And Now, a Word from Our Antagonists

One of the tricky things about writing romance is the antagonist. I’ve found two approaches, which I have discussed in more detail than anybody wanted elsewhere: the lover as antagonist (Moonstruck) and the outside antagonist that brings the lovers together as they fight (Charade). Nita’s book was supposed to a mostly outside-antagonist book, but as I wrote it, the lover-as-antagonist aspect became stronger. And now that I’m on the final pass throughs, I really have to get my antagonist approach together.

The first thing I did was list all the people thwarting my heroine besides the love interest. All but one of them are minions of the real antagonist, but I still needed the basics to make them real people on the page: goal, motivation, action designed specifically to achieve that goal. No “I got up this morning and decided to be evil” stuff. Good, strong human motivations, even if they’re demons.

A lot of them started with “greed,” but the problem with that is that I then have to go deeper and figure out why they’re greedy. “Money is good” is really not enough of a deeper reason. “I need something (respect, love, power) and money will get it for me” can be a reason; “I lost something I need and money can help me get it back” is a good one. But it’s really that “need” bit that’s key. Lots of people want more money, but for a lot of us it’s “want” not “need.”

And for four of them, the motivation is power: they all want to be the next Devil. The key there is not assuming that of course everybody wants power, that it’s a generic goal. The key is why do they want it. One has a clear political purpose. Another wants to regain something essential that he lost and that’s the only way to do it. The other two, well, right now they just want to be Devil, so part of my day today is figuring they’re specific need instead of just their want. I’m thinking aging might be one of the reasons; running out of time to achieve the highest honor in Hell’s government. The other guy right now is just evil, but I’m thinking he’s a retro guy: women are getting too much power, humans are being treated as equals, it’s time to Make Hell Great Again. Not that I’d use that slogan.

I think that the strength of any conflict is in the strength and complexity of the antagonist, and that rests entirely on the depth of his or her goal and motivation. So while I’m thinking that this may be a lover-as-antagonist book (in which case I’m good because I know Nick’s goal and motivation), I’m still going back to get the antagonist and minion antagonist needs, too. After all, Nita can’t defeat them until she understands why they’re trying to defeat her. And I can’t finish the book until Nita defeats them.

25 thoughts on “And Now, a Word from Our Antagonists

    1. LOL. I hadn’t even noticed it was a five paragraph. For the record, I LOVE the five paragraph essay. Anybody who knocks it has never tried to get a coherent essay from a high school kid.

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      1. I fell back on that format for pretty much every written test I took as an undergrad. It was the single most useful skill I learned in high school. My AP English teacher might have made me read The Stranger, but at least she taught me to write a decent essay (the two or three weeks we spent learning about existentialism were a nightmare, by the way).

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  1. Good luck. Sounds like you’re nearly there. And I can see why having a relationship antagonist and then community antagonists that threaten their world/future together will work.

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  2. I dunno, sometimes the fun of the antagonist isn’t the motivation, it’s simply what they do in service of being horrible people. I’ve been on a Leverage rewatch lately, and most of them get an Evil Speech of Evil explaining why they’re not the bad guy in their heads, but most of it boils down to “looking out for Number One,” chasing power because they think they deserve power.
    But what makes the Leverage antagonists fun is that despite sharing the same basic motivation, they all manifest in different personality quirks and filtered through different industries, and so different variations of crime. Lots of them launder money, flout safety practices, cut corners on product, but the exact mechanism changes, based on the industry, keeping things fresh. Sometimes they’re sleazy, sometimes they’re driven and intense, sometimes they’re cool and condescending, sometimes they’re always irritated, and the combination of their personality with the crime they’re committing is what hooks them into a particular con and gets them their comeuppance.

    But I guess it’s about the direction you’re building your antagonists. By identifying their underlying need for power, that could clarify the specific scheme they’re working with. In the opposite direction, you build their personality out of the scheme they’re working (assigned to make the plot work), letting the implications speak for themselves.

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    1. The thing I always found fascinating about the Leverage antagonists is that most of them were based on real people who committed real white collar crimes. Any doubts I had about that disappeared while I watched Trump’s appointees scam the government. There’s real evil out there, and it’s pretty much based in selfishness and lack of empathy, but that’s hard to write and make realistic. Hell, our current reality isn’t realistic.

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      1. Also Martin Shkreli. If ever there was a real-life Leverage villain…he looks unbearably smug in every photo taken of him.

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    2. My favorite Leverage antagonist actually wasn’t evil; it was Sterling. He was a jerk and he could be self-serving, but he didn’t hurt people. He didn’t even really hurt them, and he seemed to consider the crew fair game because they were breaking the law. He was just the most fun for me because he was as smart as them. Also, Mark Shepard makes everything better.

      The only Evil Speech of Evil from Leverage that really stuck with me is the one from the guy who was trying to steal a transplant heart. I love it because Nate’s response pretty much distilled the entire series to a single sentence (“God helps those who help themselves.” “And I help people who can’t.”).

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      1. Sterling was great. The rule in the writer’s room was “Sterling always wins,” and there was something about him that made you want him to win, as long as the Leverage gang did, too.

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  3. Fear, greed, and a lack of empathy seem to be the cause of most bad deeds in my next of the woods.

    That’s all I wrote. It’s waaaaay past my bedtime.

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  4. Jenny — thank you for this post. It made me realize what’s weak about my WIP and why I’m merely treading water in it. This post turned on the light bulb for me. Soooo looking forward to your book.

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  5. Is that Snidely Whiplash? If so, think you should get bonus points for working him into the post:)

    I have purposely not read this new book because I want to read it new, but I think it’s a win for readers if you go either the Moonstruck route or the Charade one. But if you go Charade, thinking maybe revenge may play into an antagonist’s motivation given the world you’ve described. Really, it’s tough to imagine a world where the Devil hasn’t made a few enemies along the way who want to take him down a peg or two. And revenge can be externalized quite well I think. And, related to this or not, think Nita wanting the help Nick has lots of good conflict built in, too (internal for her that shows externally), so really I think you’ve got so much seeded you can do almost anything & it’s really more what feels right for you and whatever you choose will work for readers.

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    1. That’s the first person/character I thought of good old Snidely Whiplash. Boris and Natasha came next.

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  6. Well that explains what is wrong with most members of the current administration . No motivation. Just greed and they got up this morning and decided to be evil.
    Narratively speaking they are failures.

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