Monday, May 12, 2008

About antagonists

Imagine you’re watching a chess game.

White starts moving pawns forward to control the central squares. Black does nothing.

White has opened enough space for his bishops and knights to emerge. He castles, protecting his king, and gets his rooks out as well. Black moves a pawn or two forward, but there seems to be no coherent plan behind this and they are captured.

White launches a full-scale attack. Black tries to mount a defense, but his pieces are trapped behind their pawns and his queen doesn’t have room to maneuver. He is quickly checkmated.

Was that fun to watch? No? Then why does it happen in so many epic fantasies?

One answer is that at the start of the book, the heroes are often naïve and inexperienced. If the antagonist descended on them like Caesar on the Gauls, the story would end there, so the author gives the heroes a breathing space and some time to grow up. The climactic confrontation with the Dark Lord is saved for the end, but unfortunately, if the Dark Lord hasn’t been doing much until then, he’s not going to be the worthiest adversary. There’s not much fun in watching a chess game where White overruns the board while Black sits there and waits to be beaten. There’s even less fun in watching when White has only a bishop and a pawn (the wise mentor and the orphan boy with the great destiny) and they win the game anyway.

1. Give the antagonist a good reason not to kill the hero at the start.

If your antagonist has limited abilities, or no magic, then this may not be a problem. But what if the antagonist is so powerful she can defeat the gods themselves? Why wouldn’t she just reach out across the land, pick the hero up between thumb and forefinger and squash him like a bug? Orson Scott Card’s Hart’s Hope takes this into consideration – Queen Beauty leaves Palicrovol alive because she wants to torture him, and she does that for years. She even lets him go free in her land, because when he raises armies and brings them to her city gates, she defeats them without any effort. So why shouldn’t she let him live?

This is one reason Sauron in The Lord of the Rings works well as an antagonist. He is confined to his stronghold in Mordor for a very good reason – without the Ring, he doesn’t have a physical body and so he can’t go out hunting for the Ring himself. But that’s why Tolkien gave him the Nazgul.

2. Give the antagonist competent henchmen.

Morgoth has a lot of these – Sauron, Carcharoth, Ungoliant. Voldemort has Bellatrix. Tywin Lannister has Ser Gregor the Mountain. Competent means they do their job well and loyally. Competent also means they don’t drop weapons and trousers as they try to rape the heroine, thereby allowing her to kill them.

3. Give the antagonist good plans, and the intelligence to come up with them.

This can be tricky. In one of my manuscripts, the antagonist was Cade, who commanded thousands of fanatical followers who could not be harmed by magic. He also had a stronghold in Malleus, the most powerful, most well-defended city in the land. His enemies were magicians, but they numbered about fifty, and most of them died in the first few chapters, leaving a few survivors (the protagonists) to be dragged to Malleus in chains.

So far, so good, but I found it difficult to continue after this point. Not wanting to write is usually a sign that what I’ve got so far isn’t working, and my subconscious is trying to tell me this. I thought about it and realized what was wrong. Cade wasn’t doing anything.

Did he need to do anything, though? He was so powerful compared to his surviving enemies, and his forces vastly outnumbered theirs. The answer was yes, he still needed to act, rather than sitting in Malleus waiting for the plot to come to him. Sure, he sent his army out to crush the magicians, but that was common sense. It wasn’t a clever plan that would impress on the reader just how dangerous he was. It wasn’t an added layer of depth and intricacy to the story. George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasies are brilliant that way; everyone schemes and plots, and some of those conspiracies are so clever and cruel that I’m left stunned by them. So I gave Cade a plan – and a good reason to have one – and the writer’s block was over.

When you write, you’re playing both sides of the chessboard. Play them well.


Luc2 said...

Yeah, a good plan for the antagonist is important, but believable motives are too. Those searching for world domination only so they can just pitch the whole place in eternal darkness ... not very interesting. Of course, if they had the monopoly on candlemaking, it's already something I could live with.

Marian said...

Right. What you do once you have conquered the world makes all the difference between the Dark Lord and the Enlightened and Benevolent Despot (who just might be able to do more for the people than a democratic council which is so busy arguing amongst itself that it accomplishes nothing significant).

And maybe the antagonist has good reason to believe the heroes are evil, or so misguided that they must be stopped before they harm anyone.