One of the most universal truths in life? Things are against you. Life is full of conflict. There are things that are trying to stop you, people trying to stop you, even you are trying to stop you sometimes. Stories are no different. When you read or watch a story, you expect to have conflict (which, it turns out, is the number one answer for my students when asked ‘What makes a good story?’).
And if conflict is so integral and identifiable to us, doesn’t it matter a whole lot how we write our antagonists?
I use a pretty simple method for keeping up with my antagonists that is of my own invention. I don’t doubt there is something else out there just like this, but I promise that I’ve only ever seen it in my brain. In fact, I teach it in my classes. It is the Threefold Method.
If we enjoy reading characters that are going through conflict, then the author should consider where the conflict will come from and how to include conflict in as many scenes as possible. I love the above method for its simplicity.
1. The Immediate Threat- These are the Draco Malfoy’s and ra’zac of the literature universe. Those annoying characters that turn into bitter rivals and always seem to be arriving on the scene to get in the last laugh or take advantage of our hero at a particularly vulnerable moment. The immediate threat is the person in the scene with whom our protagonist feels tension, or the person keeping them from getting what they want (or putting them in danger) at that given moment. This person can change from scene to scene.
2. Surprise Friends and Surprise Enemies– Severus Snape anyone? I’ll use William Forrester from Finding Forrester as a less obvious example. At the start of the movie, he is the immediate threat. On some level, he threatens Jamal’s life, and on other levels he threatens his integrity as a young black man. However, this clearly antagonistic character softens and eventually becomes the clear mentor and guide through Jamal’s heroic journey. These characters are some of the most fun to play with. Convince us that a character is good, then make them do the worst imaginable things. Convince that a character is rotten to the core, and then give them a touching scene with a fluffy puppy. Up to you!
3. The Overarching Enemy– A pretty common idea, but this is the threat that looms large behind and past all other threats. In Eragon, we don’t even meet Galbatorix for four books. He’s an idea, a presence that is felt throughout the empire, but he remains out of sight. Voldemort is similar. His methods of attacking Harry are very roundabout for the first handful of books. We know that a great evil looms behind each threat, but the fullness of his power isn’t realized for many books.
If you have a sense of these character types, it’s easy to juggle them throughout your scenes… Let’s take The Daedalus Incident by Michael Martinez as an example.
Immediate Threat- Cagliostro – the alchemist is established early on as a pressing threat. Martinez even has a notorious pirate poised as the “lesser” immediate threat alongside Cagliostro.
Surprise Friends/Enemies – Harry Yu and a few other residents on Mars fill in nicely here. The bizarre earthquakes threatening the life of Mars in our universe’s timeline cast suspicion in a lot of different directions. Who is the guilty party? Martinez leaves us to piece together clues that may or may not lead us to the right conclusions.
Overarching Threat- Althotas- Again, the other antagonists lead us to an overarching evil that has somehow been working behind the scenes and represents a far more dangerous reckoning for our characters. As much as they fear the immediate threat at times, they continue to view those threats in the perspective of this greater evil (in this case a cross-dimensional warlord with some serious anger issues and a potential need for plastic surgery).
Is this the only way to write your antagonists? Of course not! But the threefold method helps me immensely and reminds me to find different reasons for bringing in the surprise enemy or friend at just the right moments, as well as refreshing my character’s intensity through an immediate threat that develops, amplifies, or changes throughout the story.
I promise a blog about my recent wedding is coming ASAP! Hope you enjoyed the read.