Sunday, 19 March 2017

Antagonism - Connect With Your Dark Side...

If there’s one thing novice writers get wrong more than anything else, it’s the bad side of their story. Why? Because we are good people. We don't like or relate to the murderers, rapists and manipulative psychopaths that we end up writing about. I would go further: as writers, we are probably even more pacific and sensitive than the average person and even less capable of handling confrontation. We are advised to write from the heart, so we do. Which means we naturally side with our good guys and give our bad guys a hard time from the start. The result is that from page one, we are starving our bad guys of the oxygen they need for success... and instantly consigning our stories to the bin as the forces of antagonism are reduced to nought in the eyes of our readers.
Unless you have suffered yourself, doing justice to the negative side of your story is not going to come naturally and you will need to work ten times harder to bring the antagonism to life in your work. So you must use all your energy and imagination to make your forces of antagonism convincing, and your bad guy bad. Get right into him and let him take you over (I'm assuming it's a 'him'...). Somewhere in your pure heart is a little black spot. The bastard you could have been if your life had been different. Try to connect with it. Be honest - you have been resentful. You have been jealous. You don’t like to admit it, but you have manipulated. You’ve felt hatred. You know someone you felt you could have murdered, even if only in your darkest moments. Try to scare yourself with your own characters. They all reflect you in some small way, so you must battle with your subconscious to imbue them with evil that has the same levels of integrity you will happily give your good guys. If you don’t, your story will be weak.
Why put myself through that?
Not all stories have antagonism or bad guys or even conflict (that is for another blog another day). Assuming your story does have forces of antagonism, as a writer, look how hard you make life for yourself if these forces are weak. Your hero can only be as heroic as the effort it takes him to defeat the bad guys, so you must give your bad guys all the power they need to appear unassailable, and from there you must make them even more powerful – apparently beyond defeat – and weaken your good guys to the point where it seems impossible for the bad guys to lose. From there, your protagonist is going to have to be pretty damn special to win out – and I for one would like to see how he’s going to do it.
Every cinema goer knows, from the moment they see the poster, who is going to win and who is going to lose. They’ve seen enough movies to take their seat feeling pretty confident, deep down, that things will end up fine for the hero. When things get a little tense for my children in the cinema, I whisper to them that everything is going to be fine. I promise them that the good guy will win in the end. And I am always right. Your job, as a screenwriter, is to make me squirm. Make me fear that on top of the amazing plot you are about to deliver, I’ve also just lied to my children, because maybe – just maybe – this is the time when the good guy isn’t actually going to make it. And achieving that is totally dependent upon your ability to deliver powerful, believable, convincing and (almost) unassailable forces of antagonism. 
Now, get out there, and be very, VERY BAD!!
PS. My turn to be bad - shamelessly advertising my humorous travel book. 
This is the latest review comment: "You really are a very special writer and Ocean Boulevard is probably the best read I’ve ever had on holiday... truly excellent.
More amazing reviews at amazon: 
If you've enjoyed my blog, why not read about my personal true life badness travelling the world working on ships?! AND see if a story consultant can actually tell a good story! 


  1. I loved this! You make so many great points. I think it is important to be careful not to go overboard when writing bad guys though. Pure evil (assuming that there is pure in evil, lol) can not be entertaining IMO, no matter what has happened to the bad guy. There has to be one weakness, something that makes him really vulnerable.

  2. Interesting post; but I like it. I need your phone number so that when I get arrested for having been very bad I can use you as my mitigation. Although a false alibi might be better... :)

  3. Love the post, though I think I'm in the minority who needs to do the opposite; I've no problem writing evil. In fact, my problem is writing hero. But I grew up in the welsh version of a ghetto, so... Scriptwise I'm having a hard time making my characters sympathetic amongst all the questionable things they do.

    Not sure I agree with you about always knowing who is gonna win in the end when I see the poster or sit down in the cinema - surely there would be no sad, tragic stories if the good guys didn't sometimes fail and the bad guys got away clean?

  4. Hehehe loved this post. I must say that I like the dark side.

    Yikes that sounded pretty psycho. Let me rephrase. I am intrigued by the dark side of humanity, so I like it when my dark side comes up with something in my stories.

    I get to explore a part of myself that I keep tightly chained and I must say, it makes everything so much more interesting.


  5. I tend to agree, although it's a fine line between writing a vividly bad evil-doer, and a realistic one. I suppose mine tend to be more balanced than many, as part of what makes evil fascinating (at least, for me) is the duality of the monster. It's easy to write a bad guy, but far more difficult to write one who is multi-dimensional, and possibly even appealing at some level. Think Hannibal Lector. Monster, but interesting dinner company - presuming you aren't on the menu.

    It's also always a question, when you have bad guys doing bad things, of how far in the description you want to go. I tend to go to where I start puckering as I read and edit, and then fight internally over whether it is essential to the story to be graphical, and if so, how much? Sometimes I will dial it back, but sometimes not. But even then, I believe the art is in capturing the ordinariness of evil, the mundanity of the monstrous - because then you can create a completely authentic and believable villain. It's the serial killer who collects stamps and pets his dog that gives me the creeps far more than the blood-drooling, slack jawed modern-day Jack the Ripper. Then again, maybe I just had bad experiences with philatelic pet lovers as a child.

    Anyhow, good blog.

    Russell Blake

  6. I suppose I have to concede that there are antagonists that are pure evil. I don't find them as interesting. Give me a bad guy who raises bunnies and I'm immediately intrigued. It is the contradictions in an evil character that truly scare me.