You’ve created an amazing character and built them a fabulous world. Now you put your baby in a situation to see what happens, right?
To make any story worth reading, your protagonist needs a fully fleshed out antagonist. One that thwarts your darling at every turn and pushes them to their limits.
What’s that, you say? Writing a fleshed out bad guy is hard?
First of all, an antagonist doesn’t necessarily have to be “bad.” They just need to have conflicting goals with your hero. To help you create multi-dimensional and emotionally complex antagonists, this month’s #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop post will show how to give your bad guy depth so they are more than just…bad.
Antagonists come in two basic packages: internal and external. But the best ones have a little of both mixed in…
As a student of myth and depth psychology, I’ve spent a good amount of time studying Carl Jung’s archetypes and Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. In fact, if you ask any of my own students about the hero’s journey, they will probably roll ALL THE EYES and say I’ve ruined movies for them forever.
*waves to students* You’re welcome.
Anyway, Jung speaks about an archetype called the shadow. He explains it this way:
The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge. (Aion (1951). CW 9, Part II: P.14)
In other words, the shadow is the part of the hero’s psyche that haunts him, but he can’t figure out why. Look at Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. A perfect example of the internal antagonist.
The good doctor has created a potion that, when he takes it, Mr. Hyde is born. But that’s not entirely true. There is no Mr. Hyde. Repeat. THERE IS NO MR. HYDE. Dr. Jekyll is unleashing his inner-shadow and allowing it to take control of his psyche. Sort of like Fight Club, but we’re not allowed to talk about that. Instead, enjoy a still from Jekyll and Hyde…
The shadow is always there, even when we don’t know it. Even Oedipus couldn’t out run it. But how does that help your story?
Well, if you’re writing a character-driven story, make a list of all the things your MC wants. List their dreams and goals. Now, think of all the ways they might sabotage themselves. Kind of like the way I always say I’m starting a diet on Monday yet I buy Sour Cream Cheddar chips on the Sunday trip to the grocery store. Like, WHY?
The other type of antagonist is demonstrated as an external one, otherwise known as the Other. This “bad guy” has all the components of the internal shadow, but they are personified as a reflection of the hero. The foil. Take this guy:
Voldemort is the literal opposite of Harry. Now. But as students, he and Harry have a lot in common. The difference is Harry makes the conscious choice to choose Gryffindor and not Slytherin. One of my favorite scenes in the movies is when Harry dreams he is looking in a mirror and sees Voldemort’s reflection.
Through the whole arc, Harry takes on the characteristics of Old Voldy. Even though Voldemort is his own character with goals of taking over the magical world and making the muggle world submit to his power, the beauty is the true conflict happens when he possesses Harry.
In this case, the external antagonist challenges the hero, but it is the internal conflict that causes the true damage. When Harry’s mentor, Dumbledore, tells him “It isn’t how you are alike, it’s how you are not,” he is able to cast off Voldemort’s hold over him. That’s what makes their relationship so compelling.
So, when you’re working on your antagonist, spend some time fleshing out a character who is the opposite of your hero. Or give your hero some qualities that will sabotage their goals. Most importantly, let them fight it out. Show us what how it feels to lose on both sides and make us taste the desire to win.
On both sides.