Compelling Antagonists

Compelling characters make a story go. For a while now, I’ve written about and referenced Ursula Le Guin and “The War Against,” highlighting my desire to tell stories that focus on the evolution and make up of my characters as opposed to some war they have been fighting for ages. In my novel The Forger, my protagonist, Theailys An, is tasked with stopping a creature called the Darkener from releasing the Origin and ending the world. 

Very stereotypical. A very well-worn trope. I finished my first draft of the novel little less than a year ago and was very pleased with it. I’ve been doing revisions on and off for the last several months, submitting my queries to agents, and playing the waiting game. What I’ve come to learn (even with queries still floating around in the nether) is that I was too hasty in my attempts to find representation for my work. The Forger is a story that is very important to me, and up until a few weeks ago I hadn’t realized just how much revising I had to do. The magic system needed a huge overhaul (which I’ve completed for the most part); I needed to get rid of the various ticking clocks I had in order to keep the story from stalling. But the most important of all was that I really need to define my antagonist; I needed to find out what made the Darkener tick.

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When I first started the story, the Darkener’s endgame was simple: free the Origin and remake the world anew. But as I’ve gone through the story over the past few weeks, revising as necessary, I came to realize that my antagonist was simply not compelling. It was a character seen too often. So I thought to myself, why would a character this powerful be doing what it’s doing? What drives it, what’s its past? What are the limitations? One of the themes in The Forger is the idea that one’s blood does not cement their future. Choice before blood. Sinning gives into a sentient Darkness in one’s mind, allowing it to consume a them, whereas being altruistic and generous–virtuous–gives the Light voice. This concept is something the Darkener (in the new scenes I’ve written for it) ponders as it strives for humanity (something it had not in previous iterations), for freedom from the very Darkness it was made from. Because of a flawed logic and a connection to a phantom hive-mind, it cannot fully grasp the concept of choice before blood; it perverts the notion, which results in the Darkener doing horrible things to further its agenda, to reclaim humanity.

I still have a decent amount of revising to do on The Forger, but focusing on my antagonist’s humanity, or lack thereof and desire to obtain it, has taken a rather boring villain and transformed it into something I feel is far more terrifying. The question, I think, for the Darkener–for any antagonist, really–is what lengths does one go to in order to retain or preserve their humanity, their soul?

There are an endless amount of tropes in fantasy fiction (a decent amount of which appear in my novel), and as writers I believe it is our duty to our readers to flip those tropes around, make them as interesting as our skill allows us to, which I’m hoping I will have accomplished with the Darkener once all is said and done.

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5 thoughts on “Compelling Antagonists

  1. No offence but it sounds like all your ideas s0 far are tropes. I’m not sure how you are going to sell this story, as it sounds like the sort of thing people have already read. What makes your story, world, characters, etc unique? what are you bringing to the fantasy genre that hasn’t been done before?

    For example “Sinning gives into the Darkness, allowing it to consume a person, whereas being altruistic and generous–virtuous–gives the Light voice.” This sounds a lot like Star Wars and the force. It’s also a theme in The Lord of the Rings and far too much fantasy IMO.

    “…because it is so warped by this blackness inside of it, its logic is flawed and it cannot full grasp the notion of choice before blood, which results in it doing horrible things to further its agenda.”

    I’m not quite feeling this concept especially considering the quote that you used for this article, “Every villain is a hero in his or her own story.” It’s a little too comforting for this being to simply be driven by some inner darkness or madness. As much as we like to believe this about villains, the reality is usually a lot less simple. Maybe instead consider what ‘good’ motivations might drive this being to do ‘evil.’

    My first impression of ‘remaking the world’ wasn’t that it was necessarily a bad thing at all. Humans in our own world are destroying the environment and waging war against each other all the time. A god-like being might look down on us and think maybe creation needs a reboot. Destroying the world may be seen as a necessary evil, and horrors committed by this being may be justified because they would prevent humans from doing much worse evils to each other.

    Or maybe the only way to cleanse itself of sin is to cleanse the world of sin (like religious wars were people externalise the source of evil rather than address their own personal shortcomings).

    Maybe the protagonist learning the true motivations behind the antagonist’s actions, may begin question whether s/he should be acting against this being. Maybe they will begin to wonder if the world is too full of sin and better off destroyed/remade. But in order to save their loved ones, they stop the antagonist. Only to then be haunted by whether they made the right choice as human beings continue to sin, wage war and destroy their world.

    Just some ideas that might help your story avoid overused fantasy tropes. I’ve written three articles of my own on the topic, and I’m currently working on a forth.

    1. No offense taken! You make some great points. Part of my writing this was to acknowledge that my story was too trope-filled to begin with. It probably will still have tropes that are often used by the time I’ve finished revising as best I can.

  2. I think it’s better to engage ideas like this in hindsight then as you’re writing.
    When I first..second..third attempted a novel I always jam-packed it full, which is why – I think – I never finished.
    My issue was that I would have an idea and when I’d revise (I was too impatient to finish my draft before revising you see) I’d pack it with more characterisation again.
    Best of wishes for your novel.
    It’s a herculean task for all of us.

  3. I’m revising my fantasy novel too, I’m surprised how much work goes into this part but I’m enjoying the process. I think it’s good, your now in a position to see where your work needs strengthening, it shows growth. Note to self, check MS for tropes. ☺️

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