Think back to your favorite movies. Chances are, what you remember most are the two forces vying for your attention: the main character and the antagonist.
We’ve written a lot about developing the main character, or protagonist, in these pages. But unless that character has a formidable opponent, he never gets the chance to be a hero. A compelling antagonist is vital to your story’s success.
First, let’s clarify the terminology. Many books on writing use the term “villain” for the antagonist, but I find that limiting. It implies an inherently evil nature. “Antagonist”, on the other hand, is simply an adversary. It’s a person or force working against the protagonist in some way. The antagonist’s job is to throw obstacles in the main character’s path. One-dimensional antagonists are boring and unbelievable. If a character is completely bad, then the reader will figure her out quickly and anticipate every plot point. Shades of gray are much more interesting and, in fact, create more tension in the plot. If your antagonist occasionally has a conscience and tries to do the right thing, then each decision is a surprise for the reader. Or, if this character has had problems in the past that the reader finds sympathetic, then the reader might understand some of the antagonist’s actions.
In the vast majority of children’s books, the reader experiences the story through the eyes of the main character, whether written in first or third person. So every character in the book is filtered through the perspective of the protagonist. The reader only sees the antagonist as the main character sees him, which may or may not be accurate. The reader’s information changes when the protagonist’s perspective changes. For example, a character may hate her stepfather because he’s not her Dad, but when the stepfather helps her out of an embarrassing situation, this perceived antagonist becomes an ally.
Antagonists need to custom fit the story. It’s up to you to show your readers why your main character struggles against this particular obstacle. In Dr. Seuss’ classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the protagonist is actually the least-likable character in the book. He’s fighting against the joy of celebrating the Christmas holiday. If readers didn’t believe that there was something in the Grinch that made him incapable of feeling joy, and they didn’t sympathize with the Grinch and want him to change, then the idea of not embracing a day of presents and feasting would be inconceivable.
With picture books and easy readers, the antagonist is usually concrete and easily-identifiable. It’s a person or a specific event. As readers mature, the antagonists can become more abstract and complex. Often, what the protagonist is fighting against is really something inside herself. In last year’s Newbery winner, The Higher Power of Lucky, Susan Patron crafted the uplifting story of a 10-year-old girl bouncing between her (erroneous) belief that her guardian was planning on turning her over to an orphanage, and eavesdropping on 12-step meetings in the hopes of finding her own “higher power” to give her strength. Jerry Spinelli’s haunting middle grade novel Wringer takes place in the fictional Waymer, where the annual Family Fest involves a live pigeon shoot. Ten-year-old boys are enlisted to wring the necks of wounded pigeons. Palmer dreads his upcoming 10th birthday, torn between wanting to fit in and being repulsed at the idea of killing a bird. The antagonist here is twofold: the pressure to participate in the looming Family Fest, and Palmer’s certainty that he will be the evil one if he gives in.
Finally, don’t overlook a classic antagonist: nature itself. As an outside force beyond the protagonist’s control, nature can be a riveting foe. Gary Paulsen’s novel Hatchet is a perfect example. Twelve-year-old Brian is stranded alone when the plane he’s traveling in crashes in the Canadian wilderness. With nothing but a hatchet and his wits, the city-bred Brian must survive until he’s rescued. He soon learns that nature is unconcerned with his presence. Sometimes benevolent, sometimes violent, nature has its own agenda and is ultimately indifferent as to whether Brian lives or dies. It’s this indifference that has hooked readers for years, making Hatchet’s antagonist one of the most memorable of them all.
About Laura Backes
Laura Backes is the publisher of Children’s Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children’s Writers. For more information about writing children’s books, including free articles, market tips, insider secrets and much more, visit Children’s Book Insider’s home on the web at http://write4kids.com and the Children’s Writing Web Journal at http://write4kids.com/blog/