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Writing: The Task of the Antagonist

Sometimes I write here to keep myself writing and to work out my own thoughts about various items and events. And working out the process of writing is a…well, ongoing process. ūüôā

The antagonist is almost always needed in a story, otherwise it’s a meandering view of someone’s life with nothing really happening. Life is full of conflicts; little ones like “what should I eat tonight” or big ones, like “should I move across the country” or “if I ignore this growth on my neck, it could kill me.” Those are possible conflicts and in the course of a story; the conflict is faced and either overcome or not. If conflicts are never encountered or if all it amounts too is what should I eat, then it may be a fairly boring story. However even a story with a character deciding on what to eat could be exciting or very funny, if done correctly. Canadian Stuart McLean is a master of taking the normal everyday things and making them hilarious. http://www.cbc.ca/vinylcafe/

Usually the protagonist is the main character in a story. It’s much rarer to have¬† an antagonist as the main character but there can be someone who seems the antagonist and changes through the course of events. However, a story that only has an antagonist will alienate the audience because people tend to empathize or relate to a character, even if that character does things or lives a live that is completely alien to what we know. With only an antagonist as the main character, we can jeopardize the story. Perfume was one book that I read where any character that I could have been sympathetic to was on scene so briefly that there was no connection.

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille¬†was so despicable a character that I could care less if he lived or died. The only thing that truly propelled the story forward was the unique way in which Grenouille reacted and saw the world–through his sense of smell.

A protagonist without an antagonist is only half a story. The antagonist doesn’t have to be a person. It could be an animal, a corporation, the elements or even oneself. We come back to the three age-old conflicts: man/woman vs nature, man/woman vs man/woman, man/woman vs him/herself. These are the antagonists.

The antagonists job is to give the protagonist a run for their money or to challenge them. Batman and Robin always faced very obvious villains, such as the Riddler, the Joker or the Penguin. These were in every way cartoon villains because they lacked depth and dimension. The paper comic books took them to more depth, gave them backgrounds, and histories.

But a good antagonist has a story of her own. It is not just about the protagonist and what he needs or wants and what stands in his way. The antagonist should also want something and have a reason for wanting it and find that what stands in her way may be something else or the protagonist himself. Fleshed out characters add meat to a story.

An antagonist just can’t run around and do bad deeds if they don’t someone intersect with the protagonist’s story, even if it is to show a similar philosophy, background or event that moves them forward. That’s the task of the antagonist; to challenge the protagonist and pull out the best or worst traits in that person. The antagonist gives the protagonist’s story a reason for me. They are like the self and the shadow. Without one, the other pales and the reader loses interest. So always give your protagonist an antagonist, or even several.

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Writing & The Process

I recently had what can only be classified as a brain fart. I’ve been working on several stories. Sometimes this involves a simple idea, or maybe a what-if. Sometimes it involves an image. In this case I have one to do with elephants and monkeys and a primate researcher. The other has to do with a physicist and cats (no not Schrodinger).¬† The first came as a combo of someone I know and of reading about a third type of elephant, after African and Asian.

So, okay, I started thinking about the elements of the story, what is the conflict and what each character brings to it. I always believe a story is better if it has an internal and an external conflict. The protagonist must battle something (the elements, a person, a culture, a creature) as well as something within themselves. They may win both conflicts. They might win only one, and they might lose both, as often happens in horror stories.

As I started to write my monkey/elephant story, I kept stopping and ruminating. This isn’t uncommon for me. Some stories fly through my fingers, unwinding in one long skein of imagery and action. Others are like an old car that putts along, then coughs and stops, then starts again. These stories take way more thinking time than writing time and I have too many that sit half finished because I ran into a conflict/resolution issue.

I recently had to write an erotic story for an anthology. Stuck for an idea, I asked my Facebook friends. It’s interesting to see that most people will interpret a request for an idea differently. I elaborated and said I needed¬† a story idea, meaning something that has a conflict and a resolution. What I often received was atmosphere and setting. A setting is not a story; it is merely background. So, if you say, what if you had a world where people floated upside down and ate by way of umbilical cords that they attached to plants? Okay, but what happens that brings out a story, that makes this world integral to the plot?

I was still grateful to my friends. After all, they’re not writers and it’s not their jobs really to give me my plots. And mostly they didn’t. They gave me ideas though; images, events, settings. From those I was able to pull out a plot that did involve some of the imagery offered. That’s also why some of my stories sit unfinished, because I had a cool idea about a world or maybe even a situation, but no idea what to do with it.

This brings me back to the brain fart. Many stories take months to write because of working out the idea. Some people can write them out in point form. I tend to often imagine the story unfoldng, write a bit, then unfold a bit more because characters and events change when I write them down. In this case my brain hit a wall. I forgot how to write. Suddenly I didn’t know how to write a story any more. How do you order the words? How do you progress a story? What is the structure of a story? It’s like I had forgotten how to talk. So finally I asked a writing friend, confessing my bewildering amnesia. What makes up a story? She said simply, “Beginning, middle and end.”

Okay, that is the most basic aspect, plus conflict or plot. But, I said, how do you get there? And I realized as I asked these questions that it wasn’t that I didn’t have a plot. I do. It wasn’t that I didn’t have conflict and resolution. I do. In fact, I pretty much have the skeleton of the story, the bones upon which I must lay the words. I realized what had stalled me somehow was that I couldn’t figure out which scenes were needed to progress the story forward. Which scenes are integral to making the story work, showing the character’s inner conflict, showing the world in which she lives? When I finally realized that, I felt I could move forward again. I had remembered how to write.

That doesn’t mean the story is done…yet. I’m still working out the scenes, still doing checks and balances to figure out the right emphasis, and will the story convey the emotion I want. If I do it well, I’ll sell it. If not, it will wander the lanes of the markets for a while or a long time. Of course I could also have done it right but may not be a big enough name to sell the story. That happens a lot (and more in these tough times) to many writers. But if it doesn’t sell in two to three submissions to markets, I’ll start to look at it again and again and again.

I remember Connie Willis once saying she’d rewritten a story forty-seven times (or some such number). There are others that say, move on to a new story. But I can identify with Connie. There are stories I have rewritten so often that I don’t actually know how many times. But I also have new stories to write and they’re like buds waiting to open. Right now I can count at least five stories in different stages of thought (and two of those¬†partially written). Then I want to write a steampunk story but have no idea at all yet.

And hopefully I’ll remember how to write; the basics at least and have a beginning, middle and end to each of my stories.

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Movie Review: District 9

District 9, movies, film, movie review, aliens, Africa, racism

In a nice twist, the aliens haven’t invaded and just want to go home.

And this is your spoiler alert. I’m going to dissect the movie so move on if you don’t want to know what happens in some of it.

There’s been a lot of hype about District 9. It was discussed some on my writers group list and people have seen all the bus ads and trailers. My neighbor said, “Oh that’s supposed to be one of the best movies of the year.” It’s produced by Peter Jackson of¬† LOTR fame and director Neill Blomkamp. And while I found the movie good, it wasn’t great.

What works for it are quite a few things. This movie would not have worked with name brand actors like Pitt or Depp. It supposed to take on a realistic feel of our world today, with a mockumentary beginning, film clips of news reels, interviews with various academics and psychologists. These people are warty and blemished, tired and unkempt, everything that says it’s not all smoothed over Hollywood makeup.

If we saw Will Smith pop onto the screen, we’d know it’s another action packed movie where the US saves the day again and again and again. This movie begins with film clips (which I actually thought there were too many of and somewhat boring but does set the time and place) where we find that the alien ship came to rest somewhere over Johannesburg. The narrator quips that it wasn’t New York or Chicago or London. And when they looked inside the ship there were malnourished and starving aliens.

Aliens that are buggy or insectoid in appearance. At least they’re not Star Trek aliens, which tend to be humanoid with odd noses.

District 9, apartheid, segregation, movies, film, aliens

District 9 is a thinly veiled commentary about segregation and xenophobia.

But how do you make an insectile creature sympathetic? With the alien in Alien, the antagonist, it was black and large, with no eyes and a very scary double set of very sharp teeth (interestingly enough this is the type of maw that eels have). The prawns, as they’re called in District 9, have antenna and instead of teeth, mouths that have tendrils like a carp’s. They can eat cans and tires and have a penchant for cat food. And the best way to get the audience to relate to the prawns is to give them big humanoid eyes.

That and to give them cute children, little miniatures. The main alien has a son, really the only child we see in the alien ghetto. Now it’s interesting that there is this attachment to offspring when it’s shown that they’re raised as eggs in a central feeding incubator. But then the aliens are intelligent so perhaps they know which egg is theirs. The only other alien creature shown is some creature used in illegal (equivalent of) cockfighting rings. The creatures are like giant shrimp, maybe a couple of feet long, with very sharp stingers, like long needles. They’re pitted against each other to death. So are they some sort of alien vermin, or prepubescent aliens (that have no faces) though stingers are not evident on the adults?

Eventually we get to some amateur filming of middle management and somewhat dweeby Wikus (pronounced Vikus) van der Merwe who is in charge of relocating 1.8 million aliens. The aliens are segregated in a slum, for 20 years, but protests have grown against them. Here we’re introduced to a host of smaller characters and your basic fodder for the carnage to come, as well as the guy in charge of the military end of the relocation, Kobus Venter. He’s brusque, aggressive and physically pushes Wikus in the beginning, setting up for further confrontation. So here we have the antagonist, the army.

This is in no way new to many films. What’s nice about this movie is that the aliens aren’t invading and really are downtrodden to begin with. But it’s cliche to have the bad army dudes who are shoot-first-ask-questions-later kind of mentalities. The main guy is of course crafty¬†and wily and vicious. And then there’s Wikus’s father-in-law who puts Wikus in charge and is all too happy to sacrifice his son-in-law without so much as a moment’s remorse when it turns out they can harvest him for alien biotech once he was infected by an alien device.

And here is the biggest cliche of all. The scientists/doctors who want to harvest him will of course want the heart first but don’t even anesthitize him. (Well, Jame Bond, let me tell you about my evil plan to take over the world while you dangle over a pit of sharks/fire/blades.) He can’t get away, you see, if he’s knocked out which any scientist would do, even to a lab experiment. Even if you don’t have a humane bone in your body, you don’t want your specimen jerking about and ruining the harvest (and they want DNA so why the hell do they need the heart?)

That alien device that caused Wikus’s predicament is the pivotal part of the movie. The aliens need it to get off of the Earth and it’s taken 20 years to gather enough fluid to make it work. Why is there enough alien junk on the ground for them explore is a mystery. Why no one really seems to be able to communicate with the prawns or try to understand them (where are the xenobiologists and xenobotanists, etc. in all of this?) is never explained. Only Wikus as he’s metamorphosing, from a squirt of the device’s fluids, understands the prawn and the prawns of course understand the humans easily. Earth doesn’t want them but won’t let them go. I didn’t quite understand this.

Nor did I understand that all of the aliens except for three (the dad, the son and the faithful friend who sacrifices him/herself) seem to be brawling and base, little better than animals,¬†and no one remembers how the ship worked it seems. But then they were probably all just passengers and the crew was small. I guess I could accept that there is only one commander who knows how to run the ship. Doesn’t seem like a great failsafe though to have no other crew.

Except for their carapaces these aliens are pretty human in their emotions and lives. It’s a hard thing to do, to make an alien and make it sympathetic to humans, hence the big eyes, the kid and the emotions.¬†They eat differently but they fight back, or they make bargains with the Nigerians who are known for their scams (yes, this is a little tongue in cheek joke). Why it’s Nigerians in South Africa is not clear and the major crimelord is in a wheelchair, therefore wants to eat parts of the aliens to give him power. A little convoluted since these aliens are living in the slums and have no power.

What really doesn’t make sense is that the aliens¬† do have power but don’t seem to ever use it. They are stronger than humans and can rip them apart with their bare claws. They also have loads of weapons that they sell to the Nigerians for cat food. How they got these items off of the mothership is unclear since all of the prawns were ferried 20 years ago by humans and they have no transport of their own to the ship. Yet these weapons are mondo in all sense of the word. They’re bigger (because it’s better) than our weapons and their power is decimating, yet the aliens never use them but live as subjugated second citizens.

So are there flaws in this movie? Yes, plenty. Are there cliches? Unfortunately enough to keep it from being a great movie. It’s obviously a movie about segregation and subjugation, about insensitivity to otherness and racism. Wikus is the reluctant hero who is almost brought down by the nearly invincible Venter. The actor Sharlto Copley does a good job and the effects are well done. But the problems with the plot and the cliches worked against the story and the great effects. Overall, I’d give it 3.5 stars out of five. Maybe four for the effects but there’s room to grow.

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Writing: The Lovable Bastard

Several editors have said that you have to have a protagonist that the reader can identify with. If the character is a bastard, he has to be a lovable bastard. And in essence this is true. In any story, whether a short story or a novel there has to be some character that the writer can like. Often this will be the main character or one of the viewpoint characters.

The biggest problem, if you make all your characters bastards or despicable murderers, is that no one will identify with them except perhaps the odd psychopath. If no one identifies, then no one cares. The reader is not invested in seeing if the protagonist wins against her personal conflict or not. Does the hero beat the evil overlord or die a valiant death? Who cares if it’s only evil overlords battling each other…unless there is something human about them, a softer side. The evil overlord who has a little puppy that he loves dearly will garner some sympathy from the reader compared to the overlords that eat the puppies.

So why have a¬† lovable bastard at all? As the realm of speculative fiction writing grew and changed, it began to reflect deeper plots with more well developed characters. It wasn’t just about the giant space ship with a tachyon drive going through space with a man, any man,¬†battling the alien elements. It was now about a specific person, a woman or a man, who was much like you and me, but placed in a different time or world. The “every man” “every woman” aspect means that we can relate to these characters because they are human. They’re flawed. They have good days and bad days, have shining aspects of their personalities and flaws that can be their downfalls.

No one is a hero twenty-four hours a day. Even the most valiant knight must eat, drink, fart, defecate and sleep. He’s human. In spec writing you may have an alien, a god, some other life form and they may be truly alien in their actions or thoughts, but if you don’t have some character that the reader identifies with it will remain too hard to fathom for the average reader. I have a story I wrote a long time ago with alien larval and insectoid creatures. No matter who I sent the story to (even when I stopped rewriting every time), one editor would find¬†the¬†character too alien and the next would find it too human.

Perfume,¬†by Patrick Suskind¬†was ¬†a book about a man born nearly blind but with a sense of smell so acute that he could “see” with it, could tell the past and almost the future. It won the 1987 World Fantasy award and though the world portrayed was vivid and nearly magical, I didn’t like this book. The main reason was that the main character, more an antagonist than a protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was a bastard, and not lovable in the least. He was a murderer bent on procuring the ultimate scent, who had no compassion for his victims. The victims themselves are not with us long enough for the reader to care for them. The movie took a slightly different twist to probably portray a victim long enough (and her father) so that we had someone to relate to and care about.

Stephen Donaldson, many years ago, wrote the Thomas Covenant series (Lord Foul’s Bane, etc.), which encompassed two trilogies. His main character was again a bastard, a reluctant hero. Thomas Covenant, to me, was not lovable either. He was a big whiner. Being a whiner is okay in a story, if it changes, but Covenant whined until he died and then his girlfriend took over whining. The story was of larger scope than Covenant but the whining made him too unlikable.

A main character may be so flawed that they are not likable. Then the writer needs to have the faithful sidekick, the every woman that you and I feel we could be. Lane Robins handled this deftly with Maledicte. Her main character is tempestuous, jealous, vengeful and ridden by a god that darkens the soul.¬† Maledicte isn’t that likable but then there is Gilly, a human servant, a conflicted man who is just a man. No gods afflict him and he has no special powers. He is the simple unsung hero to Maledicte’s antihero.

Overall Maledicte is more successful as a book than Perfume when it comes to characters and making your reader care. At times I even care for Maledicte and, like any bastard who is the main character, Maledicte should change by the end of the story, and does. Grenouille never changes so that I did not care if he lived or died in the end. With Covenant, I was relieved when he died.

These three books have stuck in my memory, two becaue the characters weren’t likable and one because there was a sidekick who was. You might think this is okay then but Perfume had a unique world and I could never stomach another Donaldson book again. I tried but found the one book I tried had a character too much like Thomas Covenant. I couldn’t put up with any more “poor me” whiners through a complete series.

To have a likable character, whether faithful sidekick or lovable bastard is truly essential to almost all stories. There are exceptions but for a writer starting out, it’s a must. So here is to the lovable bastards out there; may they all have some redeeming qualities.

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