The Tel Aviv Writer’s Salon is a weekly writing group that has been getting together for over a year now. Each week we meet, discuss a writing related topic designed simply to get us writing. We often laugh very, very hard, causing mild alarm in the cafe, as we share our work after we’ve written. Probably because of my deeply embedded need to laugh, the prompts usually generate comedy. But not always.
At the end of the session, after we’ve laughed til we’ve cried and maybe just cried because we’ve cried and paid for our coffee and left the cafe with hugs and promises to meet next week, I send the writers written notes from the discussion. It’s not all fun and games, there is a serious element as well. I mean – okay a little. Somewhat. We like to laugh, what can I say? Why should writing or discussing writing be so deadly serious all the time?
And by the way, if you are reading this blog and you are in high tech, if you are an entrepreneur and creative, taking some creative writing classes can really awaken a side of yourself that you draw upon, every day. Trust me on this.
I thought I’d share last week’s discussion as it pertains to screenwriters every bit as much if not more than prose writers!
Writing the Antagonist Discussion Notes
We’ve talked a lot about main characters and how your character should have some kind of arc – toward realization or change – even if it’s just slight change.
In The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Tolstoy, veritably the whole story is told from the bed of a dying man, as he nears inevitable death and howls against its clutches. In the very end – he comes to a realization and he finds peace. It is one of my favorite short novels and you should definitely be familiar with it.
But antagonists don’t generally change. They are consumed by their very badness, their need to get what they want at ALL costs.
Think of villains we are all familiar with – the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz, The evil queen in Snow White, any bad guy in any action movie – they get punished in the end. Every time.
But what makes an antagonist particularly memorable? Not necessarily the method of their madness, or their m.o., but the details about them and more than that – their unfettered, logical believe in what they are doing.
The villains I just mentioned – wicked witches and the like – are by design two dimensional characters that are more symbolic than anything else. Of course they don’t change.
I was lucky enough to see Wicked, the brilliant backstory of The Wicked Witch of the West, in which we find out just what drove her over the edge. But that was not part of Baum’s original vision and it needn’t have been.
In Chronicle, an AMAZING sci-fi film that I cannot recommend enough, we actually watch a good guy turn into a bad guy and we see the causality between his experience, his new found powers and his rage.
As we’ve discussed before, every character has some kind of back story and it really depends on what you are writing, how much you need to point to it or bring it out.
If you are writing an action film called, say, Die Hard, and your bad guy wants MONEY and POWER – the medium doesn’t really call for asking WHY Hans Gruber (played brilliantly by Alan Rickman) needs power. Why? Because this is a Hollywood action film – focus on the word ACTION and we find that really, the focus in on how the hero overcomes the bad guy – period.
In 3:10 to Yuma, the bad guy, Ben Wade, played by Russell Crowe, is a different shade of bad guy. He is intelligent, and we get the sense, through his actions later in the script, that he has a touch of cowboy/noble ethics at the end of the day. The laws of the wild west include earning RESPECT and Ben Wade gets that and winds up making a decision that surprises us.
Sometimes bad guys are just thoroughly psychotic and bad – which is fun and can serve a purpose. Cruella DeVille comes to mind. Who cares WHY this psycho wants a fur coat made of Dalmation puppy skins?
But then other antagonists come out of various books and movies like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. Truly one of cinemas most memorable villains and why? Because he was refined, intelligent, almost charming. He plays the main character, Clarice’s foil – he isn’t the bad guy we are really after, no, that’s complete psycho Buffalo Bill – but Lecter serves a fascinating purpose, as both mentor, shapeshifter and villain in the film.
In one small moment, when Lecter is in his jail cell, speaking again to Clarice, taunting here, we see just briefly – you’d have to pause the film – that he is reading a German Vogue.
An antagonist is a necessary component of your story, no? Your main character has to have some embodiment of their challenges, someone who is thwarting their desires.
Every character has a backstory – even if it isn’t explicit. And so does your antagonist. The question is whether to make the back story explicit or implicit.
The genre you are writing and the medium as well, supply the answers to this question. What gets the highest entertainment value but also keeps the story focused on the main character and his or her arc?
An antagonist can be a fun opportunity to show off your writing chops – why have a boring old psychopath when you could have Annie Wilkes, from Misery?
Who can forget this moment?
Notice that Annie has no problem hobbling and imprisoning her captive, James Caan, but she doesn’t curse.
The antagonist is a significantly important character in any story. You can emphasize or de-emphasize according to the genre and the medium.
Today we are going to emphasize the antagonist – the character with some kind of injurious backstory (explicit or implicit) with a definite ax to grind – something that your main character is in the way of.
Don’t forget – the antagonist has a point of view too. To them – THEY are the main character and your main character is THEIR antagonist. They are the hero of their story – they may be thwarted or they may not. Either way, they definitely have some logic, some villain code that they go by – a belief system in what they are doing and how they are doing it.
This means, as you write, that you’ll need to write a heroic character, a nice guy – who is in the moral right – but who stands in the way of the antagonist/main character you are writing. Have fun with it!
If you’d like to try some of the writing prompts for that evening’s session,
If you live in the Tel Aviv area (or beyond) and would like to join us, please join up our Facebook group and sign up for the next class. You’ll be in very good company.