Characters We Love to Hate

We all know people who seem to delight in stirring up a giant pot of trouble and dumping it out on some unsuspecting soul. Fiction is no different. The strength of your story depends not just on the strength of your main character, but in creating an effective and equally strong antagonist to challenge and contradict your main character’s goals throughout the story.
“The antagonist makes things difficult for our protagonist,” says Jill Santopolo, Senior Editor of HarperCollins Children’s Books/Balzer & Bray. “In almost every story, the main character has a goal—something he or she wants. The antagonist functions as an obstacle in attaining that goal. Having him there raises narrative tension and helps us build toward the climax of the story, because our protagonist has to overcome the antagonist to reach the apex of the plot.”
The antagonist helps convince the reader to keep turning pages. “Ideally an antagonist serves to move our hero forward, exposing a new layer of her character to readers. As adversaries, they must present some obstacle or opposition that pushes, tests, forces the hero to expose a different side of himself to the reader,” says Summer Dawn Laurie, freelance children’s book editor (formerly with Tricycle Press).
According to Ernest Hemingway, what does not break us, makes us stronger. That’s the challenge of a good antagonist, to help our main character evolve and grow.
“I think any kind of antagonist serves to challenge the protagonist and make them a better person. However, the baddest of the bad guys also serve to create conflict. Would there be a story without an antagonist stirring the pot?” asks Stacy Whitman, freelance editor and consulting editor for Tor’s children’s and formerly with Mirrorstone.
Life is not black or white. Neither is fiction. The antagonist is often but not always, easily identifiable in the story. Whitman explains, “Manipulators, such as the Prince in The Unhallowed Prince in the Hallowmere series by Tiffany Trent, are often the sleeper antagonists. The Luxe by Anna Godberson has a master manipulator character who I see as the antagonist–but she’s also more complicated than just being the ‘bad guy.’
Sauron and Sarumon in The Lord of the Rings are your quintissential bad guy antagonists. They’re not just bullies–they’re out to destroy the world. Sauron is much more simple in his motivations than Sarumon is, though: Sauron is a shadowy figure whose only goal is destruction of anything good. Sarumon, at least at first, seems to have thought he was doing good, but let the power and possible glory (though I can’t see what glory there is in being served by orcs and Urukai) get to him.
But the most interesting kind of antagonist is the guy who thinks *he’s* the good guy. His motivations involve some form of a better world (the Prince in Hallowmere, for example, is trying to expand the Unhallowed kingdoms to gain more food sources–but what *are* those food sources?), but often their idea of a better world conflicts with the protagonist’s. Hence Russia always making a great antagonist in Cold War-era spy stories from a U.S. perspective.”
“I worked with author Nigel Hinton on the US publication of his masterful coming-of-age novel, TIME BOMB. Almost all of the adults in the story—teachers, fathers, priests—take on adversarial roles, however unwittingly,” says Laurie.
Jennifer Klonsky, Editorial Director, Simon Pulse/Simon & Schuster suggests a few other types of antagonists, “Toxic friends! Ugh, they’re the worst. You know, the friends who dish out backhanded compliments, keep you in your “sidekick” place, put you down, steal your boyfriend…Also bad boyfriends. And deadbeat parents.”
“Siblings (birth and step). Parents (birth and step). Your self (e.g., Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde),” adds Stephen Roxburgh, President of Namelos llc.
“Well, in fantasy there are the evil overlord sorts of antagonists,” continues Santopolo. “Often parents can be antagonists. Or teachers. Basically any character who acts in opposition to the hero and makes it more difficult for our hero to get what he wants is an antagonist.’
Is every antagonist really someone you want to hate or are there antagonists who are sympathetic characters in the story? “There are millions,” says Roxburgh, “ranging from Satan in Paradise Lost to Long John Silver in Treasure Island to Lord Death in Keturah and Lord Death. The classic antagonist is the progenitor of the modern anti-hero.”
“I think Jeanie the Meanie is sympathetic in THE THING ABOUT GEORGIE,” says Santopolo. “Basically any antagonist who has been painted in a three-dimensional way ends up being slightly sympathetic because the reader can understand where that person’s feelings and actions are coming from.”
Klonsky adds, “In Lauren Barnholdt’s Two-Way Street our heroine gets dumped right before she’s supposed to go on a road trip with her boyfriend. So of course you’re ready to hate the boy. But by the end we find out that he dumped her for kind of a sweet reason…and that maybe she wasn’t the angel she claimed to be.”
Another example from Lurie. “I just read a YA novel called UNDONE in which the heroine’s very best friend becomes both a saving grace and antagonistic force after her death (sorry for the minor spoiler here!). The mouse in A VISITOR FOR BEAR by Bonnie Becker is also a very simple example of a very sympathetic antagonist; by physically antagonizing Bear, Mouse forces a change in Bear’s behavior.
How bad is too bad? Can or should antagonists be purely unsympathetic? “The opposition of protagonist/antagonist, hero/anti-hero, good guy/bad guy is archetypal, black and white,” explains Roxburgh. “However, there is no “should” about the reader’s relationship (i.e., sympathetic or unsympathetic) to the antagonist. If shades of gray are necessary and appropriate depends entirely on the story.”
“In general, says Laurie, “I don’t feel that any character should be purely one way or another. Any character with one dimension is simply less believable than a fully fleshed player. Even “He Who Must Not Be Named” was not purely evil. And though Star Wars is not quite a children’s book, let’s not forget one of the greatest villains in history, Darth Vader. However terrifying we find him, he becomes even more so once we learn he is a father and whose (surely I’m not dropping any spoilers there).”
“I guess antagonists could be purely unsympathetic, though I don’t really think they should,” says Santopolo. “Even Voldemort, the source of all evil in Harry Potter, strikes me as slightly sympathetic. He had a terrible childhood…and though I don’t agree with his evil ways, of course, I do understand them because of the way his character is written, and for me that makes him slightly sympathetic. Same with the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz—someone killed her sister. And in Peter Pan, poor Captain Hook is followed around by a crocodile who liked the taste of his hand. Even though all the antagonists I named are pretty bad guys, I don’t think they’re entirely unsympathetic.”
“On my own list,” says Klonsky, “I can think of only one purely unsympathetic antagonist: Ray in Elizabeth Scott’s Living Dead Girl. He’s the abductor of a young girl, and a horribly abusive, sick man. That said, he’s very well developed and scary…and an incredibly affecting character.”
The inclusion of a well-defined antagonist can help bring the protagonist in a story to life.
Santopolo explains, “I once heard an author speak about writing—I wish I could remember who it was—and the author said that the main thing that makes a book work is how well the writer tortures the protagonist. I think that’s totally true. The harder your character hast to work to obtain his or her goal, the more obstacles s/he has to overcome, the stronger your book is. And that’s the job of the antagonist. Having him there, and having him well-defined, increases the narrative tension in your story and allows the reader to be part of your protagonist’s struggle and feel allied with the main character. “
Roxburgh agrees. “The antagonist is a foil against which the protagonist evolves, providing tension and drama. He antagonist provides a gauge against which the evolution of the protagonist can be measured.”
“They force the protagonist to dig deep,” adds Klonsky.
“Sometimes,” says Whitman, “a good antagonist can show us that the protagonist is a flawed human being who might have a blind spot. I can’t think of a specific example right now, but I’ve read many books where the antagonist is simply a possible friend who the protagonist misunderstands. Conversely, in a heroic epic, the well-defined bad guy antagonist can show the reader what the hero is up against, and give us as readers something to root against.”
Authors often spend a lot of time developing a backstory for the main characters. Should they expend the same amount of time and effort to give an antagonist a fully developed backstory?
“I’m a huge advocate of backstory,” says Laurie. “I encourage authors to know everything about their characters—middle name, birth date, favorite color, allergies, dominant hand, etc. None of those details may ever need to appear in the finished manuscript, but they do play a vital role in how the author develops dialog and action for each character whether protagonist or antagonist or bit player. Dare I bring up Darth Vader again? His backstory drives his character long before we learn the truth…and would make him who he is even if we never did learn the details.”
“I think it’s pretty important even if it never makes it into the story,” says Whitman.
Santopolo agrees. “I think it’s very important—that’s what makes your antagonist seem real, sympathetic and fully developed.”
“Otherwise,” adds Klonsky, “they’ll end up being one-note bad and therefore not terribly realistic.”
“Its importance depends entirely on the needs of the protagonist’s story,” says Roxburgh. “The antagonist’s story is irrelevant unless is has to do with the protagonist and the relationship between the two.”
Give your main character a worthy adversary. “The character of the antagonist mirrors the complexity and stature of the protagonist,” says Roxburgh.“ A fully rendered protagonist, needs a commensurate antagonist.”
In some stories, the biggest battle is the one the main character fights alone. “Sometimes,” says Santopolo, “I think the protagonist him or herself ends up being the antagonist as well. Sometimes our characters themselves are their own worst enemies and have to overcome issues within themselves to get what they want.”
Klonsky reminds autors that, “Antagonists come in all shapes and sizes…and the most interesting ones are the layered ones.”
—Susan Taylor Brown
NOTE: This article first appeared in the Children’s Writer Newsletter. Editors may have moved to a different publishing house and editorial needs may have changed. Please do your own research before submitting.