How Strengthening My Antagonist Completely Changed My Going Nowhere Storyline

or, My Top Ten Antagonists

I was almost done outlining a new project. I’d jotted down my scenes on index cards, figured out the act breaks, rearranged, discarded, refined, and run through them from top to bottom. After a few weeks of this, I was ready to move on to the next step—practice pitching it to my critique partners.

But upon further review, I made the alarming discovery that what I had outlined was complete, utter garbage.

source: Giphy

It happened after I received an email from Writer’s Digest about how to use a flexible outline to write your story. Perfect timing. I started filling out the guided prompts, going along just fine. Then I got to the following question: 

“What misfortune will befall the hero as the result of her attempts to achieve her objective?”

My answer: 
“Nothing. Nothing happens as a result of her actions. It’s just one bad thing happening to her after another. That’s it.”

Next came the question about conflict. 

My response:
“I hate the question, what’s the conflict? H-A-A-ATE this question.”

Of course this was when I realized I didn’t have enough conflict.

When faced with situations like this, my plan of attack is to write it out.

It wasn’t pretty. 

“Why do I keep working on this story? It SUCKS.”

“I’ve gone through this shit 20 million times. Why am I going through it again? What could possibly change this time to make it better? NOTHING.”

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when the false god made mondays

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Time to delve deeper. 

Do I believe in the meaning of my story? If the answer is no, toss it and start again. If yes, do everything possible to get your work into the world. For although an artist may, in his private life, lie to others, even to himself, when he creates he tells the truth; and in a world of lies and liars, an honest work of art is always an act of social responsibility.

—Story, by Robert McKee

I do believe in the meaning of my story. I kept going. Reviewed notes from Story (Robert McKee), from Storyline (Jen Grisanti), from Stealing Hollywood (Alexandra Sokoloff), from my own brainstorming notes. 

All this went into filling out the weak sections of the Writer’s Digest outline.

“How will [the situation be changed] by the hero or by the antagonistic force?”

The antagonistic force.

The antagonist.

Ah ha.

According to Rick Reichman, in 20 Things You Must Know to Write a Great Screenplay, the antagonist is not necessarily the villain in the traditional sense of the word; it’s the person who inspires the most change in the protagonist. This is particularly true in romances or stories with strong romantic elements in that the antagonist is often the love interest and the person who causes the most change.

In Stealing Hollywood, Alexandra Sokoloff notes that a villain is often a shapeshifter who plays multiple roles in a story, including the lover.

In The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler writes, “The story is only as good as its villain.”

All the other obstacles I had sketched out on index cards had little to do with my hero’s journey.  I really needed to focus on the object of her desire—also known as the antagonist. 

“The antagonist must be as strong and motivated as the protagonist.” — Writing the TV Drama Series by Pamela Douglas.

So, he can’t just be some vague hot guy on stage with a guitar. He has to be about something. He has to challenge her. 

Alexandra Sokoloff’s chapter on the forces of antagonism include an exercise to list your top ten villains/antagonists and find the themes to create your own.

My list:

  • Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Damon Salvatore from The Vampire Diaries
  • Paris Geller from Gilmore Girls
  • Cottonmouth from Luke Cage
  • Prudence Night from Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
  • Lalo Salamanca from Better Call Saul
  • Mr. Big from Sex and the City
  • Godmother from Fleabag
  • Adam from Girls
  • Donna LaDonna from The Carrie Diaries

I identified a few common characteristics (for the most part) from my list: charming, intelligent, very good at what they do, wickedly funny*, insightful, know the protagonist as well as the protagonist knows themselves, sexually potent. 

*They say the stuff that’s mean yet true and that the protagonist would never say out loud because the protagonist is decent and kind.

Lalo (Tony Dalton) in Season 5 of Better Call Saul.
Photo by James Minchin/AMC

source: https://www.amc.com/shows/better-call-saul/extras/better-call-saul-season-5-character-portraits#/11

When I began to flesh out the antagonist with some of these qualities from my list and think about how he would affect and be affected by my hero, the story shifted in a whole new direction. (In other words, it did not do what I had originally set out for it to do, and I’m a little bit bent out of shape about it.) It’s also taking on depth, color, a palpable charge. Excitement.

Not boredom. 

I don’t have to throw three notebooks worth of work into a backyard fire after all.

On the evening of my breakthrough, the season finale of Better Call Saul aired. Evil cliffhanger.

While participating in aftershock Twitter therapy on the #BetterCallSaul stream I came upon a Hollywood Reporter interview with showrunner Peter Gould

The interviewer asks Gould how he refined the character of Lalo Salamanca, the season’s formidable antagonist. Gould says, “so here comes Lalo and he’s going to go up against Gus. So who is a worthy opponent for Gus, and what would he be like?”

Talk about synchronicity and confirmation.

Who are your favorite villains/antagonists?


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