April 2023: The Changing Face of the Adversary

So, you’ve introduced your antagonist to your audience in some way which is sure to leave an impression. Great, that means you’ve set up an emotional foundation, something which lets both your protagonists and the audience know where they stand in regards to the conflict which you’ve set up. You’ve shown them the face of the enemy, and given them at least an initial hint as to what kind of enemy your antagonist is going to be.

That’s an excellent start, but it’s also a foundation that needs to be built upon. While it’s certainly possible to have an antagonist who has all their narrative goods displayed on the front counter, and while that kind of antagonist can work, it usually isn’t ideal. Usually, that sort of antagonist (or any other kind of character) falls into one of two traps: either they become boring because they come off as one-note and shallow, or they overwhelm the audience with a flood of information and context coming so fast and so thick that it all either goes over the audience’s head, or makes them disengage with the narrative altogether.

What this means is that it’s usually best to slowly layer the complexity and context behind an antagonist over the course of the story: let the protagonist – and the audience – learn about their enemy bit by bit, over the course of multiple encounters and events. That way, the audience can get to slowly know the antagonist at a steady pace. Better yet, if the antagonist is someone who’s already gotten the audience’s attention and interest, it will work as an extra hook to engage the audience in the narrative: they want to keep watching or reading or playing because they want to know more about this antagonist’s motives, or background, or goals.

A lot of this applies not just to antagonists, but any character, even the protagonist. After all, it’s not as if the antagonist is the only intriguing character in your narrative (if they are, you may have a bit of an issue). The protagonist, their loved ones, those they meet throughout the story, all of them have the potential to hook the audience’s attention through a strong introduction and a long process of development. The difference is that unlike with those characters, a storyteller’s options in developing an antagonist are considerably more limited.

What do I mean by that? Well, consider the following.

Consider a character who is friendly to the protagonist – perhaps even the protagonist themselves. How do you show off that character’s depths and nuances to the audience? Through interaction. If that character and the protagonist are friends or otherwise bound together, they will have reasons to speak to one another, to share the same space as one another, perhaps even to see each other in action. If the character you want to show off is the protagonist themselves, then you can do that even easier, by showing off their qualities directly to the audience through narration or internal monologue. As a storyteller, you would have more than enough options. Some may be stronger than others, but they will all more or less work.

But what about an antagonist?

Sure, you could treat an antagonist the same way as a more friendly character, but if you do so, you will always run a certain degree of risk. After all, the antagonist is supposed to be opposed to the protagonist – and thus, the audience – and an enemy very rarely has a solid motive to bare their soul to an adversary. Likewise, while it’s possible to show off an antagonist’s qualities through actions, there’s going to be an expectation that most of the actions the antagonist takes in the presence of the protagonist are going to be opposed to the protagonist’s interests – after all, that’s why they’re an antagonist in the first place. When the stakes are low enough or the situation calls for it – in courtly intrigue or grade school rivalry, for example – these techniques can still work, but if the contention between your protagonist and antagonist is life and death, or possessed of even higher stakes, then eventually, the audience will stop believing in those stakes. It’s hard to swallow the idea that someone is out for your protagonist’s blood if all they do each time they meet is discuss their backstories and motives. Even if the antagonist does take show off their dimensions through action against the protagonist, then that action has to leave the protagonist in one piece (or else there wouldn’t be a story any more). That might work once or twice, but do that too many times, and your antagonist will start coming off as woefully ineffective – or perhaps worse, insincere.

So does this mean that all of these options are off limits? Of course not. Used judiciously and sparingly, they can still work, but that means if you want to give the audience plenty of time to get to know your antagonists, you also have to find some other ways to put them in contact with your protagonist. Thankfully, you’ve got some options in that regard.

For example, one way to show the antagonist’s actions without actually putting them in contact with the protagonist is by showing the protagonist (and thus, the audience) the results of the antagonist’s prior actions. This is especially good for a “stern chase” narrative, where the protagonist is already following the antagonist’s steps for one reason or another. Through this means, you can demonstrate the antagonist’s potential motives and mindset through the ways they’ve interacted with others. In addition, you can add a degree of uncertainty through the way in which you convey this information to the protagonist, and thus, the audience. If the antagonist left no living witnesses to their actions, the protagonist and the audience are given what is essentially a crime scene, to puzzle out based on clues. If the antagonist’s actions are being described by another character then that eyewitness might be unreliable or prejudiced – an opportunity to inject uncertainty (and thus, suspense) while also building another character which might be useful later.

Speaking of intermediaries, that brings up another way to give the protagonist a glimpse of the antagonist’s motives and mindset. If an antagonist has subordinates, companions, or other supporting figures of their own, those can be used to offer their own character knowledge of the antagonist. Sometimes this comes in the form of a former acquaintance, other times, it comes through the agents and servants of that antagonist, their “henchmen”. Even the way these characters are presented can tell an audience a great deal about the figure who gives them orders: do they serve their overlord out of fear? or loyalty? How do they themselves act, and how does that reflect the expectations the antagonist has of their agents? Are they confident, well-equipped allies who believe in their employer’s cause and are happy to work with them? Or are they frightened conscripts, sent out to act under pain of torture or death? 

Of course, these agents are also antagonists in their own right, which means a storyteller has to be careful with how they’re presented as well. If you want these “henchmen” to enjoy the confidence of their employer because they’re supposedly effective and competent, having them fail at their goals repeatedly in the service of delivering character interaction will make your larger-scale antagonist look ineffective (or at least terrible at personnel management). Just as an antagonist’s agents can intentionally reflect on their employer through their interactions with the protagonist, they can also unintentionally make the antagonist come off differently than intended by the way they make the audience perceive them.

Last of all, you have what is perhaps the most powerful option. In most stories, the easiest way to gain access to a character’s thoughts and motivations is by making the story’s perspective follow that character. This is why the perspective of a story usually follows the protagonist. Yet the same effect could just as easily be applied to an antagonist. If you really need the audience to spend a lot of time with an antagonist’s thoughts and actions, then it might be best to set some of that story in their heads, instead of the protagonist’s.

There are, of course, risks to this approach. As I’ve mentioned previously, the ability of a character to instill fear has a lot to do with an ignorance of a character’s motives and internal complexities. Likewise, it’s often the case that the more an audience comes to understand a character, the more they come to sympathise with them. After all, every well-written character does things which are rational and necessary in their own mind, and if those justifying thoughts are handed to the audience without any qualification, then the audience might come to agree with that reasoning. This is not necessarily a bad thing. A lot can be done with an antagonist so sympathetic that they seem more in the right than the ostensible protagonist. There’s more than enough good stories based on that precise concept – and there’s plenty of potential for storytelling in the dramatic irony of two mutually opposed characters with sympathetic, but exclusive motives. Just make sure that if you do make both protagonist or antagonist (or deuteragonists, if the two share an equal amount of perspective time) sympathetic, that you mean to do so. Otherwise, you might end up with the uncomfortable outcome of your audience deciding that your “bad guy” is the one in the right.

All of this has been assuming a relatively simple and straightforward set up, one in which the protagonist and antagonist are introduced as enemies, and remain enemies until either the very end, or somewhere close to the very end of the story. However, not every antagonist needs to be obvious from the get-go. Naturally, as someone who writes a lot of stories where the player chooses their own enemies, and where ostensible allies may turn out to be enemies in the end, I have quite a few thoughts on how to subvert, deconstruct, or play with those assumptions.

Perhaps next time, I can discuss that in more detail.

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