Thursday, September 8, 2011

Why Have an Antagonist?

I understand why romantic suspense and thrillers need a bad guy, but I prefer the idea of one to the reality.  And for less scary romances, I can do without a specific third party as an antagonist.

As a reader, I skip all sections written  from the villain's POV.  (I love when those sections are in italics so it's even easier to see when they end.)  I've got my reasons.

First, I don't trust them.  The whole point of being in a character's POV is learn what they're thinking.  But villains are, usually, plot devices.  They need to be thwarted or vanquished by the end of the story, so the reader isn't supposed to be invested in them the way we come to care about the protagonists.  But they're still supposed to be internally consistent.  One romantic suspense I read recently had a psychopathic pedophile poet as the baddie.  Halfway through the book we started to get sections in his POV.  But because we weren't supposed to know who it was, all mention of his poetry was excised from his scenes.  Which made no sense: wouldn't a psychopathic pedophile poet be thinking, "Oh, and when I get done with you, girlie, I'll let you be my muse...?"

Of course on paper, the psychopathic pedophile poet can reveal the psychopathy but not the poetry lest we figure out whodunnit.  But what's fun about being in a psychopath's head?  So the POV scenes are hokey and unbelievable.  Why read them?

Second, it's a bad way to build suspense.  Bad guys are planning bad things.  We get that part.  In a movie, you frequently get a camera angle that suggests there's a baddie lurking in the shadows -- that builds a lot of tension. But books work differently.  Better (I think) to stay in the protagonist's POV in a scary situation.  We like that person, we're concerned for that person, we may even identify with that person.  If they're looking at shadows, hearing strange noises, driving on a deserted road -- we're right there, scared for (and possibly with) them.

Okay, that's suspense/thriller/dark paranormal territory, where the baddies break the law.  What about more domestic romances?  Even there, I'm not fond of antagonists.  But before I go there, allow me to give credit where credit is due:

The best antagonist ever in a romance novel?  I'd give that award to an unnamed person in Mary Balogh's Slightly Dangerous.  If you've read the book, you know who I'm talking about.  If you haven't read the book, read it -- if only to see how cleverly it's done.

Back to the rest of the genre.  Antagonists are the characters who make it hard for the protagonist(s) to achieve the stated goal -- road blocks, if you will.  Well, if the goal is to get someone to fall in love with you, various nasty-minded people can try their darnedest to make trouble.  Again, though, why are they doing it and why should the reader care?  If it's revenge, jealousy, competition, etc., then we don't like the antagonist.  And if we don't like him/her, that character is flattened into a plot device.

Better would be the well-intended, even lovable, close friend, family member, or confident whose love and concern for one of the protagonists endears the antagonist to us even as he/she is working hard to prevent the happy ending we're waiting for.

The trouble with that scenario is that the protagonists themselves have a lot to do with such a situation.  If Mom/Sis/Uncle Harry is interfering in the heroine's love life, who's given them permission to do that?  The heroine, presumably.  Well, that's pretty dumb on her part.  Wake up and smell the toast, babe.  Which is precisely what she may need to do in the course of her character arc: grow a pair, get out from her family's shadow, find her own feet, etc.

All good goals, but not entirely consistent with a romantic happy ending.  I prefer my romantic protagonists to have done that work already, lest the romance be more about getting away from the family and less about the beloved.  Yes, family members can and will meddle, but protagonists should have established boundaries that prevent the relatives from being true antagonists.

That leaves the jealous ex, the "other woman," or the plain old troublemaker.   This is right up there with the Misunderstanding for stupid conflicts.  Unless it's "Sleeping With the Enemy" territory (in which case we're back to thrillers), I have to wonder what a protagonist is doing listening to venomous tripe about the beloved?  Tell the rat bastard (or evil crone) to crawl back into their lair and leave the romance alone.

My bottom line is this: in romances, as in real life, I believe that people do a far better job getting in their own way than what others can do for them.  So I'm not a big fan of the external antagonist.  I don't see any reason why the hero can't be both the goal and the antagonist for the heroine, and vice versa.


  1. "I don't see any reason why the hero can't be both the goal and the antagonist for the heroine, and vice versa."

    Again, I think it depends how it's done. Here's what Jenny Crusie has to say on the topic:

    Early romances often cast the hero and heroine as antagonists, the I-hate-you-I-hate-you-I-love you story. As the genre grew more sophisticated, this plot began to look as dumb as it sounds. It also makes for weak plots: since a strong conflict ends in a fight to the death (literally or psychologically), casting your hero and heroine as opposite numbers makes it almost impossible to achieve a satisfying ending. Either they compromise to save the relationship, leaving the book with a fizzle of a climax, or one destroys the other, leaving the relationship in a shambles. It is possible to make this latter plot work if the destruction creates a phoenix-like transformation in the one who’s destroyed, but it’s extremely hard to bring off in a genre that’s already difficult to write. Making both the heroine and hero protagonists and giving them a strong antagonist to defeat together not only allows for that fight-to-the-death ending, it fosters the relationship because people who struggle together against a common enemy in pursuit of a common goal form a strong emotional bond.

    I'm so glad I write non-fiction ;-)

  2. An antagonist doesn't have to be insufferable, just in the way of a stated or perceived goal. If the man you love has commitment issues, or the woman you adore is still working through some stuff from childhood, they're blocking your efforts to achieve the happy ending. Stuff like that doesn't make us hate them, but it is in the way nonetheless.

    I can't stand the "I love you. No wait, now I hate you. Oh, darn, I do love you. I hate you for making me love you" plot device. But that's a topic for another blog post!

  3. Given that I've read your novels, I rather thought that was what you meant.

    I could be completely wrong about this, but it occurs to me that even that kind of protagonist-as-antagonist could be a bit problematic, because doesn't internal change have to come from inside the person with commitment issues/stuff from childhood? So although Protagonist-1 can perhaps do some things which might help Protagonist-With-Baggage sort through things, at some point it's likely that Protagonist-1 is just going to have to wait and hope.

    This might be realistic, and it might be fine in some genres, but I'm not sure how popular it would be in romance because it would presumably

    (a) slow down the pacing of the book
    (b) shift the focus away from the relationship between Protagonist-1 and Protagonist-With-Baggage and onto the relationship between Protagonist-With-Baggage and the Baggage
    (c) make Protagonist-1 look passive, since he/she can't do much to make Protagonist-With-Baggage change.

    Perhaps this is why it's so often the case that Protagonist-1 is a heroine with a Glittery HooHa and a Prism. That way she can solve pretty much any problem just by existing.

  4. For myself, I like getting the antagonist's point of view, especially when I can empathize with him/her. After all, the antagonist has a pivotal role to play and if he/she is given no dialogue, the reader's knowledge is circumscribed. Karen Rose, in "I'm Watching You" has two antagonists, one for the reader to sympathize with, one for the reader to dislike. In "Don't Tell," the antagonist is the primary impetus for the story.


  5. I always skip sections in the villain's POV, too. The only circumstance in which I care about the villain's POV is when the "villain" is actually the protagonist and we get into shades of moral ambiguity. That doesn't happen a lot in romance novels.


Hi. This is a moribund blog, so it gets spammed from time to time. Please feel free to comment, but know that your comment may take a few hours to appear simply as a result of the spam blocking in place.