Or, “I do not think that word mean what you think it means.”
Let’s pause for just moment to talk about antagonists. There was a time in fantasy, not so long ago, when all an antagonist had to be was evil, case closed. World domination and/or phenomenal cosmic power would usually enter into it at some point. Also posturing, somewhere toward the end, right before the Big Boss Battle. I remember the Great Muppet Caper movie when Charles Grodin goes on at some length in regards to Why He Did It and What It All Means, and Miss Piggy asking, “Why are you telling me all this?” A comic beat later he responds “It’s exposition. It has to go somewhere.”
As I was working on character dream exercises for my merry band of antagonists, it occurred to me on a less subconscious level that they are people, too. I know, obvious much? Seriously, though, my favorite antagonists are ones who do what they do because they utterly believe they are in the right and are later redeemed by having their eyes opened by the protagonist (such as The Operative in Serenity), or who aren’t really bad guys at all, just in conflict with the protagonist for very good reasons.
There are a couple of really good examples of this in fantasy today. Take Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Star series. Invaders conquer the High Prince’s desert kingdom and do all sorts of awful, awful things—but their leader is a quiet, intelligent, albeit ruthless one who was raised to believe the protagonists’ people are, in fact, the bad guys. And he’s not delusional. Sometime back in history the protagonists’ ancesetors did awful, awful things to his people, and vengeance is a long time coming. Not only is he believable, he’s sympathetic. And that makes him all the more scarier, because not only might he actually win, but there’s a very strong case made for him being in the right. Talk about your moral dilemmas.
Another good example is George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones (long pause for chorus of “squee”s from the audience). The young daughter of an old, conquered enemy has escaped the atrocities instigated by some of the so-called good guys (war is never pretty) with her brother, who is intent on using her to raise an army to regain the throne. She’s forced into marriage and a strange culture at thirteen, forced into a mire of strange and terrifying experiences, and survives the worst with a drive to conquer her family’s enemies. This poor girl engenders heart-breaking sympathy and one can’t help but admire her—but at this point in the game she is very much an antagonist, because she sits on the opposite side of the conflict as the protagonists. They both want the same thing, but only one can win.
Suspense lies raising the stakes so high it’s uncertain, until the last possible moment, who that will be. One of the many things that made The Hunger Games great lay in not being certain who was what side, or who was going to do what, exactly, until the point you had no idea how the protagonist could possibly get out of this one. Suzanne Collins kept the reader guessing all the way until the end. She did this so expertly throughout the first two books it was easy to forget who the true bad guy was—until the third, when all of a sudden, in the last few pages, they suddenly weren’t anymore.
Antagonists have wants and dreams, conflicts to those wants, possible resolutions every bit as much as protagonists. It all comes down to not only the decisions made by both sides (right or wrong) but the reasons behind the decisions. Headology again, I’m afraid. But it’s so easy to simply slap a black hat and pointy little beard on a character to advertise “Beware: Bad Guy”. What if the antagonist were just as human as the protagonist? What if they’re not so different at all? What kind of dynamic would that make?
The identity of my main antagonist is a secret I want to keep close to the vest for as long as possible—though his hand is going to be very much in evidence. His object is the devastation he sweeps through the land, eradicating resources and creating havoc everywhere his agents go—and he’s going to have a very, very good reason why.
Next Time: Dress For Success