Monday Motivation: The solution to a milquetoast story
For obvious reasons, we usually spend a great deal of time thinking about the protagonist of our stories. He or she is unambiguously our Hero. But we don’t spend as much time as we should on the character of the antagonist.
Antagonists come in many different flavours – and, of course, they come both in the singular and, more often, in the plural.
One of the world’s favourite protagonists at present is the comedian turned war-time leader, Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelensky. He has one obvious antagonist in the person of the Russian president – but think of all the others…
You could begin with Putin’s proxies, Belarus and Iran; his armies, his store of armaments and weapons of war. But then there are also the geographical impediments in the way of a swift Ukrainian victory – the Dnieper River, and so on. Include, as winter approaches, the prospect of ice and snow that will also play their part in the confrontation. Throw in those doubters in the Ukraine, who believe that it would have been better to capitulate than to fight. Plus, no doubt, all sorts of other obstacles that Zelensky encounters on any given day: migraines, squabbles with his wife, the common cold. And then the not inconsiderable internal antagonists that Zelensky must face down: his own doubts and fears.
Putin is, by any measure, one of those classic villains we’ve encountered in many tales of heroic resistance to evil. He might not have a moustache to twirl, but he’s every bit as coldly calculating as Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis, Moriarty.
So that’s the first flavour of antagonist I’d like to identify.
He’s evil, he’s powerful, and more often than not he’s two dimensional.
The next antagonist is someone we’re all familiar with. He’s the everyday antagonist who is, like us, a hero on his own journey. A man or a woman whose goals might not be very different from ours. In fact, their goal might be identical to ours: we might both seek to buy that oh-so attractive house with a view out over the city. Or we might both be courting the same woman. Or we might both yearn to be promoted to the same position…
They might be antagonists, but, difficult as it sometimes is to acknowledge this, they’re not necessarily bad people.
When you’re developing an everyday antagonist for your story, you’d do well to think of them in the round: what are their hopes and desires, strengths and weaknesses? In short, view them as the protagonists of their own stories.
The third flavour of antagonists are in a sense institutional: the state, the secret police, the forces seeking to overthrow a legitimate democracy. Although they’re essentially a faceless antagonist, writers try to embody them in the form of one or two representative individuals.
And finally, of course, there are the most powerful of all antagonists: the demons within. There’s hardly a story in which the protagonist’s own fears and weaknesses, his own doubts and vulnerabilities, don’t play a major role.
There they are: four flavours of antagonism. But whatever the nature of your hero’s antagonist, there’s something they all share. One way or another, they all seek to thwart the hero’s quest. And the more strongly they do this, the more vigorous your story.
Often, the solution to a milquetoast tale is to inject your antagonist with a little more vim and hostility. That, in turn, forces your protagonist to up his game, and before you know it you have a story that positively hums with energy.
P.S. This is a greatly modified version of a talk I gave at one of our morning sessions here in Venice.