I was sitting around the water cooler the other day discussing plot to projects with a friend. He was stuck and asked for my opinion. Conceptually, he had an intriguing idea, but there was one aspect of his story that made me set down my coffee and really open the floodgates of my imagination.
The problem was there was no antagonist.
Does every story need an antagonist? Not necessarily. There are lots of children’s books out there that don’t need them, but how much more exciting would it be to see Dick run… from a maniac in a hockey mask (RUN, DICK, RUN!)? In my friend’s case, he’s writing a YA adventure story. All he needed was a good antagonist to move things along.
Antagonists are more important than you’d think. What would Luke Skywalker be without Darth Vader? Sherlock Holmes without Professor Moriarty? Dr. Van Helsing without Count Dracula? Dozers without Fraggles?
It comes down to point/counterpoint, yin/yang; a balancing act if you will. A good adventure will pretty much follow the formula of a good protagonist overcoming a greater antagonist, beating the odds and thereby becoming a hero. But it all hinges on the antagonist.
For example: Luke Skywalker defeating the paperboy that keeps throwing his newspapers in the bushes would be a terrible story, but a paperboy defeating Darth Vader could be worth reading.
To complicate things a bit, your antagonist cannot, and I can’t stress this enough, cannot be all evil.
It just doesn’t make for an interesting story if you simply cannot empathize with the bad guy. I know some of you are thinking, ‘What about the Lord of the Rings? Lord Sauron was 100% evil!’ True, but Sauron, the Enemy of Middle Earth, was not Frodo’s primary antagonist; it was Gollum. J. R. R. Tolkien was an absolute genius for inventing Gollum, a creature that you could invest in, empathize with, and even feel largely sorry for. Heck, Gollum was even Gollum’s primary antagonist. And when he died at the end, at least for me, there was a sense of relief for the poor guy.
The key to a truly great antagonist is looking deep within yourself. Why is your antagonist an antagonist? What motivates him or her? And completely justify, in your mind, why they do what they do. What life decisions did this person make that led to them being an antagonist rather than a protagonist?
Remember this if anything: A great antagonist always thinks they are doing the right thing.