Here’s something we haven’t talked about yet: antagonists. Urgh, that mean kid in school who is just relentless! The one who picks on the main character for being smart/weird/tall/anything at all. The one who makes life difficult.
More often than not, when I read these characters, they come across as a flat, simple, undeveloped sort of mean. So many bullies, especially in middle grade, are just mean for the sake of being mean. But you know what’s a lot more fun to read? Motivated mean.
I want to empathize with the antagonist.
Pure meanness is never believable. It’s hard to relate to a kid who beats up another kid, or tortures spiders, or sides with the evil aliens taking over Planet Margon unless we can believe that kid has something in her life that makes readers go “oh, yeah. I can see why she made that choice even though I wouldn’t do that.”
Let’s look at everyone’s favorite bad guy, Snape. He’s awful to young Harry Potter, and as it all unfolds that he has history with Harry’s parents, slowly, Snape becomes relatable and super sympathetic, squeezing our hearts by the end of the series. Rowling handles this neatly, expanding on the story as Harry is growing emotionally, and we don’t all have the luxury of 7 books to unpack our antagonists that way. So how can we do it?
- Spend as much time with your antagonist as you do with your protagonist. Write as thorough a character sketch before you start writing. Consider her home life, the expectations the world may have of her, her inner conflicts.
- If your antagonist isn’t human, give her some human qualities (like the jealousy of Hal in 2001).
- Show readers what she cares about. Does she visit her grandmother in the home each week? Does she volunteer at the dog shelter? Does she recycle clothes into dolls for kids in Appalachia?
- Give readers a taste of where she went sour. Are her parents bullies too?
- Show the similarities of your antagonist and protagonist. If they both love collecting Lisa Frank stickers, that will help make your antagonist ever so slightly rounder.
- Show the history of your antagonist and her relationship with the protagonist. It can be something seemingly small that somehow stuck with the antagonist and grew. (Confession: when I was in 7th grade and had few social graces, I once commented that a classmate wore the same pants two days in a row. I had no memory of this, but I met the person as an adult, and she brought the moment up. It had affected her in a “mean girl” way, and I have to say, I still hate thinking about it. My point is, tiny things can have unexpectedly big consequences.)
By rounding your antagonists, your whole story will become much more engaging and memorable. They say reading fiction makes people more empathetic, and that starts with being able to understand the mean kids, doesn’t it?
I couldn’t move forward with my middle grade novel until Gorilla, the bully in the story, gave me an understanding of why he’s like that. Then other scenes were able to emerge. And yes, he’s going to blame his parents if he needs therapy.
Lisa Frank stickers? Heather, you are too funny.
Love this post. I had a mentor who said I had to love my antagonist. LOVE him. It’s good advice, but so hard to do.
What a fantastic post! Filling out the antagonist as a character also helps add layers to the story – bonus! Thanks, Heather!