I run into writers all the time who have this great – awesome – spectacular idea and have already created the perfect set of characters. The protagonists are witty, smart, funny, strong, brave, etc. They are everything that someone could aspire to.
Yet, when I ask them how far they are in writing the novel/screenplay what I generally get is…
“I’m at the beginning.”
I ask, “How long have you been working on this idea?”
“Oh, one maybe two years.”
We talk about the story for a while, and after a few minutes I generally notice the problem – the same one over and over again. The writer has spent all this time creating their main characters, but the antagonist has received no love at all. Generally in follow up questions, I find out the antag is not formed yet, they are still deciding between this or that. They don’t know if it’ll be a man or woman, old or young, strong or weak. In fact, the antag has been an afterthought.
The reason why their story has sputtered and died, is simple. You don’t have an enemy, so you don’t have conflict, so you can’t have resolution. That’s why their project starts great. However the point after the MC is introduced; the writer must introduce a problem and that problem, generally created by the enemy, drives the plot.
Antags come in various shapes and sizes from Aliens to bacteria to animals to self-doubt. Anything that causes the protag to move is an antag. A good rule of thumb is – the more powerful that antag is, the more compelling the story. (Or at least the larger the conflict) Think about your favorite tale. It doesn’t matter what type of story it is, but I’d bet it had a great antag.
Antags come in two main varieties. What I like to define as big and little bads. A Little Bad is an antagonist that exists in part of the story but is not that important to the overall arc. Maybe it’s a wolf pack that startles the MC and forces them into a tree or the misunderstanding between two friends which makes one miss their bus.
The Big Bad is the main enemy; the one the protag has to defeat to have their happy ending. This is guy or gal that we love to hate and must spend time plotting with. This is the being that a writer sits down with and helps them figure out their diabolical plan. This is the person that your readers hate or love or whatever. And, yes this person is the inner part of your being that’s just – well – evil.