Do you have a great antagonist?
I've seen a lot of posts about antagonists, and they always make me think (I love to think).
One of the things that makes a great baddie is the sense that this
person might have been a good guy if not for certain small details of
backstory. Some prime motivating event, perhaps, or a key element of
character. This I find plausible because it makes sense for the
antagonist to have quite a lot of strengths.
Another key element for an antagonist is a sense of vulnerability. I
always loved that the dragon Smaug had a single scale missing in the
middle of his chest - and was in denial about it. I mean, hey, that
little flaw is awfully convenient for the good guys, right? But a good
vulnerable point for an antagonist can be more than just convenient. It
can be a major driver for that person's evil deeds: I know that I have
this flaw, and that it may end me (whether a soothsayer has detected
this depends on the story!) so I have to protect myself in whatever
unethical way I can! Another possibility is to give your antagonist a
flaw that also gives them strength. My character Nekantor is obsessive
compulsive, and this is a real problem for him, but it also makes him
very good at certain things like pattern detection (something of a bad
guy version of Adrian Monk's situation).
But say you've got all this. Say your antagonist rocks in the evil,
backstory, and vulnerability departments. Don't just set her loose in
the story and let that be it! Not when you could be doing so much more.
This is what I mean by develop your antagonist.
Your antagonist deserves to have a fully developed character arc, as
much as anyone else. Don't let her, or him, sit back in a corner and
just do the same thing over and over to cause everyone trouble. Let your
antagonist learn from mistakes. You've designed a creature of great
power. Let it grow.
One way to grow an antagonist is the more common one: to let your
antagonist react to ongoing events and have that change their attitude,
their level of desperation, etc. We watched Kung Fu Panda 2 yesterday
and it was a lot of fun to see Shen get more frustrated, angry and
desperate as time went by, because that made his reactions more extreme
and exposed his not-so-noble side. This is a great way to raise the
stakes, because the antagonist will go farther and father in the attempt
to prevail, making the task of the protagonists more and more
Lately though, I've been exploring another way to develop my
antagonist - by letting story events increase his propensity for evil.
This opportunity has come up because I'm working with a prequel-like
situation, which is part of a much much larger story arc. So I'm
actually in the middle of what was once my antagonist's backstory, and
what it's teaching me is that antagonists don't need to be entirely
reactive. They should be proactive, and they should be flexible in
developing their strategies.
After all, how would the bad guys get to be so powerful if they
couldn't grow and learn? Do they simply get to have other older bad guys
willing to set them up in positions of power (how convenient for them)?
But why in the world would big bad guys with power be interested in a
new bad guy who could potentially cause trouble for them? There must be
something awfully compelling about this small shark's characteristics
that would make the bigger ones feel ready to risk meeting its teeth
themselves. Why, and how, does an antagonist develop his skills at
deception? Is it easy for him, or is it difficult?
If you can consider these questions, you may be able to bring an entirely new and exciting dimension to your antagonist.
It's something to think about.