Villains, Antagonists, and Everything in Between

In last week’s post, I wrote that one of the most important aspects of writing a mystery is the villain. I chose this word, instead of antagonist, because it sounds delicious.

But there are differences between the two. So here’s the definitive answer on both.

Villains are always villains.

Antagonists are always antagonists.

Sometimes villains can be antagonists.

Sometimes antagonists can be villains.

Sometimes antagonists can be protagonists.

If that didn’t clear things up for you, here’s a better explanation:

Villains are motivated by evil. Not necessarily Satan, though I suppose that could also be true. Villains are cruel and malicious by nature and resort to criminal activity. Their whole existence is to cause harm and destruction. They may feel slighted by humanity or superior to it. They may even feel their diabolical actions are a form of social justice or in the world’s best interest.

Any way you slice it, villains are always villains. They may, however, not always interfere with the sleuth’s investigation. A villain may just go about her merry way killing off all the bellringers in a local competition to atone for the murder of her ancestor over five generations before without ever thwarting the investigation because she wasn’t on the suspect radar until it was too late.

Antagonists, on the other hand, don’t have to be evil at all. They may merely oppose or try to block the sleuth from achieving his external goal, which is to solve the mystery. This can be done without breaking any laws such as by starting rumors, deliberately stalling, lying, or evading. An antagonist may have the same goal as the main character or may just want the main character not to achieve it.

An example of the difference between a villain and an antagonist in a mystery might be:

Little Timmy, seeking revenge on a classmate, causes an accident that kills the classmate. Timmy’s mother, trying to protect her son, obstructs the investigation by hiding physcial evidence and lying to the detective about Timmy’s whereabouts at the time in question.

Timmy is the villain because his motive was to cause harm out of revenge. Timmy’s mother is the antagonist because she literally opposes the sleuth–she does not want your main character to solve the mystery because it would mean something horrible for her child.

Now as I said, villains can sometimes be antagonists. Not only do they commit the crime, but they lead the detective on a wild goose chase as well, perhaps taunting the sleuth with riddles, leaving false clues, and goading her into playing an “I’m smarter than you” game. Many mysteries centering on serial killers will use this device.

Villains as antagonists also love to knock your sleuth unconscious (every Nancy Drew mystery ever) in order to escape or even hold your sleuth captive.

In the same sense, you may have an antagonist who becomes a villain due to circumstances beyond her control, like feeling threatened or being exposed.

Consider a woman who stages her own disappearance in order to leave an abusive marriage. Her husband hires a private investigator to track her down. The woman’s goal is to not get caught and is in direct opposition to the P.I.’s. As the story progresses and the investigator closes in on her, the woman who is desperate and afraid she’s been recognized, murders the potential witness to prolong her freedom.

Though I’ve only seen the movie, I suspect Amazing Amy from Gone Girl is an antagonist who becomes the villain because she uses misdirection first which then escalates to murder as a means to an end.

In most mysteries, the protagonist will be a sleuth, amateur or otherwise. In capers and heists, however, the antagonist becomes the protagonist because we see the story from the thieves’ point of view. The thieves are not considered villains despite resorting to crime because they don’t steal with evil or malicious intent. They do it mostly because they can, mostly to see if they can get away with it. (And I’m sure the money it brings isn’t too bad either.) By definition, capers are lively and playful, often humorous, and you would be hard-pressed to find much more than childhood mischief as motive.

We want the thieves to succeed because the victim of the theft is usually a horrible person and deserves it, so the detective who investigates the crime becomes the adversary or antagonist.

So there you have it, the definitive answer on all things villain vs. antagonist.

Take a look at your own “bad guy.” Where does he or she fall on the scale of villainy?

Do you like your villain or antagonist more than your detective?

Do you want your villain or antagonist to get away with the crime?

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A Word About Antagonists

No matter what you call them–antagonists, bad guys, villains, opponents–they always get a bad rap like 7th grade bullies.

Who's the real bully?

Who’s the real bully here?

It only seems natural that we think of antagonists as evil because they make it increasingly difficult for our main characters to reach their goals. And because we love our main characters and want to protect them and watch them succeed, we make sure we create antagonists our readers will hate.

But antagonists don’t have to be evil, and we shouldn’t always think of them so one-dimensionally.

Regardless of whether it is your protagonist or antagonist, all characters are motivated by something. All characters have a distinct and specific internal need that drives them, however subconsciously, toward their goals.

Antagonists are no different, though usually they are motivated by ignoble desires like greed, lust, power, and revenge. But if we truly look at what causes those characters to embrace their dark side, we’ll see some sort of tragic event in their backstory. Perhaps they were subjected to neglect or abuse, witnessed corruption or violence, were bullied or humiliated. Enslaved even.

We aren't born bad.

Antagonists aren’t born bad.

These are all events that could have happened to our main characters too. And in either case the internal need for each type of character is the same: the need to be protected or to protect, the need to be loved or to love, to be accepted, to be recognized, to face fear, to just be happy.

Unfortunately, while our protagonists take a more worthy approach to fulfilling these needs (saving the world, kittens, old people), our antagonists take a slightly different, selfish path to reach them.

So when dreaming up your antagonist, try to sketch him as a complex, multi-layered character and not just a vehicle to make your protagonist’s life hell. Ask yourself what he is motivated by and what need he is trying to fulfill. For instance, a teenager living in the ghetto whose father always told him he’d amount to nothing may choose to join a gang and prove he is worthy of his father’s respect. Not evil (though he may do evil things), just a bad choice in how he goes about proving it. Another kid with the same history may choose to further his education, become a lawyer (much more evil), and move away. The same need, a different, more moral (cough) response.

Which brings me to another bit of advice. There are two different reasons your antagonist and protagonist will clash.

First, your antagonist may want the exact same goal as your main character. For instance, two men fighting over the same girl (if only).

The same goal motivated by different reasons.

The same goal motivated by different reasons.

Obviously, they will both do things to stop the other from getting her. Your protagonist will choose more righteous actions while your antagonist will generally be a douchebag. Is the latter evil though? He may be, but he may also be your main character’s best friend. What makes it wrong for one man to fall in love with that girl and not wrong for the other? Both inherently need to feel loved, though one may be motivated by feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, or jealousy.

Secondly, your antagonist and protagonist’s goals may be mutually exclusive. That is, one may not want the other to reach it. For instance, the Nazis wanted the Ark of the Covenant for power. Indy didn’t want them to get it.

Now this is a villain.

Now this is a villain.

Did either achieve their goal? Technically, yes, but not in the way they had imagined. And that’s okay if the goal doesn’t turn out the way your characters think or want, if the ark ends up in some military warehouse where another power-hungry leader can get to it. At least your main character saved the day for now. Not for reasons of power or greed or lust. For humanity.

And that, my friends, is my humble opinion on the difference between protagonists and antagonists. It’s not that their needs or goals are necessarily different; it’s that the antagonist, growing up jaded and cynical, is motivated by selfish reasons and makes bad choices.

Rosewood Lane: From a Writer’s Perspective

Kudos to creepy paperboy(s) for making this movie slightly unsettling, despite the paperboy looking like he’s about 19 and still riding a bike. A 12-year old would have been creepier.

Though as bad as Rosewood Lane, starring Rose McGowan, is, a writer can learn a lot about plot by using this storyline as an example of what not to do.

Here is my top 10 list:

10. Never play the “crazy” card, using it as an excuse to let your antagonist do whatever he wants. Even if your bad guy is paranoid, schizo, delusional, psychotic, or just a generic form of mentally ill, your antagonist will always have a motive for why he does the things he does. It may not be logical to sane people, but it at least has to be plausible to the audience. Your bad guy will encounter an inciting incident and have an external goal much like your main character. You should never use the excuse that “he’s crazy” to justify his actions.

9. Never write an animal into your story just to kill it off later. (Unless you’re Stephen King.) Having your antagonist kill an animal just to prove he’s evil is like beating a dead horse. The audience should know he’s evil long before he gets his hands on Fido or Fluffy especially if you’ve spent as much time creating your villain as you did your protagonist. Don’t fall victim to the trope. Instead, do something less cliché like getting Fido or Fluffy help your main character vanquish the villain.

8. On that note, never have your main character leave her pet outside or alone in the house when she knows there’s a psycho murderer on the loose. And certainly don’t leave it outside if the murderer has a history of killing animals. It’s completely irresponsible of your main character, and your audience will hate her and you for it.

7. Never place a weapon into your plot just because you think it’s cool. I mean, what lawyer for the District Attorney’s Office lets off steam by shooting a crossbow? And don’t let said lawyer leave the weapon lying around in the basement with a psycho murderer on the loose who has already broken into the basement. While it is true that if you introduce a gun in the first chapter, you need to make sure someone uses it, you should also make sure your weapon du jour has a credible reason for being used. Police detective>Gun; Hunter>Crossbow; Ex Special Forces soldier>sniper rifle; Lawyer>Crossbow=NO! Baseball bat, maybe. Wusthof Cook’s Knife, more likely.

6. Never mention bits of backstory without explaining the significance of it. For instance, if your creepy paperboy spouts off nursery rhymes and your protagonist mentions off-handedly that he must have heard one of her radio shows on nursery rhymes, then please explain what this show was about and what the correlation between nursery rhymes and abuse victims and/or psycho paperboys is. Because if we don’t know, we won’t be able to understand your psycho paperboy’s motive (See #10.)

5. Never introduce subplots you have no intention of following up on. If your protagonist has a conversation with another character about having been in therapy before, make sure the audience knows exactly why she was in therapy and how her actions now seem to warrant more sessions. I mean, I don’t think Googling the paperboy’s address to talk to his parents after he’s broken into your main character’s house, stalked her on his bike, rearranged her porcelain knickknacks, and tried to kill her boyfriend is unjustified or abnormal behavior needing counseling.

4. For that matter, never write a story without at least two-to-three subplots as they provide the audience relief from all the tension of the main conflict. Many subplots include elements of humor, romance, and every day nuisances to allow the reader to catch her breath until the next big upheaval happens. It is often these subplots that show the depth and complexity of your characters because they are not just reacting on adrenaline.

3. Never introduce a supernatural element into your story then explain it away in the resolution. Yes, this may be construed as a plot twist, but it is also misleading. Your reader wants to know what kind of story she is reading and will allow herself to invest in this world as long as the author delivers. If you have not provided any clues that the other-worldly, adopted paperboy with the reptilian eyes who can be in two places at once is really just one kid in a set of triplets, your reader will feel duped and cheated.

2. Never write a resolution that fails to tie up major events. That’s the whole point of a resolution–for the audience to see the widespread effects of the main plot and most subplots. What happened to the lawyer boyfriend who was buried alive somewhere? Your main character just spent two hours trying to find him, digging through piles of dirt in her backyard to no avail, so it must be time for a bath, and we must never mention his fate again.

And my #1 thing to never do in your story is:

1. Never ever have your pscyho paperboy shoot your main character in the back with a crossbow then rip out the arrow as she runs to her car (because how else is she going to sit in the seat) only to have her beat the crap out of him with a baseball bat one-handedly, get in the car, spend 30 seconds trying to start the car with her left hand because apparently she is now paralyzed on her right side, make a 3-point turn, slam her car into the paperboy who is now riding his bike straight into her, watch the bike fly over the car without the paperboy on it, then get out of the car to look around the street for his body. If you can’t find all the problems with this scene then I can’t help you.

There you have it. Ten things you should never do in your plot. Hope this helps.

Character Creation

According to the Oxford dictionary, the definition of “story” is:

NOUN (plural stories)

Notice how the first element in this definition is “people.” That is, characters. Whether real or imaginary, all stories begin with a character. And only then can we as writers put them into messes and conflicts and see what happens.
Sounds like bad news for those of us who come up with plotlines first. For instance, I can’t think of one idea where I came up with a character and said, “Now, what happens to this person?” Rather, it goes something like this: “I”ve got a slew of dead bodies piling up in Jack the Ripper-esque fashion, and now I need someone to stop the killer before he strikes again.”
And guess what? I can’t go any further without figuring out who that person is. I can’t even really go any further unless I know why this killer is doing what he’s doing. So see, it’s not that hard to start with character even if you’re a plot fiend like me. Because whatever inspires you to write a story, you’re still going to need a character. That’s why the first step in Karen S. Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days begins with character creation.
Now while I won’t share any of her brilliant insight or worksheets (you’ll have to buy the book yourself), I will share my process of character creation using methods she describes tweaked by me. And that’s what you should be doing: take the knowledge you’ve learned from various sources and manipulate it until you find out what works best for you.
Any book on writing or writing teacher will probably have/give a list of character sketches to complete with categories like Physical Description, Background Information, Personality Traits, Internal Conflicts, External Goals, etc. But to really get to the heart of your character, it’s imperative to know what s/he would do in extraordinary circumstances. This, in turn, will organically inform other areas of the sketch you hadn’t previously realized.
Here are some probing questions you might ask of your character (which may or may not make it into your story):
  1. What is your character’s biggest weakness/greatest fault?
  2. What is your character most afraid of?
  3. What is your character’s most prized possession? What one item or person would your character save in a fire and why?
  4. What is your character’s proudest accomplishment?
  5. What is your character’s guilty pleasure? Bad habits? Secret talent? Pet peeves?
  6. Who is your character’s greatest hero and why?
  7. If your character could bring anyone back from the dead, who would it be and why?
  8. What is one thing your character doesn’t know about him/herself? Who knows about this?
  9. Does your character have a recurring dream or nightmare and what is it? What wakes your character up at night?
  10. What is your character’s moment of most profound guilt? Redemptive forgiveness? 

But don’t stop here. Come up with your own questions. Anything that leads to deeper insight goes.

While some writers like (or need) to keep to a strict schedule, I’ve found it’s best to let things percolate. Fill out a few sections of the sketch at your leisure in any order you wish and revisit it often. There is nothing linear about writing and just because you don’t have an answer for one category in your sketch right now doesn’t mean you won’t in a few hours, days, or weeks. And it doesn’t mean you have to keep the first ideas you come up with either. As other elements of your story become clear, new ideas and answers will unfold. I promise.

In my last post, I mentioned how I didn’t like my main character. More often than not, my protagonists are neurotic, moody, overly-dramatic, bitches with a chip on their shoulders. I always love my secondary characters; they seem so much more complex, interesting, and sympathetic. Why is this? Maybe it’s because I have been writing in first person, and the only way I can show secondary characters is through action and dialogue–two of my strengths. I don’t have to get into their heads and describe what they’re thinking and feeling especially when there isn’t anyone else around to talk to.

What changed this time? I took out the horrible event from her past. Of course, I still needed a reason for my character to give up her education in the US to move to England, but it didn’t have to be so tragic. So now she didn’t have anything to prove or have a chip on her shoulder. She didn’t have to be tough (although she is). And that changed everything about her.

I wrote a few opening lines in third person to further remove myself:

Tate stepped off the plane all boots and leather and bleary eyes.

Then I made her outgoing, a chatty-cathy if you will, because, after all, if she’s going to be a journalist, she should probably like talking to people. So I wrote a few lines of dialogue between her and the cab driver:

 “The Queen said that?”

            “I swear on me mum’s grave.” Bartleby, the cab driver, crossed his heart and looked back at me in the rearview mirror. “Heard it straight from Georgie, me second cousin twice-removed.”

            “Georgie? The dishwasher with the lisp and the cauliflower ear?” I asked, leaning farther into the front seat.

            “Well, I only got one cousin who’s a dishwasher.” He erupted into a gurgling chortle that ended in a pneumatic wheeze.

            Wiping tears on the sleeve of my jacket, I gasped for breath between fits of laughter. “Wow. I never would have guessed.”

This new reincarnation of my main character percolated for at least a couple of months. I kept wanting to go back to some horrible event in her past. And I did. A couple of times. Until I finally settled on a more realistic reason for her to leave her friends and family behind, a reason that would connect her to the antagonist as well.

With this new inspiration, I was ready to work on all my characters.

First, I typed up a brief synopsis of each character’s identity and role in the story then filled out a pre-fab character sketch for each. For some characters, like my protagonist, I was able to fill out most sections relatively quickly. For others, like some of the secondary characters, particulary the red herring, I’ve only just begun to make a dent.

L: brief synopsis R: basic character sketch

L: brief synopsis
R: basic character sketch

Though you can’t quite see on the left image, there are some characters who only have one or two sentences descriptions as well as changes made to others after the fact. As a rule, I like to do most of my prewriting by hand. It seems more organic to me to have the thoughts flow from my brain to my hand to my pen to create the letters and words on the page. Typing is faster and less messy, and it’s all up to you how you like to write, but writing, in general, is messy. Plus, it’s easier to carry pieces of paper around with you to fill out as the ideas come instead of trying to get into a computer file. And, I’ve found, these sketches are not set in stone. I keep revising them all the time.

After I filled out the basic sketch, I worked on answering some of the harder questions for my protagonist and then free-wrote a summary of her backstory.

The hard stuff

The hard stuff

L: Antagonist freewrite R: Protagonist backstory

L: Antagonist freewrite
R: Protagonist backstory

The whole idea with freewriting is to just slap a whole bunch of ideas onto the page and see what sticks. I won’t use everything or maybe even anything that are on these pages, but getting your ideas out there on the page will lead to new and improved ideas you may never have come up with if you hadn’t gone through this process. I ask questions in my writing, some I follow up on, some I discard before even considering the answer. I make notations about things I would need to research. I contradict myself over and over again. And that’s okay. Nothing is perfect in this stage and it shouldn’t be.

There are other tricks writers use to get to know their characters, and I’ve tried pretty much all of them: journaling in your character’s voice, interviewing, writing dialogue between two characters, writing the scene of one of those hard questions. And you probably have some of your own methods: making a collage of your character’s favorite things, finding a photo of someone who represents your character, making a playlist that represents specific moments in your character’s life…

Whatever your strategies are, use them. Not just for your main character but for all your characters. Figuring out what motivates everyone will inspire new ideas. I promise.

If you’ve got a favorite method for creating characters or have a question or even just want to chat writing, leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.

 

 

Pre Frenzy Week 4: Scenes and Subtext

With only a few days left before the advent of ScriptFrenzy 2012, it’s probably best to start thinking about all those wonderful scenes that are going to tell your story visually. The most important thing to remember is that someone is actually going to be reading it, so it’s best not to be boring. More than any other type of fiction, the screenplay is written in the author’s voice not a character’s voice. It’s time to show off your style, your sense of humor, your play on words, and your love of the English language. Don’t be fooled into thinking the narrative pieces (anything other than dialogue) should be static or factual. You don’t want it to read like an encyclopedia. The producer or agent who loved your premise and pitch enough to take a chance on reading the whole draft should not be disappointed. And like with any other form of fiction, if the first page is boring, they’re going to chuck it into the slush pile. Or worse, the rejection pile. So have fun with it!

Basically, a scene is one event in your character’s life in more or less continuous time and space. The value of the event (whether it be positive or negative) should be changed in some way with each scene. What might start out as a pleasant trip to the ice cream parlor (positive value) may turn into a robbery/bloodbath killing (negative value). Of course it doesn’t have to be this extreme. Your protagonist could be walking down a New York City street in the wind and rain and drops her briefcase. Important papers spill out, start to blow away or get stuck to the wet pavement, smearing the ink (negative value). A kind, and handsome, stranger helps her retrieve them. When he’s done, he tips his hat and continues down the street (positive value). She has no idea who he is, but she’s thankful nonetheless. Then lo and behold, that kind and handsome stranger turns up a few scenes later. Remember, nothing is random. Everything has a purpose.

So a good scene will accomplish a number of objectives:

Advance the story toward the climax. Provide information to the audience needed to follow the story. Set up the action of the next scene or imply the action to follow. Reveal character by introducing an ability that will be useful to the protagonist in achieving the external goal (humor, a good shot, etc.). Explore a theme or expand upon an idea through direct dialogue, subtext, or actions/reactions of characters. Build images that can expand upon a theme visually. Establish location or the relationship of one element to another.

The first way you can establish the location and time of each scene is in the form of a slug line. The slug line should immediately tell the reader whether the scene is taking place inside or outdoors, the exact location, and what time of day it is. It should look something like this:

INT. RICK’S PLACE — NIGHT or EXT. TEMPLE RUINS — DAY

Don’t get bogged down with exact time–if it’s important that the scene is taking place at sunrise, sunset, twilight, midnight, etc, you can always add that to your narrative with some great descriptions. But if it’s really not that important, leave the exact time out of it. It’s best to keep it simple when just starting.

After your slug line is a simple action description written in narrative form to set up the scene in more detail and introduce the characters in it..

“It is a millionaire’s house, big, sprawling, California style, with clipped lawns and gardens, on a hill along a now abandoned oil field which was the family’s wealth. A small coupe drives up to the door and stops, and Phillip Marlowe gets out.  We just have time to establish him as he approaches the door — a husky, self-confident man, well-dressed but not flashy.” (The Big Sleep written by William Faulkner)

As you can see, the above narration has a definite hard-boiled detective, noir style, which goes perfectly with the genre of the story. If you’re writing a children’s fantasy, you’ll probably want to write in a whimsical style. It’s all up to you.

If you’re having trouble coming up with the right time to begin a scene (at the beginning, en medias res, etc), ask yourself some questions:

What is the point of the scene? What information is presented to the audience? What is the focus of the scene? Where is it heading (what will be the next scene and how will you get there)? What does the audience need to know to understand the scene? Does it need a set-up? What is the development of the scene? What events will be developed in later scenes?

A quick guideline on stats: a typical screenplay will have 40 to 60 scenes. One written page is roughly one minute of screen time. Script lengths will vary between 90 and 120 pages.

So once you’ve established your slug line and written your action description, you’ll probably have some dialogue.

Now when it comes to dialogue, every character has a reason or motive for saying what they say, and quite often it’s in opposition to what they really want to say. This is called subtext. It’s what lies beneath the words, and it’s an action. For instance, think about how many times you’ve asked someone how they are doing but could care less what the answer is. You ask out of politeness, and it’s often in passing when you don’t even stop long enough to hear the answer. The action here is “to be polite” or “to be courteous.” Now think of how many times someone has asked you how you are doing and what your answer was. Even if you’re having a bad day, you’re probably going to answer “Good,” or “Fine, thanks,” and keep walking. The action here would be “to ignore.”

So think what each scene is about, what kind of information each character is trying to obtain, and what kind of information each character is trying to hide. Think about action and reaction. Consider this bit of dialogue from Alan Ball’s American Beauty:

CAROLYN: Lester, could you make me a little later please? Because I’m not quite late enough.

Her action is “to belittle” her husband. What’s his reaction? Lester smiles sheepishly to lighten the moment and gets in the car. He is trying “to appease” his wife. How would your character act if his wife was trying to belittle him?

But really, the art of scriptwriting is trial and error. You might find you’ve written 100 scenes or maybe only 20.

Once you finished your first draft, you might want to ask yourself these questions:

Do all of my scenes have a purpose for being in the story? Do the majority of the scenes move the story forward to the climax? Are any scenes static? What can I add to give them a sense of direction? Does my scene begin at the latest point possible? Does my scene end after it’s made its point? Do my scenes have images, conflicts, emotions? Will the audience be entertained by each scene? Are they repetitive or dramatic?

You don’t have to have fancy, expensive screenwriting software like Final Draft, but it does cut back on time like figuring out when to bold, how much to indent, what needs to be capitalized. But before you go shelling out tons of money, you might want to try looking at free software like Celtx or Scrivener.

And if you find at any time you’re in need of a little more information, here’s a list of a few good screenwriting books:

Creating Unforgettable Characters by Linda Seger. Henry Holt and Company.

Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seger. Samuel French Trade.

Screenwriting 101 by Neill D. Hicks. Michael Wise Productions.

Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee. Regan Books.

The Elements of Screenwriting by Irwin R. Blacker. Longman Publishers.

The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script by David Trottier. Silman-James Press.

Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed these past four weeks and feel comfortable enough to tackle that script come April 1. Please let me know how you liked these mini lessons/exercises, and come find me at ScriptFrenzy.