By Kathy Flann
Baltimore, MD, USA

Antagonist. Mua-ha-ha! The first image in our heads might be from silent films – that guy who laughs and twirls his mustache and dances around the 95-pound damsel he has wrapped within ropes sized for an elephant. Sometimes known as Dastardly Whiplash, he wears a top hat and his shoulders are hunched, and we can almost hear his cackles over the furious piano music. He’s the cultural perception of a good villain, which is one of the best oxymorons ever, right up there with clearly confused and wireless cable.
Kathy Flann

This is the kind of antagonist that beginning writers in my fiction workshops sometimes feel dutifully bound to create in their stories. They understand that their main characters need foils and also that narratives need conflict. That’s actually a great start and a terrific impulse. There are plenty of students who begin these courses without the innate sense that a story needs any of these things. So hurray for those who already grasp writer Janet Burroway’s crucial concept that only trouble is interesting.

The problem comes when these beginners compose complex and nuanced stories that feature antagonists that are 2-D caricatures of evil. Quite often, this fiction involves a character’s mother, father, or significant other doing mean and horrible things to the protagonist. The person yells, breaks or steals things, tells hurtful lies, and may even be physically dangerous. The person is bad – B-A-D – like it is a sport with points and trophies and end zone dances.

In these stories, the main character, who’s a realistic person in terms of complex and relatable thoughts, does not react to the bad behavior in the manner that a reasonable person typically would, accepting the situation for months or even years without any particular motivation to do so. The plot is quite challenging for the writers to compose. They struggle to create rising action or a satisfying conclusion, and they often feel frustrated. “Maybe I should just write something else,” they say, deflated.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with a caricature, such characters tend to work better in stories in which the overall aesthetic is two-dimensional and cartoonish. Beginning writers, just like beginning musicians, often struggle with tone. A key change can be hard for new writers to identify. They know they’re struggling with something, but they can’t quite figure it out.

What happens is that if readers engage with a protagonist that demonstrates layered and relatable thoughts and then a mustache-twirling villain leaps into the scene, the tonal shift can take them out of the story, much like a sour musical note from a clarinet makes listeners flinch. Readers may put the book down and reflect on why they’ve lost their engagement. Am I supposed to think this character is real? Why would he throw his son’s clothes into a wind turbine?

If there’s one thing that writers don’t want, it’s for readers to put books down. The whole point of fiction workshops is to help storytellers craft narratives that readers can’t put down, even when aforementioned readers have got other things to do. We want them to delay their yard work and that re-grout of the bathtub. We want to mess up their bed times. We them to pull books out of their desk drawers at work while no one’s looking. Fiction has the potential to be this powerful when the story is tightly crafted enough to keep readers under its spell and when people recognize themselves in it, one way or another.

Sometimes the solution is to make the villain more nuanced to match the rest of the story. We know that real people are complex. What are the antagonist’s motivations? To the villain, none of this behavior is villainous. He or she is the good guy in this story, willing to do whatever it takes in the name of a worthy goal. A go-getter! Maybe the reason that the mother in the story is so, ahem, firm is that she believes in her daughter’s potential more than her daughter does.

Sometimes students ask, “If this person is not my main character, how do I get across her motivations?” It’s a great question. While a writer certainly can provide point-of-view access to an antagonist’s thoughts, the use of multiple viewpoints might make the story unwieldy and overly long. This concern, rightly, drives my students to ask the question.

The good news is that we can do something that takes up zero space in the story. We can reflect on the antagonist’s perspective. We can make sure we, the writers, know why our antagonists are doing what they’re doing and saying what they’re saying. If we do this in a serious way, we can write believable action and dialogue for them.

Another solution to the problem of the 2-D antagonist – and one that many students have not considered – is that this “character” might not be a person. If we want to write a complex story about a hero dealing with blunt force opposition, we can consider a non-human adversary. Might this be a way to explore interpersonal conflicts without having to imbue a human being with inexplicably two-dimensional evil intent? The shark in Peter Benchley’s Jaws is a famously powerful and shadowy killer. Sharks do not need to endure horrible stepfathers or financial ruin in order to be believably homicidal. The animal’s raw aggression elicits complex emotions from the characters, showcasing the tensions between fear and courage, love and loss, political savvy and morality, etc. On a larger level, the shark can represent nature as a whole, which is a blunt force that challenges the protagonists in many stories, like Jack London’s To Build a Fire, Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Or what if the antagonist is intangible? In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the character sells his soul to stay young and beautiful. The antagonist in this story might be summed up as vanity. Of course there are social pressures to look a certain way, and thus the antagonist might also be considered society. If we stop to ponder the kinds of challenges people face on a daily basis, many of them are abstract – alienation, prejudice, self-loathing, jealousy, etc. The best stories transform intangible problems like this into concrete images, such as the portrait in The Picture of Dorian Gray, which ages hideously, a physical representation of the young, beautiful character’s moral decline that aids our comprehension of the situation’s urgency.

An antagonist can really be anyone or even anything – such as the 1958 Plymouth in Stephen King’s Christine or the adorable St. Bernard in his book Cujo. As a writer myself, I like I ask: What’s the worse thing that could happen to this particular protagonist at this particular moment? These ruminations can shape the antagonist into being. In one story, the answer might be a wave of self-doubt when a stern father criticizes the clothes he’s chosen for a job interview. In another, it might be the breakdown of an air conditioner or a visit from an estranged friend. There’s the old saying: One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. The reverse is equally true: one person’s treasure can be another’s trash. Fame, fortune, and close relationships can be destructive forces, depending on the circumstances.

Antagonists and protagonists are always intertwined. Regardless of whether the villain is an assailant with a rope or the arrogance of a celebrity, the antagonist forces the hero to face personal problems that are unresolved. Readers engage with the story to the degree that they understand how and why this is so. In Jaws, Peter Benchley depicts the ongoing problems in police chief Martin Brody’s work and home lives, shark or no shark. The attacks change Brody’s interactions with the image-conscious mayor, as well as how he deals with his marital problems. For some of us, nothing short of a toothy predator will force a confrontation with the boss or a cheating spouse. Brody also gets to compare his own responses to mortal danger to those of secondary characters Quint and Hooper. That’s a lot of what’s interesting about the story, more so than the shark itself.

The original mustachioed villain, for what it’s worth, is named Ford Sterling. He ties a damsel to the train tracks in the 1913 film Barney Oldfield’s Race for Life. The hero of the story and the damsel’s rescuer is Barney Oldfield. His name is in the title of the film. What’s more, Barney Oldfield is played by… wait for it … an actor named Barney Oldfield. And yet it is the Ford Sterling character that we remember. He is the perfect villain for the exaggerated, cartoon world of that story. He just might not be the perfect villain for your story.



Kathy Flann is Associate Professor, English (Creative Writing) at Goucher College and an award-winning author. She will soon debut a new Imprint with Stay Thirsty Publishing entitled Unblended with a mission to “serve up stories, fiction and narrative nonfiction, pure of spirit, brimming with humanity.”

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.