Wicked Wednesday: How to Create an Antagonist

We talked about sidekicks back in June. How about an antagonist, the opposite of the supportive sidekick? Let’s distinguish antagonists from villains, because one doesn’t necessarily include the other (and we’ll cover villains next week). The Writer and Proud blog cites google dictionary’s definition of antagonist: “A person who actively opposes or is hostile to someone.” The villain, perhaps obviously, is the one who does the deed, and is often an antagonist. But the hostile person in opposition doesn’t have to be the murderer. “Antagonists are characterized by simple opposition. An antagonist is not necessarily evil, he merely has opposing actions, thoughts, motives, etc. to (in a story) the protagonist. The term does not say anything at all about the actual personality of the character. It is simply a plot role.”

They go on to say, “There are antagonists who aren’t villains. They oppose the protagonist, but they aren’t evil. …Elsa from Frozen … and Inspector Javert from Les Miserables are a few examples. None of them are evil in their motives, but all provide a major conflict with the protagonist.”

So, Wickeds, what are the elements of an antagonist, particularly a continuing character of that type? Why do you want one in your series? What makes him or her somebody our readers want to keep reading about, even if reluctantly? How does the antagonist play off the protagonist? Who are the antagonists in your books, and why?  Go!

Barb: The antagonist in the Maine Clambake Mysteries is Julia Snowden’s brother-in-law, Sonny Ramsey. I wanted Sonny to oppose the updates Julia wants to make to save the clambake from financial ruin. He’s not a bad person. He’s a conservative with a small “c” (and probably a capital C–though I haven’t explored that), who wants to preserve the past, which with a traditional experience like a clambake is not an entirely bad thing. Complicating the relationship, Sonny is the husband of Julia’s much loved sister and the father of her niece, so even as Julia fights with him, he will always be family. In book 6, Sonny and Julia find themselves on the same side of an issue, opposed by Julia’s mom and sister, which is a new experience for all of them.

Sherry: When I was writing the proposal for the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries I thought a lot about how to change things up. One of the ways I did this was by making Sarah’s ex-husband, CJ, the chief of police in the small town they both live in. Instead of having a sidekick in law enforcement that will help her, she has a police force that won’t feed her information.

Picture from Wikimedia Commons

Liz: I ended up with a police antagonist too – but with a bit of a twist. State Police Trooper Jessie Pasquale is Jake McGee’s sister – and Jake is Stan’s new love interest since moving to town. Jessie is prickly and doesn’t trust Stan at first. As time goes on they develop a better relationship, but Jessie is always giving Stan a hard time about the dead bodies she keeps stumbling across.

Julie:This is such a great question! I do have antagonists in my series, like Beckett Green who owns the bookstore across the street. Am pondering a couple of more for the next book. Antagonists are important, and lots of fun to write.

Edith: In the Country Store Mysteries, local police officer Buck Bird is pretty friendly with Robbie, but the state police detective who appears starting in book two definitely is not. She plays by the book, does not want Robbie’s help, and provides the kind of tension any good story needs.

With my Quaker midwife Rose Carroll in 1888, Detective Kevin Donovan starts out an antagonist but eventually grows to accept Rose’s tips and what she hears. But because she’s a Quaker woman and by definition an outsider, a number of local residents act as antagonists: they think she’s odd, talks funny, and is too independent – including her beau’s mother.

Jessie: Antagonists can be a great deal of fun to write. One thing I like to use them for is to prompt self-reflection and growth in my protagonists. Instead of wallowing in anger or irritattion because of the antagonist, my main characters take action to either change or to firm up their own position.

I think readers enjoy them because we all have had people in our lives we wish we didn’t and when a reader sees that in the protagonist’s life it helps forge a connection to the main character.

Readers: Favorite antagonists? Writers: how do you work antagonists into your stories?

13 Thoughts

  1. interesting post, Wickeds! I just finished reading Betty Webb’s The Puffin of Death, in which the antagonist, a sharp-tongued sourpuss, distracts the reader from the murderer’s movements. Cleverly done, with a fun twist at the end. 🙂

  2. Antagonists create tension, which we need if we don’t want our books to put readers to sleep. But I’m glad you said that an antagonist doesn’t have to be the villain in a story. In my Orchard Mysteries, it’s the detective from the state police (which investigates homicides in this state, so we see him often)–he’s a very by-the-book kind of person, which doesn’t sit well with an amateur sleuth. In the County Cork Mysteries, it’s Jimmy who works in the pub–he seems to be perpetually resentful, although it’s never clear why, and he can be annoying. Pub owner Maura has to put on her employer hat and see that he does his job.

  3. Sometimes, my antagonists are a mother, best friend. Someone who challenges the heroine’s way of thinking.

  4. It’s funny because so often in cozy mysteries, the antagonist is the murder victim, thereby giving the main character a motive to be a suspect. This is especially true in the first book. And I’d argue that the police are antagonists more often than not. I appreciate it when an author changes things up.

    However, I have to question Elsa from Frozen being called an antagonist. I’d argue she’s the main character since the story is really about her growth. I’d argue that Anna is also a main character. Yes, Elsa’s actions drive most of the plot, but she’s still more a main character in my mind.

    (Sorry, my DisNerd slipped out there.)

  5. In my Nora Tierney mysteries, the guy who is definitely an antagonist toward Nora in The Blue Virgin ends up being her love interest by book 3, The Scarlet Wench; their tension is created by what she thinks is his prejudice until she learns otherwise. And he’s clearly never the villain.

    I agree; good antagonist’s not only help increase tensions create stumbling blocks for your protagonist, they often make your leads question their own beliefs/prejudices/ideas.

    1. Also in my Local Foods mysteries, Marni – the detective is antagonist in book one and by book three he’s the lover – but then has to resume antagonizing because my protagonist is a person of interest. Which keeps it interesting!

  6. Good stuff here! The shifting roles of a particular antagonist offer us so many opportunities to deepen all our characters and their relationships. In my Spice Shop series, Pepper’s former husband Tag is usually an antagonist, opposing her investigation and challenging her decisions, but occasionally, he helps her out, surprising them both. And she can be his antagonist at times as well, which is another great layer to explore.

  7. Hi Edith!
    So good seeing you at the book reading.
    The photo brings it all back with style.
    What a lovely night.

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