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THE ANTAGONIST

Posted Friday, June 24, 2011, at 1:18 PM

The antagonist of your story, depending on the genre in which you're writing, is just about as important as your protagonist. The antagonist is the bad guy, the opponent your hero will fight against and conquer. I mentioned genre because not all books contain a clear-cut villain.Gone with the Wind contains a lot of conflict, but no one antagonist. There are the Yankees who overrun the town, and they provide conflict, but they're also, for the most part, faceless representatives. The war itself, while providing external conflict, is really just a backdrop for the all the internal conflict Scarlett experiences and (sort of) overcomes.

Keep in mind also that "antagonist" and "villain" are not necessarily the same thing. An antagonist provides conflict and generates tension. Emmie Slattery, the impoverished "trash" in Gone with the Wind, is mentioned a few times and appears once in the book. She's an antagonist, certainly, but not necessarily a villain. So while all villains are antagonists, not all antagonists are villains.

But what about a story that does have a clear villain? In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, that would be Nurse Ratched, who dislikes everything about Randle McMurphy and in the end contributes largely to his destruction. But even Nurse Ratched, as 99% villainous as she is, is shown to have a human side (albeit briefly) in the book.

(And what about those names! Slattery sounds like "slatternly" and Ratched could be "wretched" -- both excellent descriptions of the characters.)

In the thriller The Silence of the Lambs, the villain of the piece is not Hannibal Lecter, as you might think, but rather the serial killer Buffalo Bill. And both of these despicable characters are given depth by showing at least one characteristic that humanizes them. With Hannibal Lecter, known as "Hannibal the Cannibal," it's his refinement - his appreciation of good food, music and manners; Buffalo Bill's soft side is shown in his love of his little white poodle, Precious.

So, just as the hero of your story isn't perfect - he must have his flaws to make him a well-rounded, believable character - your villain also must have at least some small redeeming qualities to keep him from becoming a caricature of the bad guy, a moustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash, so to speak.

"Keep in mind that the person to write for is yourself. Tell the story that you most desperately want to read." Susan Isaacs


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I always knew writing a book would be a long process and I was ready for that, but I'm learning lately that there's so much more to it than I ever knew. I'm happy to be learning all of this, about protagonists and antagonists, outlining and 3 Act structure, but sometimes it's so overwhelming that I get discouraged. What ever happened to the good old days when writers just sat down and wrote books?

-- Posted by DHarris on Mon, Jun 27, 2011, at 1:11 PM

I just found this blog and have been reading all the archived posts. It's set up very clearly and easy to follow; certainly better than most I've read. My question is, as you go through the process of step by step guides to writing a book, how many blogs do you think you'll have? And what will you write about when you've covered all the topics?

-- Posted by fictionfan on Tue, Jun 28, 2011, at 8:32 PM

Writing has always been hard work. Those authors who make it look easy are putting a lot of effort into make it look effortless. Don't be discouraged, but:

"Easy reading is damned hard writing." Nathaniel Hawthorne

-- Posted by JTennant on Thu, Jun 30, 2011, at 2:32 PM

Well, I've been writing this blog for 3 months now, and I figure I'm about a third of the way through the list of writing topics I'd prepared. That means approximately 6 more months to go. After that, who knows what will happen?

My intention is to continue writing the blog, covering all areas of writing and books as the ideas come to me. I hope I'll be able to continue offering weekly content, but won't know for sure until the time comes.

I do know a couple of things for sure: I've had a blast doing this, and I would hate to stop.

-- Posted by JTennant on Thu, Jun 30, 2011, at 2:46 PM


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Jean Tennant has been writing professionally for more than 30 years. Beginning with short stories, newspaper and magazine articles, she eventually branched out to full-length work, with several novels published by Warner Books, Kensington and Silhouette. Now the owner of Shapato Publishing, LLC, in Everly, Iowa, she teaches writers' workshops throughout the Midwest, for which her schedule can be seen at: www.jeantennant.com. Jean lives in Everly with her husband, Grover Reiser, and their dogs, Kirby and Dakota. Favorite quote: "Outside of a dog, man's best friend is a book. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read." Groucho Marx.
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