Thursday, June 27, 2013

Two Plus Two Equals What?

Speaking of creating and rendering antagonists in our fiction, one of the most important considerations is to make sure we don’t end up with a flat character that’s almost a cliché.  So how do we accomplish that?

First, as Mike noted, we can try to find what Clint McCown calls the emotional core of our characters.  In the case of the antagonist, that isn’t as simple as saying they’re evil or villainous or any other generic placeholder.  The real emotional core has to tie into and spring from some much deeper and more complex why?  Childhood abuse, bioengineering, religious zealotry—or even a combination of low pressures and moisture from the gulf that can yield some perfect storm.  And those are only the clichés!  The more complexity we can develop into this character infrastructure, the better, of course.  We also need to recognize that our understanding of the antagonist will change and grow more complete and subtle as we draft our story, keeping in mind the iceberg and our need to know far more about all our characters than we ever include directly in our narrative.

Second, we need to let our yeasty antagonist actually rise a bit to avoid that dreaded flatness.  That can mean giving our character some traits that conflict with the darker elements of their personality.  We can show that internal conflict through what Blake Snyder calls a “save the cat” moment, a moment where the antagonist does something to show a glimpse of heart, a level of concern that makes them human and just might balance their evil tendencies.  Might.  Snyder’s term comes from a famous scene in the first Alien movie where Ripley, in this case the protagonist, but a very tough minded and brutal one, actually saves the cat to show us she has a softer, rounder side and to strengthen our empathy with her.

Finally, we can give our antagonist a bit of a twist to show them not only as dislikeable, but also maybe as somewhat off balance, or a bit of a fool.  In my drafting of my civil war manuscript, A Single Hour, I struggled with an antagonist who was just not rising on the baking sheet.  One day, at a business conference, I was sitting in the back of the hall and, frankly, working on some revision to my manuscript and only half listening to the presentation.  Eventually, my attention shifted to the speaker and I realized I’d been drawn to a syntax habit he overused—one that annoyed the hell out of me.  The fellow turned every other sentence—or so it seemed—into what he may have thought was a rhetorical question.  He would say something like “Two plus two equals what?  Four.”  Not even a pause between question and answer.  Over and over.  What a jerk!  Finally, I realized I’d stumbled onto a gem and I granted this speech habit to my antagonist.  The workshop readers loved to hate it and the antagonist, and hate it they did since I overused it on my first rendering just as the speaker had done.  But once I’d diluted that salt to a tasty level, the trait worked to both strengthen and soften the antagonist’s character.  Thank you, Mr. Annoying.

So remember, sometimes two plus two just might equal what?


  1. One of my most favorite characters that I love to hate is Parkinson from Greene's "A Burnt-Out Case" (sorry, I can't do italics or underline in comment boxes?). Parkinson would quote or misquote authors--oh, did I forget to mention that this novel is in the 1950s or 1960s in Africa at a leprosarium?--and he would end the quotes with something like, "Quote. Shelley." Or "Quote. Poe." Something about him is so out of place and out of breath and totally out of context.
    It's wonderful, and I love to hate him.

  2. Okay, can anyone think of a time, when the villain wins? I have been trying to think of an instance and can't think of one. Can you? I am thinking of a bad guy that goes through the entire story as the dark villain and comes out the victor. Sounds like something to pursue to me.