Building a Worthy Opponent
This is another deep dive into character construction, with an emphasis on the story's antagonist.
Written as a stand-alone exercise, it was conducted as the 11/21/2020 writers' workshop. As is the norm for our workshops, we explored the concepts in the beginning, including a minute or two to define certain character traits, then gave participants about 20 minutes to use their chosen variables to write a scene.
Let's get started...
The protagonist, typically the main character of a story, often has a counterpoint. Whether a villain or a narrative foil, this counterpoint embodies the primary challenge and source for dramatic tension. Slipping into archetype, the antagonist is usually the "bad guy."
Modern writers have rebelled against stereotypes, looking for any variation we can find that breaks the white hat vs black hat tropes. We've discovered ways to un-demonize demons, and we've totally demonized angels. Through a range of treatments, we've come full circle as a story-telling culture to realize we need a complex, formidable personified obstacle for our main character... or the story suffers the one flaw from which there is no redemption: it's boring.
What we're going to do today is ensure our protagonist can shine by giving them a worthy opponent. To do that, we need to build somebody who's perfectly suited to the task.
The Task: First, Your Protagonist
Consider the main character of your Work-in-Progress. Or, if you don't have one, select from one of these capable variations on protagonists you've probably read or seen.
Indiana Jane: archaeologist known for preemptive preservation of antiquities
Buckaroo Banzai: multifaceted doctor ensures human health and safety
Hermoine Granger: youthful scholar applies practical solutions to arcane problems
Robin Hood: local archer puts "war" in social justice warrior
Ellen Ripley: naval warrant officer outsmarts cosmic biohazard
Atticus Finch: iconoclastic attorney blazes social trails
Once you've got your protagonist in mind, it's time build your antagonist. We're going to give you a few categories to explore key traits of your main character, then build ways to counter their strengths.
There are a dozen ways to define someone's "strength," and the first one is the most obvious: actual, physical strength. This is the foundation of the iconic characters of Superman or The Incredible Hulk. While there is inevitably someone ready to pick a nit ("No, it's their sense of honor and duty!"), the physical ability is what sells the character. The rest of their traits make for a rounded, textured, perhaps even real character... but it's not their marquee "strength".
What's your protagonist's biggest strength?
It could be strength, speed, agility... all of the things that are typically "heroic" qualities. It could be dogged determination, extraordinary intelligence, or unyielding morals. On the back jacket of your book, or the one-sheet movie poster, what's the protagonist's claim to fame?
Have it? Good. In order for us to build a worthy opponent, we need someone who is undaunted by that strength – or at least capable of challenging the protagonist on their own terms. Let's explore that trait for a moment, in the most diabolical way...
What's the one way to neutralize that strength?
Let's look at the Superman example: raw physical strength is a tremendous advantage... until it's not. What happens when the challenge has nothing to do with strength? What if saving the day requires an extraordinarily light touch?
Any trait or quality can be neutralized, rendered irrelevant, by the right set of circumstances. Once you know your protagonist's strength, what are the situations where it simply doesn't apply?
Now let's take it a step further:
How could that biggest strength be used against the protagonist?
This is Stage Two of "how to beat on your protagonist." Instead of just neutralizing their strength, whatever that strength happens to be, how would one go about using that strength against them? This could be as simple as "applying strength automatically applies damage" in a mechanical sort of fashion: the shackles aren't simply metal cuffs, they're torture devices. Pull the shackles off, it pulls the limb off.
For a more nuanced strength, like unyielding morals, turning a strength into a liability might look like maneuvering Dudley Do-Right into a gray area where his draconian enforcement to the letter of the law destroys the victim rather than saving them.
There are subtle and important distinctions between neutralizing and reversing a strength, and knowing the difference gives you a set of tools to amp up the dramatic tension. If put these tools into the hands of the antagonist, suddenly your "Big Bad" is considerably more formidable. It raises the stakes.
So here are a few questions to consider:
How does your antagonist know about the protagonist's strength?
What can the antagonist do to neutralize that strength?
What can the antagonist do to use the protagonist's own strength against them?
Why does the antagonist want to do that?
Where did they learn to do that?
Now let's look at the opposite end of the spectrum. Every person has strengths and weaknesses. A weakness isn't the opposite of a lack of strength. For anyone not named Clark Kent, take away a strength and a person falls into the average category for that particular trait. A weakness, on the other hand, is there regardless of the condition of their strength.
Example: somebody might have extraordinary physical strength, but their weakness is... math. For the record, if your character's only weakness is the loss of their strength, it's probable that your character is dangerously one-dimensional. Work on that later...
What's your protagonist's biggest weakness?
It's okay: feel free to use "math."
...And naturally, we're going to play with this a bit:
How and when does your antagonist learn of the hero's weakness?
How can they use that weakness against them?
Does this play into a strength of the antagonist? If not, are they just giving it special attention because they know it's a tool against the protagonist?
...Or does the antagonist share the same weakness?
Looks Aren't Everything...
But they're definitely something. Now that you've got a bit of background on your antagonist, if you don't already know from a Work-in-Progress:
What does your antagonist look like?
Now, Let's Make a Scene!
We've spent some time exploring both your protagonist (likely your main character), and your antagonist (likely the villain). Excellent.
Before we go any further, here's a little head-game for all that character work: your antagonist could be the same as your protagonist. The above assumes and describes Person vs. Person or Person vs. Nature stories, but it works just as well with Person vs. Themselves.
In a modern drama, you could as easily be describing the internal fears or vices of your character, and the situations or scenarios where they're vulnerable or triggered. Imagine the war veteran whose PTSD rages to the surface when the holiday fireworks go off...
Set the timer for 20 minutes...
Your protagonist and the antagonist have never met – but the antagonist knows who the protagonist is. Give us a scene from the antagonist's point of view as they meet in a public place.