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Friday, April 28

Who Hates Ya Baby? Creating Bad Guys Who Aren't the Antagonist

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Enemies. We all have them. Not necessarily the, "You killed my father, prepare to die," type, but the, "Gal at work who always tries to make you look bad," type. They’re not going to destroy your life, but they make you dread or regret every interaction you have with them.

Our characters are no different. They have enemies too, only most of the time we focus on the Big Bad Antagonist and forget that even nice people have folks who want to see them fail. They just flat out don't like them, but aren't doing anything to actively ruin their lives. They're like, minitagonists.

These minitagonists truly don’t care if the protagonist wins or not, and most of the time they have no skin in the game. Their lives will be the same no matter how the story turns out, but if they can cause the protagonist a little trouble and get away with it, they will.

A Useful Plotting Tool

Minitagonists are wonderful tools to add conflict and obstacles to a story in a realistic way. They don’t need a grand plan you have to track and incorporate into the plot, they just need to be in the right place at the worst time to cause your protagonist trouble. They might be:

The thorn in the protagonist's side that adds just the right amount of distraction so she messes up big: We’ve all been in situations where someone we didn’t care for was driving us crazy. Some of us were able to ignore it, but I’d bet most of us found it distracting and hindered our ability to do whatever it was we were trying to do. It put us in a bad mood, made us forget something important, maybe caused us to react badly to something we normally wouldn’t have. A minitagonist could be the perfect distraction when the protagonist can’t afford it.

The person who sees what the protagonist was hoping no one noticed: Odds are your protagonist is going to need to do some things she’d rather not be seen doing over the course of a novel. They might be illegal, immoral, or just embarrassing, and having a witness puts her in a terrible dilemma. How terrible depends on how bad this minitagonist might be.

The person the protagonist needs to get what she wants: At some point in your novel, your protagonist will probably need something from someone, and getting it won’t be hard at all (and thus have no conflict for the scene). Manufacturing an obstacle will most likely feel manufactured, but solving this problem without effort will be even less satisfying for readers. A minitagonist is the perfect person to have or control whatever the protagonist needs at this stage, adding conflict that fits the plot, advances the character, and feels natural to the story.

(Here’s more on why anyone should help your protagonist)

A Way to Show Character Flaws

People we don’t like tend to bring out our ugly sides and cause us to act badly, so minitagonists are also a great way to show the ugly side of your protagonist (and keep her from being a Mary Sue). They might be the one person who always pushes her buttons and makes her say or do things she'd never say or do under normal circumstances. They might illustrate a belief or behavior the protagonist is trying to change (or must change but not realize it yet). The could also represent the worst of the protagonist or where the path she’s currently on will lead to. Minitagonists can even push her to a revelation she might not have gotten to without an outside perspective, forcing her to look someplace deep within herself she didn’t want to look.

(Here’s more on five ways to fix too-perfect characters)

Be Wary of Creating Jerks

When creating a minitagonist, be careful not to make them total jerks for no reason, or keep them as jerks long after the reason for it has passed. Tastes will vary here, but personally, I find annoying people for the sake of being annoying, well…annoying. For example, there’s a series I enjoy that has a character who is always on the protagonist’s back—insulting him, causing him trouble, and hindering him even when he knows what the protagonist is doing is right. I had no issue with this in book one, because it established the protagonist’s place in this world and how others felt about him. But by book three, I was tired of it. I understand this minitagonist’s perspective, and even if I think he has several good points, but the fact that he’s always so antagonistic has worn on me as a reader. At this point in the story he ought to be cutting the protagonist some slack.

(Here’s more on bad guys who aren't antagonists)

Not everyone in the story has to like your protagonist and want to help her. Making it harder to resolve the conflict makes for a better book, so scatter a few enemies and indifferent-to-the-cause characters about to keep things interesting. Because not every bad guy has to be really bad—sometimes he can just be a pain the butt.

Who dislikes your protagonist? Is there anyone who could make her life tougher just when she least needs it?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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  1. LOL love this post! I suppose every character who is good can't always be the best, just like a character who is bad can't always be the worst!! Love it!

  2. Very true. I just hope I can think of how to incorporate such "minitagonists" into my story. I already know my big bad antagonists, a hidden antagonist, and a lesser baddie, but none of them are simple pains in the butt. Something to think about as I move on.

  3. Yes - good advice. I've done this and I think it makes my story better. Nobody is loved by everyone.

  4. Awesome idea! I always love your posts. They get me thinking about new ways to improve my story. :)

  5. Minitagonists - nice! What about Frenemies! I have a character with close friends who could help him, but for cultural reasons, don't. Interesting topic! :)

  6. These kinds of characters are so fun to work with! Gossip can be quite damaging.

    Then there are the ambivalent folk, who wouldn't want to see you hurt but wouldn't care enough to try to stop it, either.

    Ooo, and allies with ulterior motives than helping the MC out of the goodness of their hearts. *grin*

    It's fun to play with humanity's shades of gray.

  7. Aha!! Now I know just how to change my WIP and make it a little better. Thanks so much. I've enjoyed reading your blog!

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  9. I had just that situation come up in my WIP. My protag said something nasty to one of the minitags and I thought, "she can't say that, she'll look bad." But now, maybe she can!

  10. Most welcome! Characters can do anything that is true to who they are and motivated by real emotions. If they're perfect you end up with a Mary Sue, so it's good to let those flaws hang out once a while.

  11. Great post! I mentioned it in my recent vlog and linked to your blog. Thanks so much for sharing.

  12. Maybe my character Samantha Storms can be a minitagonist since she doesn't get along with StarGirl or agree with her morals, let alone think that she's good enough to keep her city safe or her loved ones safe, or an antagonist since she wants to kill and torture bad guys.

  13. thanks for reposting, Janice. Good stuff, as usual.