The Importance of Your Antagonist
I’ve gone on to such lengths about the protagonist and how to write her because I believe so stridently in the importance of a properly formed protagonist to any story. This belief, and its critical importance, does not mean that you should ignore your antagonist, or that somehow writing a good protagonist logically ensures you will hit upon a great antagonist. (40)
There is a lot of usefulness that can be derived by thinking of your antagonist as a mirror image of your protagonist. [This is, at least, a good place to start. Nuance requires that you not literally pursue writing characters who are just opposites.] The antagonist, however, DOES NOT arc and this is the crucial difference.
The Right Antagonist never doubts one thing:
She will defeat the protagonist.
Somewhere in the backstory of your story, the antagonist already arced. She has finished her journey from skepticism to conviction and now she is 100 percent sure in her ability to prevent the protagonist from achieving the same level of trust in herself as she [the antagonist] has.
Notice that this characteristic lifts these archetypes out of the realm of good and evil. In general you want your protagonist to be “good” and your antagonist to be “evil” but this isn’t required by the deep structure of Story. Deep structure only demands that the antagonist have faith in her abilities AND NEVER lose it, and that the protagonist not have faith and SLOWLY gain it.
The Deep Structure of Story is, in effect, Beyond Moral Goods and Evils. (41)
We must realize that what is at stake in the paradigmatic story is a struggle between two wills. It is true that we expect this struggle to be won by the ethically superior (42) Protagonist, but the deep structure of story does not require it. What is required is a battle between two characters. One [the antagonist] has unshakeable confidence in her SUMA while the other [the protagonist] develops that same confidence by not giving up.
When we write our Antagonist, then, we want to imbue her with a SUMA that is geographically near the SUMA we give our Protagonist. They don’t have to be duplicates and they don’t have to be polar opposites, what they do have to be, though, is complements. (43)
Let’s take a quick example to get the flavor of what I mean. We’ll use The Truman Show because it will allow me to make a shallow point I want to make in a specific way.
Clearly the surface Antagonist of The Truman Show is Christof. It is his overbearing belief in himself that Truman must fight against in order to gain his own belief in his ability to find people that actually care about him sincerely.
Christof believes he is doing something important and that his ends justify his means. He believes in this absolutely, the way we expect that a proper antagonist would. So absolute is this belief in himself that he is willing to drown Truman in order to demonstrate it. I point this out because it is vitally important to realize that we are in the realm of PG rated comedy in The Truman Show, and the antagonist is still willing to kill the protagonist in order to demonstrate his belief in himself.
My contention is that the willingness to do anything to prove her belief in herself is the difference that matters when it comes to protagonists and antagonists. The Machiavellian nature of antagonists must not be trifled with. This is a piece of your story puzzle that doesn’t admit leeway. In other words, I’m sure that it would be possible to write a story in which the antagonist doesn’t have this quality but, off the top of my head, I can’t think of any stories that do reorganize the antagonist archetype and still tell an entertaining story.
By contrast, the protagonist has the theme to guide her. This is the line which she knows one must not run one’s new found self-confidence up against. A protagonist will not do ANYTHING to succeed because the protagonist understands that some things are more important than her.
Of course, it is the protagonist’s acceptance of the limits imposed by the theme that, in the end, defeats the antagonist. Most of the time, these themes will be generally affirming of whatever the cultural status quo is, although this not a prerequisite either. (44) I’d offer this as explanation for the preponderance of literary themes that remind us that, together we are more than any of us is individually. I am guessing, if I may be aesthetically blunt, that literature has always been tolerated by the people who hold the power in society because, almost without fail, literature has supported the people who hold the power in society—without even meaning to. Writers have to be ridiculously clever to change society from within a work of Art. (45) This is why there aren’t innumerable dissertations on the wonderful roles for women in the works of Shakespeare. Had Shakespeare written interesting women, he would not have had much of a career because his society would not have supported expressions of interesting women. All of this means we have Lady Macbeth and maybe Kate or Portia or Ophelia [and only after her rejection], and not much else.
I’ll leave it as an open question (46) whether the artist can be exempted from culpability for supporting societal norms which are false, even when this means no more than allowing her culture to consume her art. (47) My feeling, in this moment, is that as long as the artist makes a sincere effort to change what she can, then history cannot judge her harshly. This is, however, an unsupported intuition on my part. I justify it in this moment by believing that, generally speaking, art has moved society toward ethically preferable things. (48)
Getting back on track, we have now identified what separates the protagonist from the antagonist and perhaps even found a societal function in the archetypal divide. We know that we make a great antagonist by giving her absolute confidence in her SUMA and an inability to not pursue success beyond all moral consequence. The antagonist is always ready to exercise the nuclear option and this is the reason she is such a great match for the protagonist.
We also know that the theme is the protagonist’s Excalibur. With its knowledge, the protagonist will win in spite of drawing up short of exercising the nuclear option.
40 It comes close to guaranteeing it but, like everything else in writing, even good writers can still screw it up.
41 I’m not sure where, in the bedrock of our psychology, this idea derives that we should tell stories in which classically “good guys” are the protagonist. Perhaps we do it because the first stories did it. Maybe, we were so blown away by the sheer ability to tell a story that we have yet to examine the deep structure of Story as an object unto itself. Perhaps, we are just afraid all the magic will dissolve under scrutiny.
So yeah, I’m not sure why this choice is the accepted choice, but I will definitely continue to try and figure it out. It is beyond worth figuring out.
42 In the Aristotelian sense.
43 Most authors go with duplicates or opposites but, again, this is a choice each author can make for herself.
44 But it will be harder to find an audience for a story that doesn’t affirm the cultural status quo. This idea is behind my earlier feeling that I was appropriating Marx’s opiates and religions remark. There is a certain sense in which to write is to defend your culture. Great writers, of course, transcend this. They reshape the culture in their own image.
May you be one of those Writers!
45 And just so you don’t think I’m not in favor of Art changing society: To me, THIS IS THE POINT OF ART. If you’re not using your artistic ability to effect whatever change your ability is capable of, then you are not much of an artist. Sorry, if that offends anyone. But, sometimes, dammit, I demand that we be serious in our discussions.
46 Because I do not [yet] have the answer to it.
47 And I am definitely letting my ethical Kantianism show be endorsing ethical absolutes. I will no doubt end up doing this more Absolutely than The Master himself.
48 Unfortunately, I am also forced to leave this comment unsupported for now. I’d like to tackle the issue of how we know something is ethically preferable, but that discussion would consume volumes and make me tired and annoyed with myself and my lack of ingenuity.