Tag Archives: Voldemort

In Search of the Elusive Antagonist

Are bad guys becoming extinct?

Are villains on the endangered species list?

Have writers forgotten the meaning of “antagonist?”

Why is it so difficult for neophyte writers these days to invent and design a story antagonist? If the hero is the driving force of the story, then the villain will make all the difference in whether the story is compelling or simply meh.

An antagonist is an opponent. A person or entity standing in determined opposition to whatever the protagonist is trying to accomplish.

It’s. That. Simple.

If a writer, on the other hand, doesn’t know what her protagonist wants, then she won’t get far.

Let’s consider a zombie premise:
Harriet Heroine discovers that her roommate Zoe has been infected and is now a zombie trying to eat her. The apartment–formerly a haven–is now a trap. Harriet has to get out of there–to save herself. Zoe wants to keep her there and eat her.

Two goals in direct opposition. The story will be focused, clear, and easy to follow.

Compare it with this version:
Harriet Heroine is afraid of the recent zombie outbreak near her apartment building. She barricades herself inside her home and stocks up on Twinkies, pretzels, and bottled water.

See the difference? Both versions have similar premises, but one is just a situation. The other has the foundation for a plot and can at least be a viable short story.

Here’s a fantasy premise:
Harvey Hero has inherited an old pendant made of Sacred Stone, the last piece of Sacred Stone known to exist in mortal hands. When his dying grandfather gave the pendant to Harvey, he whispered that Harvey must take the pendant back to the Island of Weir, where their family came from, and claim the treasure hidden there. Viktor Villain–aware that the pendant has the magical power to unlock the treasure chamber–pursues Harvey, intending to capture him, steal the pendant, and reach the treasure first.

But compare it with this:
Harvey Hero has inherited an old pendant made of Sacred Stone, the last piece known to exist in mortal hands. Ever since he started wearing the item, he’s been troubled by strange dreams and feels compelled to journey to the Island of Weir. Viktor Villain has taken possession of the island and has enslaved its inhabitants.

Which version has story potential? In the first version, two characters are vying for a fabulous hoard of treasure. In the second version, the protagonist is moving around without any clear purpose and the antagonist is not in direct opposition.

Another problem that often comes with the nebulous villain is when the antagonist isn’t in the same proximity as the protagonist. How can they be in conflict if they’re on opposite sides of the world?

They must intersect, frequently. They must oppose each other, directly. They must be in conflict, all the time.

Now, perhaps you’re thinking of the Harry Potter series, where Voldemort stays hidden for much of the time. Is Harry in conflict with him? Through Voldemort’s representative, yes.

Hidden villains send minions to do their dirty work of opposing the protagonist. That’s fine. It’s exciting, suspenseful, dangerous, and readable.

The problem falls when no rep shows up. Without conflict, the plot sags, stalls, and crumbles.


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Direct Opposition–Part I

In the shady world of fictional antagonism, there are
Concealed villains
Visible villains

Any and all can stand in your protagonist’s way, thwart your protagonist, even harm your protagonist.

Fiction is built on scenes of conflict, and conflict is created when a protagonist and an antagonist clash.

The conflict should be direct, not oblique. In other words, protagonist and antagonist should each want the same thing and be locked in a situation where only one of them can have it. This is much different than simply choosing philosophically different sides of an issue.

For example, let’s say that Wilbur Writer wants to craft a story about a boy seeking adventure. (Motivation)

The boy, Peter Protagonist, decides he’ll volunteer to serve on a peacekeeping mission to a rebellious colony planet. (Goal)

Wilbur Writer now must design an antagonist. Without this character, there’s nothing stopping Peter from hopping aboard the spaceship and going forth to do his duty. If nothing stops Peter from having his adventure, Wilbur’s story will end by page two.

Wilbur wants to write a ripping good yarn that will keep readers engrossed from start to finish. However, he doesn’t want to be too obvious so he chooses the concealed villain.

He creates Anita Antagonist, planetary president. Anita is greedy and without conscience. She has been corrupted by the colonists, who are bribing her to sabotage each peacekeeping mission. (Motivation)

Anita, therefore, chooses inexperienced volunteers for these missions, intending them to fail. (Goal) She’s sneaky about her involvement, and no one knows what she’s really up to until Peter figures it out near the end.


Let me ask you to reread my example. Then answer this question: Are Peter and Anita in direct opposition to each other?

(This is where Wilbur is going to start squirming and explaining how these two characters are on opposing political sides and how eventually they’ll meet up–probably in the climax where Peter will accuse Anita of nefarious crimes–but right now we want Wilbur to hush.)

Wilbur has made a fundamental error in designing story conflict. Yes, he’s trying to think long-range. He’s trying to think about the end of his story and what kind of showdown there will be. He’s trying to think in terms of opposition.

But despite his best efforts, he’s setting his plot up to fail. Why?

A.) There’s no plausible reason for the president and a raw recruit to cross paths.
B.) Even if Peter did figure out … eventually … that Anita is a treasonous snake, his confrontation with her will involve one scene at the end.
C.) Who’s going to oppose Peter through the other 275 pages leading up to this showdown?

“Oops,” Wilbur says. “I didn’t think of that.”

Back to the drawing board, Wilbur Writer!

Granted, there are all sorts of successful stories featuring the concealed villain. Mysteries rely on this construction. The Harry Potter series dangled Voldemort as the uber-villain that remained in the shadows until the climax of each book.

I’m not saying that concealed villains don’t work. They do, but only if their goal directly opposes the protagonist’s. And only if another character stands in as the visible villain.

Which I’ll discuss in my next post.

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Fascinate Me: The Intriguing Character

When I began my writing training, my characters weren’t much more than a name, hair color, and a series of tasks I wanted them to attempt. Sometimes I jotted down a list of dialogue points I wanted them to make in scenes. Without my list, I often got sidetracked and my scenes didn’t always come out the way I wanted.

Since then, I’ve learned there’s a lot more to characterization than that. What makes us love a certain character and remain indifferent to another? What makes one character live beyond the story he appears in, while others fade from memory the moment we shut the book? Why are some characters intriguing and others dull?

An intriguing character doesn’t have to be the good guy.

Count ’em on your fingers … Hannibal Lecter, the Joker, Long John Silver, Captain Hook, Captain Bly, Bill Sikes, Sauron, Mrs. Danvers, Count Dracula, and Cruella de Vil … to name only a few memorable villains. (Yes, I left out Moriarty and Voldemort on purpose.) No doubt you can come up with many, many more, and there are lists of fictional villains on the Internet to jog your memory.

Let’s take Treasure Island’s Long John Silver as an example. He’s a ruthless, black-hearted pirate who signs on as ship’s cook. During the voyage, he deliberately befriends the young boy Jim, taking advantage of Jim’s naivete and trusting nature. He serves as a confidant and mentor to Jim, only to betray the boy later. Worst of all, when his true self is revealed, he expects Jim to stick with him and also turn on the others. Jim, of course, won’t do that. Silver reproaches the boy, saying plaintively, “I thought you and me was friends.”

Our fascination with Silver is less about his piracy and more about the psychological damage he’s wreaking.

Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is a nasty piece of work. She hates the new Mrs. de Winter from the start and does her best to sabotage the young bride’s self-confidence, marriage, and chances of social success. Mrs. Danvers is the housekeeper, supposed to serve and assist. Instead, she despises Mrs. de Winter and preys on every weakness, even compelling the girl to almost commit suicide. Finally, when she can’t break the girl, Mrs. Danvers burns down the house.

If we look only at Mrs. Danvers’s cruel actions, we have a one-dimensional villain. It’s not until we examine her motivation that we can see her complexity. She loved the first Mrs. de Winter, a beautiful, vivid woman named Rebecca. She was Rebecca’s nurse and remained a servant to her–becoming housekeeper–even after Rebecca married. Mrs. Danvers can’t and won’t accept Rebecca’s death. Mrs. Danvers lays out Rebecca’s clothes each day, has preserved her room exactly as it was, has forced the household to continue doing everything the way Rebecca preferred. Mrs. Danvers has been warped by her grief. If she accepts the second Mrs. de Winter (who’s never named in the book), then she’ll have to accept Rebecca’s death. Mrs. Danvers is far too cruel and sick to evoke our compassion, but she’s anything but ordinary.

Not all intriguing characters are villains.

Consider Zorro, Superman, Batman, James Bond, Tarzan, Rhett Butler, and Sherlock Holmes–to name only a few.

What makes these fictional individuals so compelling?

I found the answer in Robert McKee’s book, Story, where he discusses a writing technique dealing with “true character.” McKee says that audiences are fascinated by characters whose true nature is in contrast to their outward appearance or behavior. At any moment, the mask may drop and we glimpse the real individual inside.

Zorro is literally masked. By day, he hides behind the mild persona of Don Diego. Batman is a wealthy businessman who dons the cowl to fight crime. Superman and Tarzan are also double-identity heroes. James Bond doesn’t wear a mask or costume, but we have a heroic super-spy capable of killing, jumping from airplanes, and blowing up facilities who conceals his violent abilities inside a tuxedo and suave demeanor. Each time we watch Bond sauntering through a glitzy casino with a beautiful woman on his arm, we’re anticipating the moment when the action hero will be revealed. Rhett Butler is not a crime fighter, but we never know when he will drop his mocking cynicism for kindness and generosity. Sherlock Holmes’s brilliant mind and deductive abilities are jeopardized by his cocaine addiction. We fear he will break apart, never to be mended by Dr. Watson.

In designing your characters, strive for a contrast between the surface and the truth. Look at the why behind their actions and make those motivations work. If you can create a complex character, chances are you’ll have a compelling character.


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