Friday, February 10, 2012

The Faceless Villain: What to do When Your Bad Guy Isn't a Person

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

In a lot of stories (especially genre novels) the antagonist is a physical being that can be fought against. But what do you do when your antag is something to overcome, like depression, or a self-destructive streak? Technically, there's nothing plotting against your protagonist for them to fight. It's a personal situation or flaw holding them back.

These stories are a little tougher to write.

But like any good plot, even if your protag is dealing with something difficult, they'll still have an external force to reckon with. They'll still have a goal to work toward. They aren't sitting in a room trying to will themselves not to be depressed/grief-stricken/addicted.

In these cases, look for representatives of the problem the protag is dealing with. The problem might be the depression, but people are likely involved somehow in dealing with that depression.

For example, let's say your protag isn't trying to seek help. She doesn't know she's depressed (or whatever the situation is), she just feels a certain way. She's still going to have a goal of some type driving the story, even if that's to get everyone off her back and leave her alone. She will act in ways to achieve that goal. Something external.

The book isn't about "a girl who gets over her depression." That's her character arc or the theme. The inner journey. What she does to get over that depression is the plot. If she's not doing anything but being depressed and people try to help until she gets better, odds are you have a premise but no plot yet.

All plots need goals, so the protag needs something to work toward. And someone or something is going to be in the way or trying to keep her from that goal. Maybe it's Mom who doesn't notice she's hurting and makes the situation worse. Maybe it's friends who keep calling and she ignores them. Maybe it's the boy who knows what she's going through and recognizes her smile is all an act. Maybe it's her own behavior. Something.

A problem isn't necessarily an antagonist, it's just a problem. It might be a huge problem, and affect all aspects of the protag's life, but it's the external forces that are a result of or interfering with that problem that become antagonists. What events are a result of her depression that are preventing her from acting in some way?

If your protag knows she's depressed and wants to overcome her depression, then healing becomes the goal. But it still might not be enough, because with plots, you want a goal you can work toward that also includes stakes and rising tension. Perhaps she wants to heal so she can go to her daughter's wedding, or see the Eiffel Tower. She wants to get better because...? Even if it's "to get her life back" (a pretty common goal in a story like this), then what does that entail? What specifically needs to happen for that?

In this case, the depression itself is more of an antag here, but it's still not doing anything to directly oppose the protag. It's a cause for sure, but there will be obstacles to overcome that aren't just her illness. Something is in the way of her getting better. Getting her life back means getting treatment, reconciling with estranged loved ones, proving she can hold down a job. Whatever steps and events symbolize what "healing" means.

To heal, the protag will have things to do. Therapy. Medication. Lifestyle change. But the protag will also have issues the depression is causing. Her behavior due to this illness will likely make her act in ways that lead her away from healing and her story goal. Perhaps there are people aiding her in this who can become representative of her depression and work as antags as well.

It's Kind of A Funny Story is a great example of this kind of antagonist problem. The protag is depressed, is seriously thinking about suicide, and calls the suicide hotline. This leads to him checking himself into a psychiatric hospital to get well. His experiences in the hospital lead to his recovery, and he can get on with his life.

But that's not all the book is about. That would be boring from a fiction standpoint. There's a choice he has to make, a realization he has to have, sacrifices he has to accept. (goals and stakes are all about choices and sacrifices, right? Hence you have plot). The story question driving the book isn't "will he get well?" but "Will he figure out the problem so he can get well?" It's a subtle difference, but it's the difference between watching a guy go through a rough patch and rooting for a guy struggling with a problem and wanting him to win. That goal matters.

If your protag is facing a problem and not a flesh and blood antagonist, look for the things affected by that problem and find the goals and obstacles connected to it. Odds are the book isn't just a study of someone with a problem, but the things that problem affects and the choices that person makes to overcome, or survive, that problem.

Is your antagonist a problem and not a person? Do you have goals and obstacles for your protagonist?

15 comments:

  1. This is a really great post, Janice. I've not really looked at such plots this way. But now that you have me thinking, there are soooo many out there.

    The first that came to mind was the movie "Bucket List". The goal is to live life fully before cancer can catch up. But the goal for the protag was to see something truly magnificent and that was embodied in the goal of standing atop a mountain in the Himalayas. When that goal is unreachable at 2/3 of the movie, the viewer then thinks of that as only a symbolic goal. But to have the mountain return again in the end of the movie, gives the film a sense of accomplishment.

    I thought about my own WIP. I have several antagonists in the piece. But now that I think of it, the defeat of each represents victory, healing or other accomplishment as the protag proceeds toward wholeness and that "happily ever after."

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post. I know I'll be referring back to this in the future.

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  2. Thank you for this. I was just discussing that my WIP doesn't have a physical bad guy, and trying to figure out how to have her battle the unseen villain. Thanks!

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  3. This is a great post! my protagonist is facing an unseen problem (she's going blind) but what gets in her way is her unwillingness to change. She doesn't want to seek treatment and she's so unwilling to change and address her problems that she starts trying to control the lives of others around her who are definitely changing. Her goals are to keep the lives around her from changing because she thinks that will keep her life from changing. Of course, that doesn't work and by the midpoint she has to make some big changes/choices.

    wow. I needed to type all of that out in order to figure out if I am on the right track. I think so! Thanks so much for this awesome article.

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  4. Great post! It's easy to forget to worry about plot when we're just worrying about the problem. Definitely 2 different things!

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  5. Thank you so much for this article! The antagonist in my WIP is growth, the great change agent of all.

    Your insights will help me keep focused on the challenges of writing such a novel.

    Thank you again.

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  6. Excellent points! I've read great books like this, and yes, there was more at stake than just "feelings." Thanks :D

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  7. Thanks, you're right about emotions and non-human things can be antagonists. Good post about how to make the plot around them more substantial.

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  8. Fantastic post, as always. It's funny--many of my favorite books are ones that deal with a problem emotionally rather than something physical, so now that you mention it, I can't help but realize and admire those who can write such a story and addict the readers to it. :)

    P.S. My word verification is "woreboo." LOL. Wore boo! Haha... :]

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  9. What a great explanation of something that is often very hard to understand or describe. An external, flesh-and-blood antagonist is easier to understand and easier to beat in many ways. Thanks for this clear explanation!

    ...Now what happens when the protag has an internal AND external antagonist? ;)

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  10. This is really great, thanks. My book has a faceless antagonist so I've had to make sure there are enough goals and obstacles to make up for it. I've been meaning to read It's Kind of A Funny Story so I should pick it up soon.

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  11. Amelia, thanks! Good example of how antag symbols work. Antags aren't always a "bad" guy, but it's easy to think of them in only that way.

    Tasha, most welcome! Love when a post hits right at the perfect time for someone.

    Candace, happy to help. Just going through it sometimes can clarify what you're trying to do.

    Janet, great line, I love that.

    Mary, most welcome, and good luck with your novel!

    Julie, emotions play such a strong role in novels, but it's the reasons for those emotions that make it all work.

    Heather, thanks!

    Julianna, hehe great word. Sounds like a supernatural creature. "beware the woreboo!" Emotions hooks us, no doubt about it. But there's always something external that triggers those emotions. Even if it's subtle (and those are the really impressive books)

    Laura, you have a great story! Tastes will vary here, but I try to have both in every story, and also make sure they conflict in some way. If something is keeping your protag from what the want both internally and externally, then you have all kinds of things you can play with for deeper plots. Solving the external obstacle might conflict with that inner goal and vice versa. I can expand on this more if you'd like.

    Ghenet, it' s a great book, especially if you're writing that type of story. and best of luck with yours!

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  12. Hey Janice, loving this series!!! Did I miss the part where you teach you in your spare time? Because you totally have a talent for making the abstract more clear! Thanks for all you do. I appreciate you! (And your posts! hehe).

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  13. Excellent post. Some new writers make the mistake of thinking an antagonist must be a mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash character. It can often be a disease, a cultural institution or society itself.

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  14. Thank you so much for this. I was certainly stuck in my story. I have not written for weeks because nothing I was writing was being truthful to my characters. So, I let it go.

    Then I stumbled upon your blog. Your guidance triggered lots of ideas and I began taking notes (when I should be working on my day job, lol). I was able to flesh out the goals, the character arc and the overall story question! I had a vague idea about where I was going before, but now...while it's not crystal clear it for darn sure feels more like I have an accurate road map.

    You're a gem!

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  15. DB, thanks so much :) I did teach for a few years, and this blog is the extension of that.

    Anne, exactly :) Often harder to do, but sometimes more fun and better for the story.

    Yolanda, that's awesome! It always makes my day when I hear the blog helped a fellow writer (which is the whole reason I do it). Best of luck on your story!

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