This week’s installment of Wednesday Words has to do with the antagonist, the person or situation that blocks the protagonist’s progress toward his or her goals. One of the accepted truths is that antagonists must be as fully-drawn as the protagonists, and must have their own goals and motivations besides simply being evil. (See blog posts by Mary Jaksch and Janice Hardy that make this point.) This had me worried. In my WIP, there is a hierarchy of antagonists the heroes have to face and defeat:
- A human who has sold out to work toward evil goals. His motivation is made pretty clear. He sees this as his best chance to survive under the rule of the evil forces.
- A nonhuman creature that manifests in fairly human guise (though with a slippery, shape-shifting appearance). She is scary and dangerous, but seems to have no goals of her own except to serve the whims of her evil master. The closest she comes to independence is when she points out that some of her master’s actions have made it more difficult to reach some of its other goals.
- The ultimate evil, which is a magical power that rules without self-restraint, focused only on its own pleasure. This being is faceless and shadowy. The protagonists know of it through rumor and glancing contacts, and don’t actually confront it until the climax of the story.
So here’s my problem. Only one of these antagonists has a real, comprehensible motivation, and he’s the most minor of them. The others are, really, just … evil. They are explicitly incomprehensible, because they are entities from a separate, magical dimension where nothing matters but the wishes of those ultimate beings. We don’t know what they actually are or where they get their power. They don’t care about us except that they use humans to fulfill their basest urges. For instance, they may enslave armies of humans and make them fight against each other in wars or gladiatorial contests just because they like to watch.
Is that enough to make a fully-rounded antagonist? Is that really something I need?
Here’s something that helps give me my confidence back. Lots of very successful stories have antagonists that don’t have goals beyond power for its own sake. For example, there’s Sauron from the Lord of the Rings. He lost his corporeal form when he lost the One Ring, and was finally destroyed entirely when the One Ring was unmade. During the Lord of the Rings story sequence Sauron is a noncorporeal manifestation of power and evil, kind of like my magical enemies. J.R.R. Tolkein was able to pull this off. I don’t have a tenth of his experience, imagination, or talent, but just possibly it’s within my reach to do the same.
Here’s something else. Lots of very successful stories have antagonists that aren’t sentient entities at all. The most famous example of this is Jack London’s short story To Build a Fire, where the unnamed protagonist battles against the unforgiving cold of the Yukon Territory and eventually is overcome by it. A more recent example is Andy Weir’s book that became a Matt Damon film: The Martian. Here the antagonist is the planet Mars. In both these stories the antagonist doesn’t care about the protagonists at all and can’t be said to have a “motivation” in any real sense. Still, they are wonderful stories with strong protagonists we root for. Can I achieve the same thing?
So I’m back to my story with renewed conviction. Yes, an antagonist can be something impartial and implacable, like a planet or the weather. Yes, an antagonist can be focused solely on accumulating power, like a magical demon lord. So with these examples before me, I can focus on why my protagonists are doing to overcome the obstacles before them.
What are your favorite antagonists? Are any of them faceless powers of evil, or impersonal forces to be overcome? Can this kind of antagonist work for you?
Daily Writing Update: As I promised, here’s a report on my pledge to write 10 minutes each day. In the last week I only missed one day. Six out of seven is okay, but I’m determined to get every day this week!