Friday, July 15, 2011


1) My entry in this summer's Clarity of Night contest is now up: "Oleander". Yay! It's my first try at doing a historical fiction piece for CoN, and I really enjoyed composing it. I wonder, though, if I should have woven in one or two more obvious clues to its setting. Eh, it is what it is. And the contest overall is, as usual, most excellent. CoNNNNNNNNN! (shouted in best Captain Kirk voice)

2) My wip is up to 26k (this in about 3 wks). Still fun, although I'm working out some insecurities. And, as I do more reading in the genre, I'm both encouraged by what I can do and discouraged by what I find in other work that I was thinking of for my own. (Just get the shitty first draft done, Precie, and deal with lack of originality later.)

3) And the real focus of this post...I've been thinking recently about antagonists. It's so easy to get caught up in a story that has Serious Bad Guy antagonists like Voldemort (Voldemort, Voldemort, Voldemort--just say it!), President Snow, the secret society of the Illuminati, vicious teenagers, etc, especially when the protagonist spends much of his/her time trying to avoid being killed by said Serious Bad Guys. Such villains make for grab-you-by-the-neck, hold-on-to-your-ass thrills and chills. And I enjoy them as much as anyone. (No, I didn't attend a midnight showing of the last Harry Potter movie...I'll get to it eventually.)

But when I think about the stories that really dig deep, the ones that make me think and make me come back to them again and again, the antagonists I find most noteworthy are characters (or entities--antagonists don't have to be people in the story...they can be situations, like a disease, or entities, like Big Brother) who really are, in some way, heroes. They are just as principled and honorable as the protag, just as admirable, just as committed to making the world a better place, but they ultimately fall short.

Here are two examples of what I mean:

1) Gene Hackman in the film Crimson Tide (1995)

Hackman's character is a US sub commander who receives an interrupted order to fire the sub's nuclear missiles. The protagonist is his First Officer, played by Denzel Washington, who believes they need to restore communications and get confirmation that this is a valid order before proceeding. The situation escalates quickly since the First Officer's insistence is considered mutiny. The submariners pick sides, which is difficult considering both sides have merit and many of them are already loyal to their captain. What makes Hackman's character so compelling to me is that, although the movie blurb calls him a "trigger-happy captain," he's really doing what he sincerely believes is the right thing. If the US has been attacked and that's why communications ended abruptly, then delaying a nuclear strike in the hopes of getting confirmation is futile and wastes valuable time. It's an awful order to have to follow, but he's been trained to make hard decisions. While I wouldn't want to follow that order, he's not wrong in thinking he should. He takes his responsibilities seriously; he's committed; he's highly principled. It just so happens he's wrong about the order.

2) Inspector Javert from Les Miserables

Javert is perhaps my favorite antagonist of all time. He's an officer who doggedly believes in upholding the law and punishing criminals. When protagonist Jean Valjean escapes from prison and begins a new (upstanding) life under an alias, Javert makes it his mission to recapture Valjean and bring him to justice. Like Hackman's character, he's highly principled and committed to his responsibilities. His weakness is his inflexibility--he can't see that criminals like Valjean might be fundamentally good people who were driven to desperate measures. Only when Valjean eventually spares his life (and, while saving young Marius, gives Javert the ability to recapture him after Marius is safe) does Javert have to face the fact that the world isn't so black-and-white. He believes in something bigger than himself; he believes he's doing good. He just doesn't see the complexity of what "good" means.

Those are the kinds of protagonists I want to read about. Those are the kinds of protagonists I want to write. I took an online fiction writing course a few years ago and shared a description of the antagonist from the WIP I was writing at the time--a young Victorian gentleman who, like these characters, was highly dedicated to work, family, and England...and whose primary antagonistic quality was that his ambition to be a rising star in the East India Company conflicted sharply with his wife's do-gooder, social crusader mission. He wasn't a bad person, he wasn't wrong to be ambitious, but he stood in direct opposition to his wife, who happened to be my protagonist. I still remember some of the feedback I got about his character--mainly that he should be more of a Bad Guy. (In response, later in that class, I created/shared a scene in which he almost beat some street urchins for trying to steal brass finishings off his carriage.) I've since set aside that WIP for other reasons, but when I think about that character, I still see him alongside Javert...not a Bad Guy...just one with his heart in the wrong place. And I still resist making him into a Serious Bad Guy...because he just wasn't. what makes a "good" antagonist, do you think? Who are some of your favorite antagonists?


  1. This is a great post! By the way, I found from from Clarity of Night. :) I thought your entry was compelling, really enjoyed it.

    As far this post...

    I love exactly those type of antagonists. I also like the kind that seem really horrible but every now and then you see just a TINY HINT that they are redeemable, almost a "what if" or "what could be". A tantalizing miracle just out of reach. Off the top of my head I just can't think of one like that.

    Keep going on your WIP! Mine is at about 16K and I've got two antagonists in mine that I don't really call "antagonists". They're highly flawed and self-absorbed beyond repair more than anything. It's been an interesting challenge to walk a fine line between making them horrible but periodically sympathetic. NOT EASY.

    Good luck on your WIP. Keep at it. Happy to have found you! :)

  2. Wendy--thanks for visiting! And thanks for your kind words about my entry. CoN is one of my most favorite places online.

    And, yes, that "what if" quality makes such a difference.

    Thanks for your encouragement. And it sounds like two antagonists = double the challenge. :)