARBLE when I get around to rewriting/editing.



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