A hopping good story involves a protagonist (the main character, either male or female or both) and the opposing character, also known as the antagonist. The antagonist is the adversary or opponent. We naturally want to make characters we write or read about into good guys or bad girls. But does the main character always have to be the good guy? Most markets will say yes. Readers want to cheer for the good character and revile the bad guy.
To create a fully developed character, we want to delve into his or her psyche. What influences caused him to make those negative choices? Does he really have a choice about the way he reacts in a given situation? Can she change even on the death bed? Hope is always a writer’s best friend.
In my book, Meander Scar, the “bad” guys are people who truly believe they are making the right choices. Ann’s mother-in-law wanted the best for her son. Ann’s son never believed his father was dead and could not accept a new love interest in his mother’s life. They thwart the protagonists, Ann and Mark, at nearly every turn.
How bad is bad? Does your antagonist have a grudge? Legitimate wounds and no other choice in his or her mind to act the way he does?
How do we portray a character’s wounds without doing an “aside” and dumping a load of information (AKA “telling”) the reader why she turned out the way she did? Let’s analyze a couple of stories. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Mayella Ewell, who accuses Tom Robinson of rape, is a sad character. She is described as having no friends and being poor. But how much of what happened to her was her choice? Her upbringing in highly prejudicial circumstances? How about Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, the 1962 psychological horror flick where sisters Blanche and Jane are not who the reader thinks they are (book Henry Farrell, 1960)?
We can flesh out our characters by giving them a defeating quirk and letting them unravel in front of the main character. He might be gifted in math, or have some sort of learning disorder that was ridiculed or misdiagnosed. She might have come from a dysfunctional family but still visits her mother. He might believe abortion is the ultimate evil but have no trouble committing murder in an effort to stop the practice. She might exist in a fantasy place in order to stay in control. Working out of fear, whether real or imagined, is always a good motivation, but must not become cliché. Blackmail with a new twist could be intriguing. The Robin Hood theme is another cliché that if used properly could add a redeeming layer to humanity to your antagonist. Munchausen’s Syndrome, where a captive develops feelings for her captor, can also be intriguing.
Who do you cheer for in Gone With the Wind? What makes Scarlett, Ashley, Melanie, and Rhett so fascinating? While you might have favorites, think carefully about which camp you assign them. Did Ashley, even accidentally, lead Scarlett on? Did Scarlett ultimately act in the best interest of her family? The layers of each character came out slowly throughout the story.
Of course, a villain can transform. Nanny McPhee is not a villain, but she does act like one as she works to better the lives of her charges. Her character represents transformation as the circumstances change. She’s not the one who needs redemption, but others can see the affects of their actions. Her character also doesn’t need to be loved or admired, so she’s a bit both good guy and bad guy in one.
In Meander Scar, one of the main antagonists (yes, there are more than one) Ann’s mother in law suffered the tragic loss of her husband while she was expecting her second child, who was born mentally challenged. Ann and Mark uncover reasons for her actions as they unravel her web of deceit. They, and the reader, learn to forgive her in light of her suffering, and hope for her redemption. However, the real antagonist in the book sneaks up on the reader in all its subtlety. It’s not even a person…but I’ll let you find out for yourself.
Lisa Lickel is a Wisconsin writer who lives with her husband in a hundred and fifty-year-old house built by a Great Lakes ship captain. Surrounded by books and dragons, she has written dozens of feature newspaper stories, magazine articles, and written and performed radio theater. Her novels to date include the cozy mystery The Gold Standard, inspirational intrigue Healing Grace, and a romance with a twist, Meander Scar. She is the editor of Creative Wisconsin magazine, loves to encourage new authors, and will be teaching an on-line course The Nuts and Bolts of Submission in 2011 for American Christian Fiction Writers.