On September 12, 2020, we continued our Tragic Flaw conversation by turning our attention to those negative actors in a story: the antagonist. Here are the show notes:
Theme for the day
Degrees of Discord: Antagonist, Villain, Frenemy
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- The Frenemy is what exactly?
- Like a villain, but not
- How do you write one?
- Do you have to have one? Why or why not?
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Last week we covered the Tragic Flaw and in talking about how Iago exploited Othello’s tragic flaw, we decided we would focus on the manipulative antagonist this week. We’ve done antiheroes before and an episode specifically on “evil.” We haven’t just done antagonists or villains. So here we go.
Antagonists are the individuals who oppose our hero. They are in the way of our protagonist getting what they want. Think Ferris Bueller’s principal or Ferris Bueller’s sister — characters for whom the protagonist’s desires are diametrically opposed to their own.
Then there are the villains, characters who think themselves the hero in their own story. Joker, Poison Ivy, the Sheriff of Nottingham, Voldemort. While their mission might include destroying the hero, they have another purpose, one that the protagonist is more than “interfering” with — probably actively trying to prevent.
But the frenemy is a different thing. The Frenemy is the character the protagonist trusts, someone s/he thinks is on their side. Someone the protagonist trusts. Someone the protagonist might even think is taking action on behalf of the protagonist. And the frenemy, like the antagonist and the villain, has his/her own goal and will betray the protagonist to achieve it.
So why do we need an antagonist? The protagonist needs to face resistance of some kind otherwise the path to achieving his goals is wide open and that’s not a novel, it’s your mom’s very boring trip to Walgreen’s. Not Rex’s mom, I’m sure she’s lovely. But you get the idea.
I love this link for giving us a list of the four main types of antagonists. They have a show, too, so you can go listen to them if you want.
- The Evil Villain — witch, sorcerer, criminal mastermind, bully; intent on harming others
- The Everyday Antagonist — run-of-the mill, no real “evil” intent, simply at odds with the protagonist (think Malfoy)
- The Immoral Entity — often an oppressive regime or government, common in science fiction and dystopian literature (think The Capitol in Hunger Games)
- The Internal Struggle — doubt, fear, pride, prejudice, those personal flaws that get in the character’s way
This link asks you to keep the antagonist human (see below for the alternatives) and reminds you that the antagonist should force the protagonist to make bad decisions.
This link talks about the Nemesis — a specific kind of antagonist.
So how do you do this?
This link (same as above) suggests “make them stand out” tips like:
- Craft the villain’s backstory — give us an origin for that evil
- Encourage the protagonist to think the antagonist is MUCH worse than they really are
- Encourage the reader to have empathy or be able to relate to the antagonist
- Personify the immoral entity with a specific actor within the regime that symbolizes the whole
- Consider alternative antagonists like illness, the supernatural, technology, or nature
The best way to groom an antagonist is ….
A lot of novice writers begin with a cast of characters they like too much. They make too perfect. They are reluctant to let an antagonist do his or her work. But consider how boring a story is when everyone is keen and gentle, right Leave it to Beaver? How bland everything is when we pretend natural discord doesn’t exist.
So take your cast of likeable folks and consider which one would be arms-crossed, teeth gritted when the protagonist gets what he wants. Which one would roll her eyes when he “wins” again? Which one doesn’t understand why everyone loves him?
Then build a backstory for the two of them. Maybe it’s a misunderstanding that predates the story. Or maybe you can deliver that misunderstanding as part of the action? What if the protagonist once repeated something he’d heard about the antagonist even though that thing was false? Spreading gossip may be reason enough to earn the antagonist’s ire. Maybe they liked the same girl and she chose our hero. Maybe they wanted the same job and our hero took the job.
In the musical Hamilton, Aaron Burr is repeatedly rebuffed by people who choose Hamilton over Burr. It’s this persistent rejection that fuels Burr’s hatred of Hamilton, despite Hamilton being nearly oblivious to the conflicts.
I like an antagonist who holds a grudge against the protagonist that the protagonist cannot understand. “Why does she hate me so much?” Think Will Scarlet in Robin Hood Prince of Theives or Scarlett O’Hara’s sister Suellen who is not grateful for Scarlett saving Tara, but heartbroken that Scarlett stole her beau Frank Kennedy to do it.
Iago at last. Let’s talk about the Frenemy.
What makes the Frenemy such a compelling antagonist is that the protagonist never suspects the betrayal is coming. The reader might, but the hero is blindsided.
How do characters become frenemies? Consider the ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend, the coworker who gets the sought-after promotion, or the same-aged kid of your mom’s best friend to whom you are constantly being compared.
This link has a list of “types” of frenemy personalities. Everything from the simply self-centered and clueless to the intentionally antagonistic. I think Iago is the intentional kind, right?
Other Shakespearean frenemies include Lady Macbeth to her husband, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Hamlet, Puck to Oberon. Iago’s betrayal is fueled by jealousy and racism, and those are deep flaws, right? So do our manipulative antagonists require these kinds of inherent flaws? Or can it be something superficial? Or accidental?
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