Whenever a writer tells me they have a problem with Act 2 of their novel, I ask them about their antagonist, the character who opposes the protagonist and prevents them from getting what they want. Act 2 forms the bulk of the novel and extends from the plot trigger, the event that kicks off the problem or conflict the protagonist must work on throughout the novel, until the turning point, which is the event that sends the protagonist hurtling toward the climax and resolution. That is a lot of narrative to cover. Even experienced writers can feel daunted by it. Sometimes, the writer will say their story has hit a wall or they feel blocked. These are different ways of saying the same thing.
A lot of writers believe Act 2 is one of the pitfalls of writing narrative. I have a different view. To me, the pitfall is usually not Act 2 but either the protagonist or the main antagonist. Either way, the issue emerges as a problem in the way they relate to each other which I will explain further. This problem will cause the narrative to stall.
When a writer approaches me, saying they feel blocked in relation to their narrative, the first thing I do is ask them to tell me the story of their book-in-progress. Usually, they will start talking about the protagonist. Often, they will have a lot to say about this character, and rightly so. Much of the force of the drama will rest on the protagonist’s shoulders. But if the writer spends more time talking about their protagonist than any other character, I will know the problem lies with their main antagonist. I will then ask questions that prompt the writer to reflect on their antagonist. I will ask what this character wants and what they do to try and get it. I will ask how their agenda relates to that of the protagonist. I will ask them how the respective agendas of these characters cause them to relate to each other. In those instances I can almost see the wheels start to roll in the writer’s mind. It can be remarkably energising for a writer to think this way about their novel.
The main antagonist focuses the drama by challenging the protagonist and vice versa, which in turn escalates the tension. If the antagonist is not strong enough they will allow the protagonist to get everything their own way. The protagonist will no longer have anything to fight for and the story may stop speaking to the writer. Or sometimes, the protagonist will go on winning but the writer will understand that something is wrong with that. Protagonists aren’t meant to win from the start. Or rather, they can, but when that happens, every victory should make the antagonist bigger and stronger and harder to defeat. If this doesn’t happen, the story feels flat.
At the heart of every novel are two characters – the protagonist and the antagonist. Novels need more than two if they are to prosper, but if these two aren’t working effectively, the narrative will be flat. Both the protagonist and the main antagonist have to be working well for the narrative to thrive. The antagonist has to be much stronger than the protagonist. It’s the unequal division of power that creates tension in a narrative. Making the antagonist stronger gives the protagonist a lot to do if they are to get what they want. The more the protagonist has to do the more riveting the story. Such a division of power is called David and Goliath. It is used in fiction across the board, from children’s stories to genre fiction to literary novels. In Pride and Prejudice, for example, Darcy is Goliath to Elizabeth’s David. In any action thriller, the chief antagonist is Goliath to the hero’s David. It isn’t confined to fiction either. It pops up in myth and legend. Every time the knight sallies out to face the dragon, he is David to the gigantic reptile’s Goliath.
But you have to be careful. If the story focuses more on the antagonist than the protagonist, the novel will again flatten out or hit a wall. It’s a balancing act. Michael Connelly, an American crime writer, likened such writing to keeping plates spinning on lengths of dowel. In fact, he was talking about all the characters in a novel. But it is just as true if we think of the two at the heart of the story. If the writer spends too much time keeping one plate spinning, the other will fall off the dowel and smash. If the writer spends more time on either the protagonist or the antagonist, the story will stop unfolding.
One of the most important concepts for any writer is that of the antagonist as a complex, human and multifaceted character. I prefer to call these characters antagonists rather than ‘villains’, because then we are more likely to think of them as three-dimensional. Villains are simply evil, wholly destructive. They can also be very dull because they lack depth. A strong antagonist is never dull. Some of the most memorable characters in literature are antagonists: Mr Darcy, Hannibal Lecter. Heathcliff, Mr Rochester, Iago. They are memorable because they have depth of characterisation. Even Iago, the archetypal psychopath, analyses himself and his effect on others, something mere villains never do.
I like to remind my students that the role of antagonist is largely to do with Point of View (POV). I say this as a way of letting them know how important it is to make the antagonist complex and interesting. I challenge them to imagine their novel as if it was told from the POV of the main antagonist, which would make this character the protagonist and the hero the antagonist. If you look at that list of memorable antagonists, you will see them paired with equally memorable counterparts: Elizabeth Bennet, Clarice Starling, Cathy Earnshaw, Jane Eyre and Othello.
Sydney Smith is the author of The Lost Woman, a memoir published by Text in 2012. She is an experienced teacher of creative writing and coordinates The Victorian Mentoring Service for Writers, a mentoring and manuscript assessment service. Her book, The Architecture of Narrative, how to plot and structure fiction, will be published in October 2014 by Three Kookaburras. She blogs on writing craft at www.threekookaburras.com To contact Sydney, you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org