Questionable: Plotting Multiple Antagonists

Brooke asked:
“Are there four separate but not equal antagonists, or one antagonist and three minions [in The Devil in Nita Dodd]?”

There’s always only one main antagonist in a classic linear story because you can only have one climax with the obligatory scene of the protagonist and the antagonist facing each other in final battle.  

But you can have subplots that the protagonist and (in this case) her team* have to clear out of the way to get to the Big Bad.  In the best of all possible worlds, you have one main antagonist and a couple of subplots that aren’t life or death, say family or work.  In this case, which I do not recommend, I ended up with five different factions fighting for different things:

So these five different factions at work on the island are represented by the ovals.  The boxes cover up the characters who are either part of those factions or who are innocently working within them, unaware of how nefarious their leaders are, and who won’t be a problem, but who do add to the strength of the faction.  Some of those characters are part of more than one faction, using one against the other or playing them off against each other for their own ends.  The names outside of the circles aren’t part of the factions, they’re just going about their lives but are getting looped in as innocent bystanders (example: Joey).  Each one of those factions has one driving force who makes things happen to achieve his or her own ends, but only one of those characters is the Antagonist.  The rest are subplots or barriers that Our Gang has to clear out of the way to get to the truth, stopping a lot of bad along the way. 

That’s Our Gang in the middle there.  

I know all the characters, I know all the goals and motivations, now I just have to figure out how the dominoes fall.  The first domino is Joey’s shooting; that’s the thread Nita will pull on to get started on her investigation, but Nick’s thread is Forcas which leads him to Richiel (end of Act One turning point) which takes out the head of one of the factions but still leaves the minions to take out.  Faction 3 leads them to Faction 2 and Faction 4, and those in turn lead to 5 and then to 1, at the climax.  I still have a lot of plotting to do, but know how these are all connected and how one will organically lead to another means that I at least have a road map.

And I’m never going to do this many antagonistic factions again.  I think it’s right for this book, but for any other, how screwed up would a protagonist have to be to have this many groups gunning for her?

*About that team:
Nita/Nick: Leader/Lancer
Chloe: Hitter
Rab: Researcher/Hacker/Brains
Max: Grifter/Thief

It’s Nita’s book, so she should be the leader, but one of the things she and Nick work out early on is that they’re dealing with two different spheres.  So if the group they’re fighting is human, Nita’s got the lead; if they’re demon, Nick takes point, until the end when Nita gets the final scene because it’s her damn book and because of a plot point I’m not going to spoil for you.  :p

26 thoughts on “Questionable: Plotting Multiple Antagonists

  1. This is fabulous! I think I can use this, and it might even help. (It’s in my head already, so I don’t know if actually straightening out the tangles will help me write it or not.)

    I also think it’s an occupational hazard of high fantasy (ie: political) that it is going to involve a lot of factions. Z-jane fights and defeats X-fred. Not really exciting. It’s important that Z-jane gathers a team, and X-fred has a powerful organization with minions (and enemies). It seems the more enemies you have, the more powerful you are. (Something wrong with that logic, but that’s what I see.)

    I haven’t read or seen Game of Thrones, but it’s my understanding that graphing that like what you’ve done would create something like Lawrence Welk’s champagne bubble machine if it were programmed by B.S. Johnson.

    Series are the next thing. I don’t know how people do it. I write short anyway, so I’m going to finish the “series” (probably a short story and two novellas or novelettes), and then I’ll be able to back track and fix anything. But those TV people and comic book people . . . they have to live with their decisions (-:. Either than, or do a Reichenbach Falls.

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    1. Or a retcon; comics do that all the time.

      Again, Curio makes this so much easier. I do still work on graph paper, but this time I tried graph paper and a table in Word until I thought, There are too many factions and too many characters and they’re all overlapping; do a Venn,” and after that, it was right there where I could see it. Plus Curio meant I could color code everything and then move it around. I really love Curio.

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      1. My characters do a lot of multitasking. The Venn circles are a great idea. I don’t have time to learn a new program, but I can make a bunch of construction paper ovals, and put the characters in little squares or circles, and play around with it that way. I think this will work way better than a thought cloud with lines trying to connect everything.

        After I get everything in place, then I could add lines, with dotted ones for the lesser conflicts/connections, and bold ones for the main thing I need to get done.

        In a subplot, the father-daughter connection I’ve got is a toughie. I think they want the exact same thing, but they clash on how it should be accomplished. Or maybe the conflict is only in the daughter’s mind? Or the timeline is the source of conflict? They both want Dad to get his gold hoard back, and they both want the daughter to grow up, although the father may not be as crazy about independence as he thinks he is. Maybe I should toughen up, though, and make him a crazy dad who wants to retain control over both his money and his daughter. It’d make the conflict more interesting . . . .

        Although, I feel much better about things now. Cleaning up this subplot means the protagonist will demonstrate that she has achieved her goals in the story.

        Say, do you have a McGuffin in this story? I think that’s what I need in the center of my chart. The McGuffin. They are all dancing around this inanimate object.

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        1. My answer to the “I-don’t-know-Curio” problem is using a whiteboard. 🙂 I have lots of dry-erase markers so I can color-code too, but there’s lots of moving things around. Occasionally I bust out the magnets and move labels.

          I love the idea about dotted/solid lines!

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      1. LOL, as I get older, those Sunday afternoon/evenings of my childhood become less boring and more nostalgic. Plus, I would love to see a mashup of dark and dreary Game of Thrones set so “the champagne music ova Lawrence-uh Welk”.

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  2. Diagrams are a good way to see where there’s too much going on but needs trimming.

    For those who say they aren’t visual people, note that the ‘learning styles’ theory has been debunked. You might has a preference for learning in a few ways like auditory but it is not hardwired.

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    1. Oooh, I would love to see that research. Personally, I feel that people do learn from all learning styles, but there are personal preferences and strengths. I’m not very visual. I can do it, with some practice, but I prefer sensing things, I think. (I was very near-sighted as a child, and didn’t get glasses until second-grade, which may have had something to do with it.) Not an action-based learner, but feelings.

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    2. I think teaching with all the ways is the best way to go. To this day, I have a hell of a time reading crochet directions, but I can grasp a chart immediately. I know people for whom it’s the exact opposite. Having both is the best.

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      1. Yes. From what I’ve read, people have an inclination to learn in a few key ways, but if they are exposed to other ways, their brain can develop a proficiency in those, too.

        The goal for me is to emphasize the types of Multiple Intelligences and Learning Styles of each student, but to expose them to all of those that I can in order to strengthen those learning abilities. Easier said than done!

        PS – I needed this chart! Thanks!!

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  3. Wow, first I get to go to dance class, and then there’s a new blog post. Today is a good day.

    1) The title is even funnier now
    2) I’m dying at the diagram being redacted. ???
    3) Um, where is Dag on the team?!

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    1. He and Mort are comparable to Maggie in Leverage or Barry in Burn Notice; important but not part of the key group. That’s in part because of things that happen in Act Two (good things, nothing’s going to happen to Dag) and in part because I wanted a core team of five.

      Actually, I think of Max as kind of the Sterling of the group, when Sterling would join them for a sting.

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      1. I love the idea of using Leverage roles to describe characters in other stories. I desperately want to write a caper novel, and aspire to Leverage quality. My own stories, but that quality. Don’t know that I can carry it off, but it’s important to have a role model and a goal.

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        1. We’ve spent so much time analyzing Leverage here that I figured that would be a comparison that the vast majority would get.

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  4. Thank you so much! This is a much more thorough explanation than I was expecting (diagrams!)–but you exceeded my expectations once again. And it makes it clear to me that I need additional minions in my work. My antagonist can’t carry her side of the story on her own. I was thinking about what you said about everything going wrong at once, and I need to start throwing a lot more at my characters.

    And I might drag out some paper and colored pencils to see what I’ve going on and who’s involved. Curio seems to be Mac only–but given how much I do drafting that’s not the notes/tables sort of stuff, paper will be a good start.

    So much to think about . . .

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    1. Thanks, Sure Thing, for the learning style links!

      I wish when they tear down one neuromyth, they’d offer a replacement . . . .

      At any rate, I do think different approaches to the same problem is useful for tough learning problems. One way or the other will work better. And of course, going through the material three times is better than going through it once — and if you vary the learning styles, then it’s not as boring.

      IDK. Some things are just so learnable. Other things, I can repeat a 100 times and still not retain it in a meaningful fashion.

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  5. In PoI, you had Team Machine (and often individual members on separate threads), HR, Elias, the Brotherhood, the FBI/CIA/ISA, Vigilance, and Decima always ready to throw wrenches in each others’ plans.
    You’ve pointed out how Mors Praematura dealt with this by slowly converging the threads. The S2 finale episodes also took this approach.
    Firewall, in contrast, runs an intricate clockwork of overlaps, with the only convergence being Team Machine finally all getting on the same page. But Firewall is also the case where most all of the parts are focused on Reese, with Finch’s twist opponents left to after all of the action in the hotel is over.

    The evolution of PoI over the seasons from juggling crime/government antagonists as equal to the convergence/gaming model of the Samaritan Big Bad is interesting in its own way.

    But what’s key is that interactions are still in a line. That venn diagram doesn’t contain 3-way or 4-way overlaps for good reason. At most, you have our protagonists with an opponent on either side, but the majority of interactions remain between only two parties. And that’s how better group fight scenes are visually shot, too: various opponents jump/are pushed into the fight line, to be sequentially dispatched.
    Gotta love that fractal storytelling.

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    1. In Nita’s book, it’s more her team coming together–they’re not there yet at the end of Act One but at least they’re mostly in the bar–and starting to figure out what’s going on. Nick’s job is to find both agents, which he does by the second scene in Act Two, and then close five hellgates and find out who sent the demon to kill Joey. Nita’s been rejecting the supernatural, but now her goal is to find the demon who killed Joey. It’s not unrealistic to assume that this is one person. But what they find as they start to pick apart things is that they’re not the same person, that there are several factions on the island, and the fallout from those conflicts confuses the issue. The great thing about them being linked is that taking down one faction exposes another, stronger one.

      But I’m still trying to figure out the dominoes here. I’m moving on to antagonist monologues that will never be in the book but that I have to write so I understand where these five people are coming from.

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      1. Yeah, I loved some of the official rules that Leverage used to ensure that motivations were clear. The Evil Speech of Evil was more often than not about how the villain sees themselves as the hero, according to their own warped standards.
        Tied to that was the rule for the ending: the villain must suffer + the heroes must gloat. (Sometimes you get a proxy gloat from Sterling or the client, etc.) This ensures that the heroes must satisfy their surface motivation, and provide a satisfying emotion for the reader to tag on to.

        Some genre shows are dissatisfying because despite gesturing at a team coming together, the members come off like they still really dislike each other, and themselves weren’t satisfied with their work. No gloat, no unity.

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        1. Oh, that’s an excellent point about the Evil Speech of Evil; evil is in the eye of the reader, not the speaker.
          I’ve always taught that nobody gets up in the morning and says, “Today I’m going to be an evil son of a bitch.” He or she says, “Today I’m going to make things right/get what I deserve.” The idea that the Evil Speech of Evil is a massive rationalization is a good one.

          And yes on needing a resolution, although I’m not sure about gloating, possibly because I’m anti-gloat although Nate almost always does; but there definitely has to be a moment of savoring and absolutely has to be a new stable situation for Our Heroes.

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          1. The Leverage gloat was specific to its structure, of the crew getting revenge for their wronged clients. But I think its concept can somewhat extend to a wider variety of stories, which is that there should be surface satisfaction in the resolution at a minimum, a moment for the audience to look back on the sequence that has just been completed, and know that it is completed.
            Like, Leverage often had episodes where they completed the initial con, but they did their job too well and had to fix the complications from that. And you don’t have the gloat after that initial con, even though it was apparently successful. It’s not until they get their gloat in that we know that they’re really done.

            So not strictly a gloat, but a structural/aesthetic sign of a turning point, which explicitly addresses the heroes’ motivations? (“My immediate motivation for this past act is now satisfied, but now I have a new immediate motivation.”)

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          2. Yes, exactly. I always called it the sigh space when I was teaching; you need a moment for the reader (and the characters) to savor the success and the new stability (which does not include giving birth unless that was the goal all along). You make an important point about the gloat being specific to the situation, too. I love the gloat at the end of the pilot where he tells Victor not to bother them again, and then they all get massive checks because Hardison is a genius.

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          3. In the “rising action/falling action” diagrams, the more complex ones often have minor peaks in the main rising action section to depict the fractal resolution of subplots or arcs. But it’s key to depict that bit of downward slope. If there’s a supposed mini-climax that directly hurls the heroes into the next challenge, that might get depicted by a ramp-up in the line, but that’s an inflection point, not a mini-peak.

            There has been some discussion lately about how increasingly serialized television has lost sight of this, resulting in shows that are a slog to get through. Before (and still with current procedurals), the writing was split to make sure that each episode at least had one sigh space at the end, with a denouement. Multi-episode arcs would still have an episode sigh space, before following up with the next development/twist cliffhanger.
            But new series seem to treat the binge model as a 12-hour single film, with no sense of act/arc breaks.

            I’ve been rewatching one particular genre show, and one of the places it ultimately fell down on compared to Buffy was in deferring sigh spaces to off screen. Characters would say “we need to talk,” but then we never see that talk and they refer to the talk as something that happened in between episodes. Increasingly, there were only Big Moments, and less and less of the character-building Little Moments. And Big Moments all the way down are just empty calories.

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