Thinking About Story Teams 3: Antagonists

Have I mentioned here how important an antagonist is to shaping a plot and the protagonist’s arc? I have? Huh.

Wonder why I never remember that.

So I was having fun writing Nita pretty much by the seat of my pants until I got far enough into it that it was clear it might be a book and that I was going to need a plot which meant, yep, gotta find an antagonist. (Do as I say, not as I do, Argh People.)

Except this time, I have an antagonist. Well, I have three. Well, I have three groups, one of whose leaders is probably the antagonist. Yeah, I don’t have an antagonist.

Nita wants to find out who killed Joey. I think that’s the head of the secret White Power group on the island. They’re anti-demon. Not that Joey was a demon. He just Knew Too Much. (Yes, that’s weak, I’m just starting here.)

Nick wants to find and close the hellgate and drag the demon who opened it back where he belongs. I think that’s the head of the secret Green Power group on the island. They’re anti-human.

And then there’s the Demon Firsters who are opposing Nick’s appointment as Devil back in Hell. That’s Mammon, who has Max and Sequins working for him. I don’t think they’re the antagonist and his minions but they’re going to end up on the island so they’ll be part of the conflict mix.

So that’s Nita vs. the White Power group and Nick vs. the Green Power group. Huh. Usually when my protagonist has a conflict with an antagonist, I make the hero’s separate conflict with the same antagonist so they can join forces to fight him or her. But looking at this mess, Nita and Nick are caught in the crossfire between two nutso groups fighting each other. So that’s going to take some cogitation. I can see them supporting each other in their separate battles, I just don’t see them having a common enemy. That’s not good.

Of course, a common enemy isn’t enough. He or she has to be a great common enemy.

nate-sterling

I’m thinking of all the deplorables that Leverage fought, especially the head of the insurance agency in the first season and Victor in the pilot and fourth season finale. They were loathsome but powerful. Actually, all the Leverage bad guys were loathsome and powerful, probably because they were based on real loathsome and powerful corporations and executives who were selfish asshats. And then there was Sterling, Nate’s doppelganger antagonist, the guy who’d worked with Nate for so long that he knew every move he’d make, and who always won, or at least got what he wanted while the Leverage team walked away free because Nate knew Sterling as well as Sterling knew Nate. Sterling was a brilliant antagonist. Leverage knew how to do antagonists right.

poi-620x374Person of Interest was great at antagonists, too–HR, Elias, Vigilence, Root, assorted crooked CEOs and secretive government agencies, culminating in Samaritan, the computer that defeated them over and over again for the last two seasons. There was a real sense there that they were outgunned, which is really important in heightening conflict, and the last season when they were on the run, pretty much scraping themselves up from the pavement to fight back, was the most emotionally compelling of the conflicts. A great antagonist doesn’t just shape the conflict, he or she intensifies it because he or she is smarter, stronger, and better equipped than Our Team.

That’s one of the many reasons why an antagonist shapes a team. In the beginning there’s a leader with a goal, and that leader recruits or inherits a group of people with skills who may have different goals and motivations, and then he or she has to mold them into an efficient working unit. That’s probably the first act of your story, or the first half, or the first three acts, but at some point those people have to be bonded to each other, forged in a crucible that makes them a unit, and that’s where your antagonist becomes essential.

dubenichThink of Leverage pilot, the team assembled by Victor for a theft, quarreling with each other until Victor tries to kill them. Their common thirst for vengeance brings them together as a bonded fighting force for just one more job, to bring down Victor. Then Victor is hauled off to prison, and the team realizes they had a good time and want to keep working together, at which point their antagonist is Nate, who says, no, he doesn’t work with thieves. The end of the pilot is three of the team following him down the street, arguing with him to keep them together until they come up to the deal clincher, Sophie, who pretty much seduces Nate into sticking with them, right there in broad daylight. The team defeats the last antagonist and goes off to grind the bones of bad guys for the next five years because first Victor and then Nate made them fight for the team. Every job the team pulls shapes them further, deepens the relationships within the teams, strengthens the bonds that make them sacrifice for each other, and arcs the individual characters in concert with the character of the team. When they come full circle to face Victor again in the Season Four finale, it isn’t just organic, it’s a final test of the team, forcing them to bring in doppelgangers to pull the biggest con of their team’s career. Victor shaped them in the beginning, and he proofs them in the end. That’s a great use of an antagonist in a team story.

The key is, the reader/viewer has to respect the antagonist, consider him or her a real threat, stronger than Our Team. That’s why the Comic Antagonist makes for such a weak story (unless the whole story is farce, in which case, never mind). A weak antagonist shapes a flabby narrative.

Oh, and one more thing: an antagonist should be as fascinating at the protagonist, as complex and layered and real as the person who drives the narrative. Like this:

poi_0216_s10

Which brings us to Legends of Tomorrow, and the immortal Vandal Savage, Destroyer of Empires and the Worst Villain Ever. This is a guy who needs red light bulbs to create a sense of menace.

Blood Ties

I’m using Villain instead of Antagonist because Savage keeps twirling his mustache as he ties different team members to the train tracks. He lurches through the first season of Legends bragging about how he’s pals with Jack the Ripper and Joseph Stalin and playing Psych 101 games with the team, many of whom evidently never took Psych 101. Also he’s immortal, so the fact that they keep killing him is meaningless. At some point, one of them should say, “Shouldn’t we figure out a way to kill an immortal that doesn’t rely on the Hawks because they’ve blown it 206 times?” Sara, who’s studied a million ways to kill people with the League of Assassins? Stein with his three PhDs and nuclear capabilities? Why do they keep doing the same dumb things? Savage doesn’t so much shape the team as confuse it, which is why the Legends team is a complete mess until the end when they find out that the reason they’ve so incompetent is that they’ve been used as puppets, a realization that drives one of their to die to save them. That death sends them into the last episode as a single fighting unit, which Rip Hunter, the Worst Team Leader Ever, splits into three parts. Also a problem: The team member who dies isn’t killed by Savage or even the soporific Time Master who’s been manipulating them; he dies shutting down a source of power for the bad guys of his own volition in part to save the team but also because he’s really mad about being played. It’s a powerful death, but it’s only a step in bringing down Vandal I’m-Best-Buds-With-Hitler Savage, whose subsequent triple-slaying feels like an anti-climax.

Legends had a lot of first season problems–let me count the ways–but a lot of them would have been solved with a decent antagonist (Damian Dahrk was right there, too).

So a good team antagonist . . .
• is a fascinating character who is stronger and smarter than the team leader and the team as a whole
• shapes the team by pushing back against it and unites it by giving the members common goals and motivations
• tests the team by trying to divide them and forcing them to work together to solve whatever puzzle he presents
• forges the team in a final obligatory scene/battle that makes them work as one.

Or something like that.

So Nita’s antagonist has to be so dangerous that Nick’s demon team unites with Nita’s human team to take him or her down. And so smart that they have trouble doing that and must learn to trust each other and rely on each other’s skills in order to prevail. Hmmmm.

Back to cogitating.

20 thoughts on “Thinking About Story Teams 3: Antagonists

  1. So who opposes demons.

    God?

    A high level angel acting on its own against orders and the balance of the world because demons, and who is using demons (the green power group) to… try to precipitate Armageddon? …to try to close down Hell? …something else really meta-conflictional and big? Working with demons against an angel is fun.

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    1. God and the angels are dealing with the universe. This is just a small dust-up on a small island in a small part of the Earth Division. That’s why the Devil has to deal with it. He’s like the General Manager of the Earth Division.

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      1. I think my genre is too ready to go for upping the stakes to the universe being at risk, while yours is much more comfortable with a narrow focus. I think this is one of the huge problems in crossovers between fantasy/SF and Romance — keeping that balance of stake expectation reasonable for the different readers. The thing I’m writing now, I’m having problems resolving the emotional plot and the alien invasion plot so they are both satisfying. And I suspect it might be one of the problems you’re having here.

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        1. That’s a problem for me, too. I have books I loved writing that haven’t done well and I think that’s one of the (many) reasons. Wild Ride comes to mind.
          I do like the romance plot where the H&H come together because they’re both fighting the same antagonist, so that’s one way to solve things: the fight spurs adrenalin and brings them closer and working together foreshadows how they’ll be in the future as a couple. But you almost have to pick a side and make the other plot a subplot.

          I do think that the big alien invasion plot is difficult for me to make compelling without establishing the stakes on the personal level. That is, I think it’s harder to invest a reader in saving the world than it is to invest the reader in saving the world so that the characters they care about survive. It’s easier to worry about Little Suzie than it is to worry about The World. Or at least it was until Trump was elected.

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  2. It’s always at the point you’re describing where I go, “Oh bollocks, I need an actual antagonist now, don’t I?” that I go completely blank and then wander off to work on something else. Which is why I never finish anything… Antagonists. Argh.

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  3. Your comment on how the Legends character died and brought the team together reminds me of how Phil Coulson died in The Avengers and it was only then that they banded together as a team. Prior to that point they were all ego point scoring.

    I don’t suppose you have a character floating around that is a secret member of both the anti-human AND the anti-demon groups and is stirring up trouble just because they can?

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    1. I was wondering that too. If Mammon infiltrated both the White Power and Green Power groups, chaos could ensue. But tricky to see why Mammon would bother.

      It’s a tricky puzzle all round. I’m really looking forward to reading your solution.

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  4. Given the amount of food I have consumed today I’m going to blame it for my present mental fog and for why I teared up at the mention of POI’s Elias with accompanying photo. Proper villain. Wonderful actor.

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  5. “So that’s Nita vs. the White Power group and Nick vs. the Green Power group. Huh. Usually when my protagonist has a conflict with an antagonist, I make the hero’s separate conflict with the same antagonist so they can join forces to fight him or her. But looking at this mess, Nita and Nick are caught in the crossfire between two nutso groups fighting each other.”

    Right, so:

    (Pardon this for being very vague, as I haven’t been following all the New Writing developments, and also because I’m speaking a bit above my pay grade since I haven’t published anything myself. And bear in mind that, as with any advice I ever offer, this is me trying to help and not me expecting anyone else to do as I say. Also, offer may not be available in Hawaii or Alaska, Your Mileage May Vary, Exceptions May Apply, Always Ready The Fine Print, Do Not Taunt Happy Fun Ball, and feel free to ignore, adapt, reject, or make fun of this advice as needed.)

    What you have there isn’t necessarily a plotting problem; it’s just a plot that isn’t finished.

    What you’ve got there are two people who appear to be pursuing unrelated goals, but maybe interacting and even doing each other favors in the process… right up until they (and we, the readers) realize that the reason everything is such a mess is that someone has been stirring the pot and setting these groups against each other. Say the White Power group didn’t go after Joey because he knew too much; say they killed him because they considered him a race traitor — and because they were set up to do it, to keep Nita distracted on the human side of things. (Does someone suspect that Nita might be more than she seems?) Say the head of the Green Power group did open the hell gate — was it a goal in itself, or was it to keep Nick distracted and out of Hell? Sure, Mammon doesn’t like Nick and opposes his appointment, and has minions to help scheme and throw stumbling blocks in Nick’s way, but is Mammon the antagonist? Or is Mammon doing someone a favor? Who’s making a power grab back in Hell while Nick is busy chasing manufactured clues up here?

    I don’t know, and like I said I’m talking above my pay grade. But it seems like the time for Nita and Nick to come together is the point at which they discover that the Big Bads they’ve been hunting aren’t the real Big Bad, which could very well coincide with the discovery that Nita is more than she seems.

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    1. Actually, readers are better critics than writers, so there is no pay grade. Also, being published proves nothing. Trust me, I know.

      Nita finds out everything by the end of Act One so I can get that out of the way.

      I’m intrigued by the idea that one group is manipulating the other, goading it into action to achieve its own ends. Kind of like Isis being delighted Trump was elected. Must cogitate.

      After I clean up the kitchen. Thanksgiving is a very greasy holiday.

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  6. Michael – I once worked for a printing company that did everything from business cards to posters. I remember telling the CEO to enlarge a font on the company’s invoice conditions so that it wasn’t literally “the fine print.” I got a notorious grump to give me a half smile.

    Something I learned in philosophy class is about why we dislike a person, or angry with them – i.e. why do they antagonise us? The answer is that they are denying us a “right” of some sort. Whether they are doing so or not is immaterial, it is how we feel about it. They antagonise us because our want/desire/need is thwarted in some fashion.

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  7. I really like Antagonists who have end games that make sense (in the long run anyway).

    For example in the Secret Six comic, Vandal Savage was an antagonist for one arc because he wanted to force his daughter (who led the team at the time) to have a kid. The way he went about it was beyond awful but at least it was eventually clear what he wanted and why he wanted it.

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  8. I took your advice about antagonists to heart a long time ago, and always spend time thinking about what they want and why they want it. Unfortunately, I just realized, in my current WIP I forgot to show the reader. Oops. I’ll go fix that now. Thanks, Jenny.

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  9. Thing is, the antagonist is rarely the only opponent in their encounters with the team. They’re just the thing that makes it interesting.

    Every Sterling episode had another opponent of the team, he was never the team’s mark. Dubenich was indeed the mark and villain in the pilot, but he was working with Lattimer in S4. (Leverage commentary also considered Sterling as more of a nemesis than just regular antagonist)
    Elias would put kinks in the team’s plan to deal with the perpetrator for each number situation, because he’s playing his own game.

    The antagonist is interesting because they springboard insight into our protagonists via compare/contrast. That means points of connection that can always be leveraged by a specific storyline into their reluctantly (or not so reluctantly) working together. That’s what separates antagonists from just enemies. Root had her own agenda that didn’t necessarily conflict with the team, so once they were on the same page, they could work together, although Root would continue to antagonize Harold by being a misanthropic killer. For a good antagonist, the fundamental clashes should be over personality more than object goals.

    So for Green Power and White Power, one needs to be designated the antagonist, and the other will be the slightly less interesting villain (usually that more represents an insitution and idea, than a personality in their own right) .
    Thoughts on how this applied to Luke Cage, which attempted to make each of their bosses into antagonists?

    As for Legends, it appears that the revelation about the Time Masters needed to be revealed much sooner, so they could be the less interesting villains, and Savage could fully become an antagonist. After all, his Psych 101 conversations with the team were clearly evoking Angelus in S4, yet bringing back Angelus as antagonist was in service to defeating the Beast, the actual but less interesting villain.

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