A few nights ago, while they were lying in bed, my four-year-old whined that my two-year-old kicked her. I told my toddler to “stop antagonizing her sister”. Using the word 'antagonize' in that context got me thinking—in writing, we often think of the antagonist as the villain…the bad guy…the evil one who just needs to be smote; however, the reality is that there’s actually no such thing as “bad guys”…just people who do bad things.
Why No Such Thing as Bad Guys
In our lives, we’re all the hero…the good guy (even in traffic). It’s a matter of perspective. Consider the reality of warring countries. Those of us in the US are aware that there are other people in other parts of the world who think we are the bad guys; however, we know ourselves and our values. We believe in freedom, love, justice, and a Starbucks on every corner, and we believe that our principles and values are good, defendable things and so we lace up our hero shoes (and sidestep getting into political commentary).
In writing, your characters are the same way. Villains are only portrayed as such because of limited perspective. Try to imagine Harry Potter from Voldemort’s POV. He was abandoned and neglected by his father, a muggle. His mom lost the will to live despite having a little baby to care for. Lord Voldemort couldn't have had a more sympathetic start to his sad life. As he grew, lack of love and no insurance to cover wizard therapy damaged his fragile psyche to the point that he became a broken and vengeful adult with a fractured moral compass (read: he felt murder was justified if it satisfied a means to an end...also, he had the best avada kedavra, and it felt good to be the best at something.).
And, what about Bellatrix? She just wanted to be liked and accepted. She just wanted someone to be proud of her, and she fell in with the wrong crowd. It could happen to anyone, especially when they grow up with a mom who drinks too much mead and uses unforgivable curses as punishment and an emotionally-unavailable father, and maybe some other dark stuff, you’re bound to make poor choices. I’m speculating on Bellatrix’s life, but you get the point, right? Super. Let’s move on.
A Case for a Good Antagonist
Though I used two examples of people who chose to do bad things with their life, let’s look at a happier example. I just made my husband watch Little Women, so let’s explore that novel. Who’s the antagonist in that fine piece of upstanding literature? To remind you, Little Women is the story of four girls growing up during the American Civil War and their struggles to become good, Christian women.
There’s definitely no Lord Voldemort in Little Women; however, there are antagonists, but there’s not one fixed antagonist.
As my toddler’s leg stilled, it occurred to me that antagonists are better thought of as irritants. They’re forces that act in the protagonist’s life that make them uncomfortable to the point that the protagonist is provoked to action.
Case and point: My four-year-old could’ve not been bothered by my toddler’s leg. She ceases to be an antagonist at that point; however, my four-year-old was bothered to the extent that she wanted to do something about it. She wanted to make the irritation stop. The was provoked into action.
In Little Women, recall the scene where young Amy burns Jo’s book. Amy and Jo were often at odds. Jo had upset Amy in a previous scene provoking her to do something truly awful; however, Amy wasn’t a bad person, not at all. She just did a bad thing because of the antagonist in her life.
As writers, if we reconsider our protagonist’s antagonists as illustrated—and if we consider that our protagonists are our antagonist’s antagonists, then we have the ability to develop a much richer and more believable narrative. Going back to Harry Potter, consider that Voldemort inextricably made himself Harry’s antagonist by executing his (Harry’s) parents. Likewise, Voldemort inextricably made Harry his antagonist in the same gesture.
By adopting this more literal meaning of the word antagonist, it becomes easier to create characters with depth and who have strong push-pull relationships. Motive is better explained when considering antagonism from this POV as well.
If you’re a writer looking for a fresh set of eyes to edit your manuscript or to provide a manuscript critique, contact me, Vonnie York. I’m a professional editor and writer with over 10 years of experience working with fiction and nonfiction genres.