Quick, without thinking about it name the most important character of your story. Go!
Your main character, right? It seems pretty obvious. That’s the character your audience wants to see. That’s the character you have to get all of us to like, so we’re willing to enjoy your story. Even if your main character is a hateful prat, you have to make us love him or her, or else we’ll certainly never stay with your story to the end.
Well, yes, maybe. But I would argue differently. In my mind, the most important character in your story isn’t the one whose story it is, but the one who creates the story:
Think about all the stories you know and love. How many of them start with the main character doing something proactive? Can you think of any? I can’t. At least not any iconic characters. Luke Skywalker. Harry Potter. Frodo Baggins. Lyra Belacqua. Arthur Holmwood. Katniss Everdeen.
Their stories begin before we are introduced to them, but not because of anything they do. We are introduced to these characters right as they become personally engaged in their own stories. Right as something happens to them to change their world and drive them, usually reluctantly, toward becoming the protagonists of their stories.
Let’s think about the stories we know and the ones we want to tell. Something outside your main character’s control puts him or her on the path to becoming the protagonist of the story, and more often than not that something is put into motion by someone. That, of course, is usually your antagonist. It’s your antagonist who carries your story, whether you want us to hate or love your antagonist, agree or disagree with them.
Besides, we don’t need to hate your antagonist. In fact, I think the best antagonists are those we don’t hate. The ones who we might even agree with in some ways, were they not such extremists.
You can sometimes get away with a boring, stock, cardboard-character protagonist who nobody really likes. Tolkien did. Lucas did. More importantly even than your protagonist, your antagonist must be someone interesting. Possibly someone charismatic and likeable. Yes, you can also get away with uninteresting antagonists, but you really need something else to capture your audience’s attention and keep it engaged.
Let’s be honest, antagonists like Lord Voldemort and Sauron are not that interesting. One is half-dead for nearly half the books he’s in and the other is a disembodied eye in a tower. Both are more like story elements than characters. They push their respective stories into happening, but they are little more than evil-for-evil’s-sake mustache-twirlers like Snidely Whiplash.
So think about the antagonists who you like; the ones who are interesting. The ones who get you cheering even more than the protagonists in their stories. I consider Severus Snape, for example, to be arguably the most interesting character in the Harry Potter books. Other interesting antagonists I can think of include Spike from Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Magneto from the X-Men stories, or Marisa Coulter of the His Dark Materials trilogy.
These characters do despicable things and oppose their corresponding protagonists at almost every turn, but we are drawn to them because, well, being bad is fun. Antagonists almost always have the most fun in stories, if for no other reason than because they lack inhibitions. Where the protagonists are often boring because they have to hold back and play the “good guys,” there’s something freeing about cheering—somewhat—for those who toss aside social mores in pursuit of their goals.
What am I getting at?
Think about your protagonist and how much effort you’ve put into developing him or her. Now take that amount of effort and put twice as much into your antagonist. Your story—and your audience—will thank you for it.
There’s a lot more I want to say about antagonists, but I’ll come back to them over the coming weeks.