So last week I talked about the importance of interesting and memorable antagonists. Ann provided a counterpoint about interesting and proactive protagonists.
This week, I’m going to talk a little more about antagonists.
First, let me revisit protagonists: in a lot of stories, particularly (it seems to me) in science fiction, a small group of protagonists face off against a much larger organization, be it a government (it usually is), an army of invaders, or reality itself (a la The Matrix). The protagonists are presented as heroic freedom fighters going up against some monolith enemy that nobody seems to like.
Many examples abound: the rebel alliance against the Galactic Empire, the Districts against the Capital, the fellowship against the armies of the Unblinking Eye, the Fremen against the combined armies of the Harkonnens and the emperor, &c. (This list barely scratches the surface, really.)
In those stories, the heroes are facing nigh-impossible odds against opponents so overwhelmingly powerful it seems improbable that they can succeed. Rather than even try to present the entirety of their respective conflicts, which almost always encompass multiple clashes of armies scattered across vast geographic areas, the storytellers focus their attention (and rightly so!) on a small group of protagonists. While it might certainly seem epic and story-worthy to talk about those small groups of characters facing off against the full weight of the oppressive regimes they face, few well-known stories do this. Why?
Because just as we as storytellers must focus our attentions on small groups of protagonists who help shape their struggles against their overpowering opponents, so too must we give a face to our otherwise faceless antagonists.
Endless ranks of anonymous, uniform masses can easily create a sense of scale, of oppression, and possibly even of dread (especially in a cinematic presentation). We are programmed by our storytellers to fear and hate large, faceless organizations, whether they be rightful governments, powerful megacorporations, or guardians of reality. Such an amassed force makes for a poor antagonist, though, simply because of that facelessness.
A vague threat is a poor substitute for a good antagonist. To really invoke an emotional response in your audience, you need to present someone to focus on.
With that in mind, let’s go back to my examples.
The Galactic Empire has umteen zillion stormtroopers, but it is Darth Vader who scares us. You know, from the moment you see him, that he is the “face” of the bad guys. He stands out. He menaces. While the rebels try to bring down the Empire, it’s really Darth Vader they must defeat.
The Districts want to bring down the Capital, but Katniss focuses her attention on President Snow. People die all around her, but ultimately those deaths push her ever closer to her goal. Tantalizingly close…
The Fremen are part of several massed battles led by Paul Atreides, yes, but ultimately it falls on Paul (and his sister) to overthrow the emperor and kill Baron Harkonnen and Feyd-Rautha, even as a climactic battle rages outside.
One reason Luke, Katniss, and Paul don’t have to try to take on massed armies on their own is that all of them have their own massed armies fighting for or around them. The conservation of Ninjutsu goes both ways. While the protagonists cut a swath through the enemy forces, the important, named antagonists can do the same to the protagonists’ allies.
This allows you to set up epic climaxes where the main characters face off against the main antagonists and have their duels, even while some immense battle rages around them. You should definitely give glimpses of the major battle raging all around them but keep the focus on the main characters—protagonists and antagonists alike.
And note that this sort of one-on-one battle (metaphorical or literal) isn’t only important in rebels-versus-oppressive-baddies stories. Anytime you have large forces colliding in your stories, it is vitally important to give all the sides at least one person each for your audience to identify with.
As a final example, think about the Trojan War and how it is presented to us in literature: In the Iliad, Homer goes out of his way to talk about duels, naming each opponent and describing the outcome, but spends little time at all talking about the massed armies.
Take a look at your stories–are your antagonists a faceless menace? Can you come up with a handful of them to stand as the face of the enemy?