What’s this? A columnist that isn’t Aaron Scott? It’s unheard of! Is this mysterious writer possibly Aaron’s evil twin? The antagonist to his story? No, but that is a wonderful transition into our topic today: antagonists and character flaws.
The antagonist is, as we’ve all learned each year since 6th grade English, the opposing force to the protagonist. But just being an opposing force isn’t nearly enough for an antagonist to be well written. Obviously, I can’t go into every twist and turn of your specific antagonist. So, instead, I will be focusing on the characterized antagonist’s motivations and humanism, as well as how a non-character antagonist would work.
The antagonist can’t just be evil for evil’s sake - they need a reason. Does your villain actively want to get in the protagonist’s way? Does the villain have connections to the protagonist? Or is the antagonist indirectly connected to the protagonist? Did their motivations just happen to collide? And, for all of these, why? What exactly is driving them? Is it monetary greed? Is it a hunger for power? Envy? Self-interest? Do they just really hate the protagonist? Or, perhaps, did they fall down the path of evil due to good intentions?
Always keep in mind that your antagonist is still human (or human-like, if you’re dealing with a non-human character). No character is just pure evil. The simplest way to give your antagonist humanity is through their backstory. What were they like before they became the villain? What led them to being that villain? A backstory may not flow within the content written within the story, but it should be kept in mind. Apart from the backstory, be sure that your antagonist is complex. The more complex an antagonist, the more compelling the character, the more compelling the story.
Chances are, an abstract antagonist won’t have a strict motivation. The “goal” will more than likely be destruction, either of a setting, a character, a society, or a relationship. Abstract antagonists should be overbearing, challenging to overcome. Think Joker: the antagonist is the society that abandons Arthur Fleck, and/or his own mental illnesses warping his perception of the world. In both cases, they’re overwhelming forces combatting Arthur, eventually breaking him down to become the Joker.
Character flaws are much less dense. I have just 4 rules when it comes to flaws.
A. Avoid the Mary Sue. Having no flaws whatsoever makes a character unbelievable, unrealistic, and just plain boring.
B. Avoid the Anti-Sue. This is a term less thrown around, but we’re all familiar with the concept. These are characters where every trait is a flaw. They tend to always be clumsy, loners, and have some mental illness. If your character sounds like a Wattpad protagonist, then you’ve gone into Anti-Sue territory.
C. A tragic backstory is not a flaw. A backstory will shape your character to have flaws, tragic or otherwise, but just having a tragic backstory is far from enough.
D. Flaws are best paired with a similar strength. People in general grow strengths from their flaws. If a person can’t cook, they learn which microwave meals are the best-tasting or the healthiest. If a character is overly trusting, they’re often a kinder soul. If someone is paranoid, they better know signs of imminent danger. These comparisons not only create a more realistic character, but they also allow for a more balanced character.
Do you have specific questions about antagonists and character flaws that weren't answered in this section? Leave a comment down below and the author of this post will answer it when our next entry is posted. Note: Questions posted after 10/31 may not be included.
Questions from "Character Part 1":
What is a good, easy to understand example in literature/film of a character that follows good indirect characterization and is not stagnant?
One great example of this can be found in the film Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle. The movie follows Andrew Neiman, a drummer at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory, as he attempts to become a great jazz drummer and earn the respect of his ruthless band instructor. Throughout the runtime, Andrew’s ambition and love for jazz is represented through his grueling practice sessions. He acts timid and scared when first meeting the band instructor, but also excited at the prospect of being an alternate drummer at a top band. After being promoted to top drummer, however, his attempts to keep his position lead to him drumming for hours until his hands bleed, leaving his girlfriend, and attacking his teacher onstage. When Fletcher, his former band teacher, invites him to play in his professional band with the intent of making him give up his dreams of being a jazz drummer, Andrew instead becomes confident in his abilities and performs an outstanding drum solo, finally impressing his instructor and achieving his goal.
What suggestions do you have to keep the protagonist from feeling cliche?
Knowledge is power. The easiest way to prevent your protagonist from being cliche is the same way you prevent the rest of your novel from being cliche; you learn as much as you can about what you’re writing. Spare no detail. Many authors use self-made questionnaires where they fill in as much information as possible about their protagonist. Places they’ve lived, what’s happened to them in their life, how it’s impacted them when the novel starts. Familial relationships, favorite foods, even underwear color. You must know more information about your character than you reasonably intend to use, because it’s far easier to leave information out than to try to include things you didn’t already know. Don’t be afraid to use conventions like an orphaned kid, a rugged loner, or a chosen one to your advantage as a way to subvert tropes in a unique and interesting way. It all comes down to the presentation of the character and whether they feel like someone who could reasonably exist when taking into account the world around them.