Rethinking the Antagonist

So, I’ve been playing around with the plot of my next novel.  I actually had started writing it but I got stuck and realized I needed to go back to the beginning and figure some things out, such as what the story was about.  Yeah, that minor little detail.

While part of the joy of writing fiction for me is allowing the story to unfold and letting my characters surprise me, I have also learned (the hard way) that I need to have some sort of outline to follow or I will go off on tangents.  Long, bad, tangents.  Victoria Schmidt points out in Book In a Month that you can indeed write a book without an outline, but if you do, be prepared to do a lot of rewriting.

For me, all story and plot begins with character and so today, I worked on re-defining the protagonist and the antagonist.  While doing so, I had a bit of a brainstorm about the role of the antagonist.  The protagonist is easy–she is Josephine, the character, who popped into my mind on an airplane a year or so ago and has been the driving force of the novel ever since. 

As a matter of fact, that’s sort of a good definition of protagonist–the person who is most often in the driver’s seat.   But most people don’t have trouble defining the hero or heroine of their story.  It is the antagonist that is the problem.

If you’re writing a mystery, the antagonist is easy–it is the killer, of course.  In a romance, it is the person keeping the couple apart or threatening their love.  But what if you are writing a mainstream or literary novel where the antagonist is not so clearly defined?  You don’t want or need the dark villain that the word antagonist most often draws to mind.

The answer is simple.  The antagonist is the character who stands in the way of the protagonist’s goals.  Who is the character who most often or most seriously thwarts your character’s goals?  Answer that question and you’ll have defined your antagonist.

Of course, to do this you must back up a step and define something else that is terribly important, which is, c’mon class, what your characters want.  Ah, yes.  That old question.  It is entirely possible to write an entire novel without knowing the answer to that, so difficult is it to pin down at times.  But work on it.  Answer the question whether you want to or not, because from it, all plot flows.  If you know what your character wants, you can then put another character with designs of his own in the way, et voila, you suddenly have conflict and from conflict you can build a plot.

Easy.   

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