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.
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.
Person 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.
Think 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:
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.
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.