What makes a gripping story? The main character? The setting? The plot? Minor characters? Unique events? The quality of writing?
All of the above? Sure, I’d take that answer. But, as I touched on in my Wednesday post, I would argue that one of the–if not THE–most important things for your story is a strong antagonist.
That’s right, the guy who may or may not show up on the pages for half the book is actually the most important character in the book. For the antagonist is the one who challenges your MC and keeps him from gaining his goal. Until the antagonist is defeated, there is no ending to the story, and the climax must feature some sort of battle with the antagonist.
For that alone, there are a surprising number of books written about how to write antagonists. One book I am reading right now and finding quite helpful is Bullies, Bastards And Bitches by Jessica Morrell.
But the fictional world is ripe with examples of strong antagonists. Let’s consider both some classic and popular novels:
- Les Misérables is made much more powerful by Inspector Javert’s (A) dogged, matchless pursuit of Jean Valjean (MC).
- In the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter’s (MC) strength is revealed by Voldemort’s (A) strength as a formidable, untouchable antagonist.
- In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (MC) finds her inner strength by facing the formidable Capitol in President Snow (A).
- In Pride & Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet (MC) realizes how quick to judge she is, which Mr. Darcy’s pride (A1) concerning his reputation and Mr. Wickham’s (A2) deception reveals.
The antagonist doesn’t have to be a separate person either.
- In Lolita, for example, Humbert Humbert is both main character (MC) and antagonist. While he pines for Lolita and his world revolves around Lolita, she is a character who encourages Humbert to indulge his fantasies–while being his victim–and essentially allows Humbert to destroy himself. However, it is worth noting that Lolita also acts as an antagonist.
But let’s look at two of these in closer detail. For the sake of argument, I’ll take probably the most familiar of these: Harry Potter and Pride & Prejudice.
Although Harry Potter is a series of seven books, thousands of pages of story, his story is only as strong as his antagonist: Lord Voldemort. In reality, Voldemort spends very little time on the page interacting with Harry.
That’s not to say that Harry is not affected by the antagonist–he has never been so affected by anyone other character. Everything about Harry’s life has been affected by Voldemort, the evil wizard who killed Harry’s parents when he was just one. Where Harry lives, who he knows, how he finds out about his wizarding skills, Harry’s passions and interests, all are affected because of Voldemort. No other character has shaped Harry like he has.
Every plot in this seven-book series focuses around Voldemort somehow trying to injure and/or kill Harry. Voldemort, in fact, runs the plot far more than Harry ever does. Under attack, Harry is simply trying to survive (usually). He is facing physical death by the hands of his antagonist.
How does Voldemort drive the plot? By sending his servants to kill Harry. Killing Harry’s parents. Creating doubt among others.
Can you imagine…
…Harry Potter without Lord Voldemort? The resulting plot would be something like Harry goes to school, gets into scrapes and fails or passes tests, eventually graduating. There would be no saving the wizarding world, no dramatic showdown. It was certainly be a very different series.
Pride & Prejudice
It is Mrs. Bennet’s intention in this novel to marry off her five daughters, and three of her daughters manage to get married–despite her meddling.
Okay, so it’s clear that Wickham is the “bad seed” of P&P. But it’s not like he spends a lot of time on the page. However, he certainly makes the most of his pages: flirting and charming Lizzy in the beginning, then turning his attentions on Lydia while none of us are looking, and, at the second turning point, eloping with Lydia.
Let’s take each of those things in turn: flirting and charming Lizzy, turning his attraction on Lydia while no one is looking, and eloping with Lydia.
Flirting & Charming Lizzy:
Lizzy is a good judge of character, but Wickham manages to pull one over on her. Because Darcy has made such an abysmal first impression (the original title of P&P was “First Impressions” by the way), Lizzy is vulnerable to Wickham’s dislike of Darcy as well.
Turning his Attraction to Lydia:
Even while Wickham is off the pages of P&P, he is far from inactive. In fact, while Lizzy is discovering Wickham’s past and how he nearly eloped with Darcy’s younger sister, Wickham is flirting with Lydia Bennet, Lizzy’s youngest sister.
This is the point wherein we realize how much Wickham has actually driven the novel behind the scenes. Earlier, just past halfway through P&P, we find out that Wickham had once set his sights on Georgiana Darcy, Mr. Darcy’s younger sister. In order to save his family a scandal like the Bennet family is now enduring, Darcy hushed it up, refusing to tell anyone about the proposed elopement.
So Wickham, this character who appeared just as a flitting romantic interest for Lizzy, actually is the major antagonist for the book, creating trouble for not only Lizzy, but also for the rest of her family.
Can you imagine…
…Pride & Prejudice without George Wickham? How would Darcy and Lizzy ever get together? Wickham, although a total cad who uses anyone for his own means, is the catalyst to bring Darcy and Lizzy together. It is the strength of his deceptions and misdirections that create a world in which Lizzy and Darcy end up together.
What Does A Strong Antagonist Do?
My entire point of the two examples above is to highlight how a strong antagonist creates problems for not only the main character(s), but also minor characters, along with anyone else that crosses his path and interferes with his goals. An antagonist is (usually) only in it for himself–and pity the person who has a different idea.
Books that fail to have a strong antagonist, or simply offer a cookie-cutter, one-dimentional antagonist often fail to deliver a gripping story.
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