The basic formula for a story goes something like this: a main character wants something; MC sets out to achieve that thing; MC meets with obstacles; MC overcomes obstacles. Simple, right? Everyone can write a novel. No big deal
Quiet often the conflict the MC faces is generated by an antagonist. Antagonists can be the demons floating around in the protagonist's head or they can be the classic arch-villain, the schoolyard bully, Darth Vader, or Lord Voldemort. We will stick to the human, physical antagonist for our purposes here. The writer needs to understand their antagonist.
Antagonists are not just bad guys wearing black hats. They are complex people with their own histories and goals. It is not that they oppose the protagonist. They have their own agenda that they are trying to accomplish. In a reversal of roles, your MC is the obstacle the antagonist encounters in reaching their goal. The school bully wants money to buy cigarettes. Vader tries to bring Luke to the dark side. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named wants power and immortality. And they all have histories that rationalize their behaviors
John Truby in his Anatomy of Story says that “the trick to defining your hero and figuring out your story is to figure out your opponent.” He says writers should love their antagonist because he will aid the writer in so many ways. The opponent is important structurally. Antagonists attack the MC’s weakness, forcing the hero to deal with them and grow. Thus, the MC learns through the antagonist.
The repeated theme at WIFYR this summer was to torture your characters. A session by agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette, touched on the subject. Your role as a writer, she said, is to be the evil overlord, not the hero’s mother. Make your antagonists bigger, stronger, and smarter than the MC. Let them throw up the roadblocks and thwart your hero at every turn.
Antagonists, you’ve got to love them.
(This article also posted at http://utahchildrenswriters.blogspot.com)