My biggest problem in writing Nita at this point is not having a clear antagonist. I already knew that my plot was a mess because of that–your antagonist shapes your plot–but until I started considering her team, I didn’t realize that the team’s make-up was also shaped by the Big Bad. Once I thought about it, it was obvious: the make-up and character of the team is defined by the project it undertakes, and the project it undertakes is shaped by antagonist.
Which means I need to learn a lot more about team antagonists. And then find Nita’s.
The protagonist/antagonist relationship works best when it’s a close one, drawn together by strong emotion and clear unavoidable conflict. (See The Conflict Box for more on that.) Both protagonist and antagonist need to achieve their goals, which they can’t do without blocking the other’s goal. That can be fairly simple when you’re dealing with a single protagonist but becomes much more complex when dealing with a team. The team leader is still the protagonist–don’t write a multiple protagonist unless you really like making yourself nuts–but since she or he is tied so closely to the team, those team members have to be as invested in that goal as she or he is.
It was at this point that I realized I had multiple problems (aside from the elephant in the draft which was that I still wasn’t sure which character was the antagonist). That is, I needed to know the underlying parallel/relationship of Nita to her antagonist (I always need that), but also the underlying parallel of Nita’s team to the antagonist’s team. Why? Because this freaking book has a cast of thousands, they’re all on teams, and they’re all going off in different directions, so I had to pick a land, or in this case, an antagonist team. Writing this many characters is like herding ducks. In space. I mean look at this cast list, just so far (not finished with the discovery draft yet):
• Nita, Button and Mort for the humans
• Nick, Daglas, and Rabiel from the law-and-order part of Hell
• Mammon, Max, and Sequins from the anything-goes part of Hell
• Moloch, Brad, Thad, Ashtoroth, Lilith, and Ranger Rich from the greedy-and-immoral part of Hell
• the Rev, William, Renfield, and Dorothy from the Church of Satan on the island (they’re human)
• Marvella, Cecily, and Linda from the Demon Island Historical Society
• Chinamin, Clint, and Frank from the Demon Island police
. . . I could go on, but you get the picture.
Clearly, I need to pull myself and this story together. So looking for guidance, I went back to the worst antagonist of 2016 (outside of politics), Vandal Savage. Okay, he was badly written and poorly acted, but beyond that, the character failed in being a terrible subtextual match for Rip Hunter:
Hunter is a time traveller, Savage has been reincarnated 206 times.
Hunter assembles a team, Savage ostensibly works alone but actually has backers who are using him.
Hunter is trying to save his family, Savage is . . . uh, I have no idea what Savage wants. To conquer the world, yeah, but as goals go that one is in the Top Five Worst of All Time. (Rip’s Family Fridge Revenge goal is up there, too.) Conquering the World has no emotional resonance. How about you just conquer half the world? Is that good? ‘Cause that’s a lot of real estate. No, you want it all? WHY? Oh, because you’re a madman. Uh, no.
It’s okay to have a crazy antagonist but he can’t be screaming and picking things out of the air, he has to be crazy like a fox. He has to have a real reason for why he wants something. Having a mad passion for Hawkwoman and pursuing her through the centuries is actually a fairly decent goal. Men have started new religions and given up thrones for the women they loved, I’ll believe he’s pinballing through time trying to make her his own. Except he’s so damn bad at it. Two hundred and six times and she still hates him. (Every time I see that number, I think of LoPan in Big Trouble in Little China, and Jack Burton saying, “Two thousand years and [you] can’t find one broad to fit the bill? C’mon, Dave, you must be doing something seriously wrong.”)
So he’s not actually pursuing Hawkwoman, he’s trying to take over the world, a little bit at a time, 206 times. Yeah, try to make this guy a coherent antagonist. He’s like an evil whack-a-mole with ADD; every time period they go to, he’s doing some evil, buying a nuclear weapon in Norway, running a mental hospital in Oregon, running a cult someplace I forget, and most of those times he has no idea he’s trying to Take Over The World, he’s just doing this thing because . . . uh, power?
And none of that is in any relationship to Rip Hunter. Complete antagonist fail.
Then you get to the end of the first season, and you find out the real evil is the Time Masters. As I believe I said before, I mentally threw things at the TV (mentally because the TV in my bedroom is white and the perfect size and I’ll never find another one like that again) because the Time Masters would have been GREAT antagonists. Look at all the connections here:
• Rip is a renegade Time Master, trained by the Time Masters, and now pursued by the Time Masters. He’s not just running from them, he’s the mirror image of them. It’s a good close relationship, and the conflict is heightened by how well the two sides know each other and can anticipate what the other will do. (There’s no relationship between an ancient Egyptian priest and a time traveller.)
• Rip has a small team of misfits and criminals going up against the vast and highly trained fleet of the Time Masters, but the Time Masters are hampered by bureaucracy while Rip and the Legends can maneuver easily without restriction. There’s a relationship between those two team’s abilities even though they’re the reverse of each other. (There’s no relationship between immortality and time travel.)
* Rip wants to save his family; the Time Masters want to save the world from an alien invasion. They both see disaster and want to prevent it, both sides are willing to sacrifice people to achieve that, both sides are sure they’re in the right. (There’s no relationship between wanting to save a family and wanting to taking over the world.)
The Time Masters using Savage as a tool works fine, as long as the reader/viewer knows that they’re the real antagonists by the end of the first act/third of the story. If the reader/viewer knows that, and knows that Savage is an essential piece of the Time Masters’ plan, then all the attempts to take him out now have meaning instead of being a really terrible remake of Groundhog Day. And you can see that in the penultimate episode of the first season when the team realizes that Time Masters have taken away free will, and go gangbusters after them to set themselves and the world free. Those are stakes that matter, stakes worth dying for. Taking down Savage after that is a huge anti-climax because he was never Rip’s antagonist; he even killed Rip’s family on orders from the Time Masters. The Time Masters are huge and powerful and closely tied to Rip Hunter in the subtext of the story; Vandal Savage is a unreleated joke.
Then look at the much-improved second season where Sara is the team leader (so far).
• Sara has the advantage of a team that worked together and bonded and have now chosen to go with her to protect the timeline, but she also has another huge advantage: One of the group she’s up against is the man who killed her sister. If she kills him in an earlier timeline to save Laurel, she could destroy the world (it’s that butterfly flapping its wings thing), but she can make her sister’s murderer’s life hell by fixing all the things he’s doing in the timeline to advance his plan. Her goal is vengeance, but not the clichéd goal of killing him; she’s going to drive him crazy while fulfilling her team’s goal, too.
• The Legends are a band of misfits and criminals who have bonded through shared struggle and loss; the Legion is band of three (soon to be four) master criminals who don’t care about each other at all but share a lust for power. The strengths of one are the weaknesses of the other and vice versa; that’s a relationship.
• And to pull everything together, Sara’s goal not only neatly fits the Legends’ mission to keep the timeline intact, the Legends’ goal neatly reverses the Legion of Doom’s goal to disrupt it. You don’t need a conflict box to see how they block each other: Two teams enter this story but only one will leave.
Based on that analysis, I decided I needed three things to establish a strong central story spine in a team story:
• A Protagonist (Team Leader) and Antagonist (Team Leader) related to each other in some way:
The protagonist and the antagonist should have a subtextual character connection, either as doppelgangers or opposites, to heighten the conflict and unify the story. (Think Finch and Samaritan’s Greer as opposites, one determined to limit the power of an AI and the other determined to unleash it upon the world.)
• A Protagonist Team and Antagonist Team related to each other in some way:
The protagonist team and the antagonist team should have a similar connection, either as doppelgangers or opposites, to heighten the conflict and to unify the story. (Think Leverage’s “2 Live Crew Job” in which the two teams were of the exact same make-up but diametrically opposed morally and emotionally.)
• A Protagonist/Team and Antagonist/Team Goal related to each other in some way:
The goals of the two teams should not only be diametrically opposed, but that opposition should be thematic, too.
(See Leverage’s theme that sometimes bad guys make the best good guys reversed in the “2 Live Crew Job” episode’s other crew just being bad guys; see also PoI‘s protag and antag shared statement of intent–“You are being watched”–and how the last season’s voiceover that explains the story goal changes when Samaritan controls the screen, from benevolent and protective to tyrannical and ruthless, even though both teams are trying to save the world.)
Those three guidelines are draconian (there are many roads to Oz, your mileage may differ, etc.), but I’d argue that if you’re writing a team story, you’re already experiencing so much chaos that a clean conflict between two clearly related entities is essential. It’s all right to keep readers/viewers guessing; it’s not all right to throw so much stuff at them that don’t know what the hell is going on and feel stupid and annoyed. Give them a good strong central plot thread to follow, and they’ll put up with a lot of loose ends along the way, as long as they’re all finished and tied off to the that strong central conflict at the end.
Which brings me to Nita’s story.
• I know Nita’s team: It’s a coalition of Earth and Hell, living and dead; therefore the antagonist team should be . . . probably all human or all demon, the opposite of the rainbow that Nita works with. They can and should use other teams not of their origin as dupes, minions, and stalking goats, but I think the antagonist team’s motto is going to be “Diversity Never.”
• I know Nita’s team’s goal: It’s to keep the island (and Earth) safe; therefore the antagonist team’s goal should be . . . well, not to destabilize the island or Earth, that wouldn’t get them anything. But Nita’s team is blocking them from getting what they want. So they want to use the island for something nefarious and they don’t care who they hurt, human or demon, in the process because what they’re doing is for their Greater Good (flashback to Hot Fuzz there).
• What I don’t know is the first step, the real key in this story, Nita’s relationship to the antagonist team leader. Because I don’t know who the hell the antagonist is.
So what does Nita need in an antagonist? Doppelganger or opposite?
Start with who Nita is: Repressed, angry, an outsider, smart, driven, fearless, outspoken, impulsive, determined to do good and protect her home.
Just reversing all of those gives me a weak character—Nita’s flawed but she’s strong and smart–so I need somebody who can match her, a doppelganger.
So my antagonist team leader is going to be an outsider like Nita. A good antagonist is smart, so that has to go in there, and I like driven and fearless in an antagonist, too.
So Nita’s antagonist is an outsider who’s smart, driven, and fearless. That’s good.
But the antagonist can’t just match or echo the protagonist, he or she has to be stronger, smarter, braver, whatever. If I give the antagonist Nita’s strengths, I can make him or her stronger by reversing Nita’s weaknesses.
So the antagonist is manipulative not outspoken, calculating not impulsive, determined to achieve his or her ends with nothing to protect so unhampered by collateral damage, with the goal of taking power over the island regardless of the consequences.
Which one of my characters is an outsider who’s smart and fearless, manipulative and calculating, and determined to achieve his or her ends regardless of the cost?
I think I know who that is. Not completely sure, I’m still fighting my way through the discovery draft, but pretty sure. And if that turns out to be right, then I know what skills the team will need to combat that person. Huh.