Antagonists: What Have They Lost?

Okay, I admit, this feels like an odd post to be writing at the end of the year, with a new one and all its possibilities just around the corner. But I’m working on characters this week, and I’m spending quite a bit of time with my antagonists. All of whom, really, have their good sides. In fact, they’re all a little too nice at this point, and I’m digging for what they want so badly that it’s turning them against my MC.

And as I was thinking about one character’s particular want, I realized that this want–his deep, most real want–is impossible. He lost any chance of getting that want years ago–through no fault of his own. I know, storywise, that the path is not going to turn; it won’t be a surprise, happy ending for him. So…because without a goal, there is no plot, I needed to think of another want for him, less powerful maybe, but one that has filled in for the older need–one that still motivates his actions and choices in the story. A want that still makes problems for my MC.

It came to me pretty quickly. Okay, let’s face it, I was laying in bed not wanting to get up and character development is as good an excuse as any to stay warm and cozy.

The cool thing that I realized was that the new want hasn’t completely erased the old one. Oh, sure, the character is 99.9999% sure that he’ll get that old want. He knows it intellectually and at a gut level. But…he still wants it. If you said to him, what would you do to get X, he’d come up with a huge list of things he’d sacrifice. In a nano-second.

So what do you get with this character, then? You get a character who knows loss, and who will fight more strongly than ever to keep from losing more. I think  it’s this loss, this awareness of what they can’t have, that makes an antagonist so powerful in his battle. He can’t go back, can’t have that original want, but he will hold onto his “replacement” want with everything he’s got.

The character I was thinking about this morning, just to try and make things more clear, is my MC’s father. I don’t want to get too deeply into specifics, but his original want is the woman he fell in love with, his wife (the MC’s mother) as she was before something bad happened to her. He can’t have that woman–she is forever gone. She broke years ago, and she has changed permanently, but she has healed…some.  So his second want, the one he lives with now, is to keep safe the woman he does have, to stop anything from breaking her again.

Even if this means stopping his daughter.

What does this create? An antagonist in serious conflict with the hero. An antagonist who the reader will sympathize with (assuming I can actually write this!), and who will make big problems for the main character. An antagonist with power.

Take a look at your bad guy. What do they want, now, at this moment in the story. And then…what would they rather have? What have they, in essence, given up on, but still hold the tiniest bit of hope for? How many more sides do you see to this antagonist, when you add that extra piece?


  1. beth says:

    Oh, this is brilliant. I love it. Thanks for sharing this! It’s so important to make the characters–especially the antagonist–real!


    • beckylevine says:

      Oh, thanks, Beth. I wasn’t sure that I was actually getting it clear–or whether I was just rambling! 🙂


  2. I agree – this is brilliant. I love how you think this all through. Not sure I could do it before actually writing. But I can, at least, learn from the fact that you do it and share it with us.


    • beckylevine says:

      Joyce, I don’t know that I do/will do it all before writing. But it was a nice thing to learn about this character & something to think about as I get to know the others!


  3. Great post, Becky! You made me think again about my antagonists – about their motivation. Sometimes I get so caught up in my mc’s dilemma, wants and needs , that I forget bout the antagonists.



    • beckylevine says:

      Not just the dilemma, but for me I get caught up in making the MC active, I forget what that antagonist is doing to make the MC REACT! 🙂 Happy writing in 2010, Stella.


  4. Amy G. says:

    Beautiful. I love the idea of the “replacement want,” and the whole way you’re thinking about it. Must see if I can apply it to my own WIP…


    • beckylevine says:

      Thanks, Amy! I’m not sure it’ll work with every antagonist, but those ones with a sympathetic reason–I bet! 🙂


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