Stories usually follow sympathetic protagonists that struggle but ultimately defeat an antagonist.
Stories are about good guys.
However, there are five very specific times the good guys (or girls) deserve to lose.
Yes, that’s right. LOSE.
Conversely, sometimes the bad guys (or gals) deserve to win.
5 Reasons Your Antagonist Deserves To Win
- Your protagonist makes stupid mistakes
- Your protagonist is a sociopath
- Your antagonist is more motivated
- Your antagonist is smarter
- Your antagonist is more developed
Your Protagonist Makes Stupid Mistakes
Trust between reader and writer is paramount. If readers are to suspend belief, writers must create and sustain a believable fictional world, including the characters.
Believable protagonists rarely plunge unarmed into a gunfight (unless we’re talking James Bond or Jason Bourne – hey, J.B.!) .
Unless powerfully (and clearly) motivated to do otherwise, believable protagonists make reasonable choices.
Here are two questions to avoid stupid character mistakes:
What would most people do in this situation?
What would this character with their particular personality, gifts, flaws and resources do?
Your Protagonist Is a Sociopath (Or a jerk)
Protagonist aren’t required to be perfect. There are plenty of examples of flawed characters that readers love. However, if your protagonist is in the habit of kicking puppies, robbing the elderly or sleazily hitting on members of the opposite sex, readers are unlikely to root for them.
How do you avoid your character’s flaw becoming a fatal flaw?
It’s often a matter of offense and scale.
It’s one thing to sneak a cookie out of the cookie jar and it’s another thing altogether to steal the crown jewels.
A character acting in rebellion is often acceptable but when the target of the rebellion turns on weak or vulnerable people or animals, or the act of rebellion itself is colored in stigma, like intentionally spreading around a disease, characters cross the line of no return.
Your Antagonist is the Lesser of Two Evils
Setting up a compelling story often involves a healthy dose of contrast. This is perhaps most clearly drawn between protagonist and antagonist. However, if your protagonist is more in touch with the dark side then your antagonist, you have a serious story problem. Your readers will end up rooting for the wrong person.
There are several options to avoid this character faux pas:
- Scale back the badness of your good guy
- Scale up the badness of your bad guy
In other words, in one way or the other, make your antagonist worse then your protagonist. Your protagonist may be a thief, but your antagonist is a thief without honor who routinely backstabs his closest allies. Your protagonist might be an outlaw but your antagonist is a terrorist.
Your Antagonist is More Motivated
Another element of compelling fiction is highly motivated characters, particularly the protagonist and antagonist. Both characters must be fiercely motivated to reach their goals. If you set up your story right, those goals will be in direct conflict.
That’s the key to fixing this story problem: ramp up the motivation and ensure that the antagonist and protagonist are a direct odds.
How do you ramp up the motivation?
Usually this is done by raising stakes (The antagonist kidnaps the protagonist’s daughter) and/or by dropping a deadline on the protagonist (Thought you had two days? Now you have two hours).
Your Antagonist is Smarter
There’s nothing wrong with an intelligent antagonist. In fact, many antagonists are intellectually smarter than protagonists. Think about all the evil scientists who cackle over plans to rule the world.
Intelligence is one thing. Wits and cleverness are another.
If the antagonist routinely out thinks, outsmarts and out foxes the protagonist, you have a compelling narrative. If the protagonists routinely under thinks, displays poor judgment or misses the obvious, you have a book readers quickly put down.
Both antagonist and protagonist should be clever, each one-upping the other in a relentless cat-and-mouse chase to the end of your story.
In the plotting, writing or editing phase, be sure to look out for protagonists with a cleverness definciency.
Your Antagonist is More Developed
If your antagonist is a complex, three-dimensional phenom and your protagonist is a cardboard cut out with no backstory or internal conflict, your antagonist deserves to win.
Of course a real person wins against a mannequin.
Solve this issue by developing both characters – antagonist and protagonist — into layered fictional people.
Give each a backstory, flaws, strengths, high points in their lives, motivations, relationships, and internal struggles that relate to the plot. Even something as simple as a nickname will go a longway toward generating an illusion that the character has a life outside of the story.
These are five reasons your antagonist deserves to win. Can you think of any others? If so, drop me a comment below, tweet me at @Chris_Kokoski or do a rain dance in your front yard. I’m sure your neighbors will appreciate it.
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Want to read another, related post? How about 5 Reasons Your Protagonist Deserves to Die