Monthly Archives: October 2013

The Key to a Great Story – The Basics of Anatagonists

Star Wars - Darth Vader

Star Wars – Darth Vader (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In many ways antagonists are more interesting characters than protagonists, especially in relation to the plot. Basically they are the ones stirring the pot; all the order either in the world or in the life of the protagonist is disrupted by the antagonists. Famous examples of antagonists include Sauron from The Lord of the Rings, Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter and Darth Vader from Star Wars: The Original Trilogy.

The different types of antagonists are not as straight forward as the different types of protagonists. In my post on protagonists I was very clear about the fact that you need to be limited in the number of protagonists that you have in your story. You may end up with some prominent minor characters that support the protagonist, but when it comes to antagonists, you have fewer limits placed upon you.

Essentially at any point in the story, any character can become a pot stirrer. Best friends, minor characters, crowds even. Antagonists are not limited to characters, like the ones I mentioned above, who are hell bent on destruction, domination and evil. This admittedly is a viewpoint most commonly found in genres like fantasy. In crime for example, it would be the criminal, or if you have a twisted viewpoint it might be the authorities who are the antagonists. In romance it might be the cheating lover, or the irritating in-laws.

For example, both Ron and Hermione in the Harry Potter series are antagonists at one point or another. Hermione starts out as one until she becomes Harry’s and Ron’s friend. Ron in The Goblet of Fire becomes jealous and unsupportive of Harry right when Harry needs his best friend the most. He comes around eventually, but in between the emotional toll on Harry makes the situation he finds himself in even harder to handle. In both cases, in classic fantasy plotting, it takes either a troll or a dragon to turn the characters into or back into protagonist supporters. Outside of fantasy you will have to find some less spectacular plotting devices.

This variety in antagonist types means that when it comes to casting your story with characters, what you might find is that the most interesting characters are actually the ones who cause the most trouble. Their motivations might be based on a greater variety of possibilities that your protagonists. They aren’t just surviving; they might be plotting and planning, and being more deliberate in what they do in your story. However the trick is with antagonists is not to make the reader want them to be the protagonist. They may appreciate the deviousness of the antagonist, but in truth what you want to create is an antagonist that is either redeemable so that the audience can allow themselves to be sympathetic with them, or you have to create your characters with an flaw that no amount of evil brilliance would allow the audience to accept them and want the protagonist to claim victory.

These are just a few basics to bear in mind when it comes to antagonists; my next few posts will look at the different types in more detail.

The Key to a Great Story – Protagonists

Two brilliant protagonists...

Two brilliant protagonists.

A protagonist is your main character, the person who the reader is supposed to root for as they read your writing. You always need at least one protagonist, but there is nothing to stop you from having more than one. When it comes to starting out writing having one or two protagonists makes it quite easy to manage. I’ve been writing stories for over a decade, and I still only stick with having two protagonists. All of my other ‘main’ characters are what I describe as minor characters, a category of people in themselves who will have posts of their own dedicated to them. Having more than one protagonist is easy to manage, but the key to managing them properly is to know what their relationship to each other is as well as their relationship to other characters, and how their stories interweave and cooperate with each other.

It is quite possible to have a story where actually the two main characters are each other’s antagonists: Ron Howard’s recent endeavour ‘Rush is a fantastic example. His film is about two men, who basically butt heads with each other as they drive in F1. From audience’s perspective both are the protagonists, with the audience rooting for both characters for entirely different reasons. Pulling it off might not be easy, but Rush proves that it is possible.

However, when I write protagonists, I always write them where eventually they have the same goal in mind. They might never meet until near the end, or they might have vastly different ideas about how to go about doing something, but like with all characters, as I have posted about before, knowing how they react is absolutely fundamentally important. This is true for any and all characters that you create, but it is more true with your protagonist than it is with any other character, because your protagonist is the one you and your audience is going to be spending the most time with; they are crucial to your story and you have to know them as well as you know yourself.

In my mind character development for protagonists is also linked to world development and also to the plot that you have in mind for your story. In my previous post on character creation, I talked a lot about understanding how the world you create has an effect on character creation. All of this applies to creating protagonists, but the plot has a very strong influence over your main character as well. With practice developing characters, plots and new worlds becomes more naturally (I won’t say easier because a decade into writing fantasy, it still ain’t easy for me): it becomes a skill to develop.

One way to start out though is to understand what sort of protagonist you want to start out with and how you want to develop that character as the story progresses. I may add to this in the future, but for now my recent thinking about this has lead me to think that there are four different sorts of protagonists that are good place for absolute novices to writing to begin thinking about.

The Naïve Protagonist

He has no idea...

He has no idea…

In my mind one of the most common types of protagonists. A character who is really genuinely naïve of the world and the events that are happening to them, because nothing in their life has ever prepared them for it. This is a quality that generally doesn’t last for very long as a character develops; in my mind only child characters who still have never-ending childish optimism can remain naïve. Generally speaking a naïve protagonist is in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up caught up in the plot. They have no idea what’s really going on or why. They have to learn as the story develops and changes them. A couple of good examples include Anakin Skywalker in ‘Star Wars: The Phantom Menace’, and both Pippin and Merry in ‘The Lord of the Rings’.

The Damaged Protagonist

Another common main character; someone who has been so damaged by their world and their life their storyline generally is about them having to overcome their feelings to be able to progress and cope with the events taking place. How they are damaged though is very much up to you. In Jeffery Deaver’s ‘Lincoln Rhyme’ novels, the main character has to deal with being paralysed. In a series of books called ‘Jedi Apprentice’, which is about Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi both are damaged and hindered by emotion, especially anger, frustration and fear. It very much depends on what your plot is going to be about in how you go about developing your characters, but generally the story arc is about them overcoming these problems, either through outside help, determination and just sheer basic need to get on with life and get through their problems.

The Reluctant Protagonist

This that the sound of adventure on the other side of his front door?

This that the sound of adventure on the other side of his front door?

There is no greater Reluctant protagonist than Bilbo Baggins in ‘The Hobbit’. He doesn’t really want to go on an adventure, but Gandalf nudges him out the door. Or in the film, he shakes himself down and runs out the door on his own. Reluctant Protagonists are usually swept into the story by accident. You do have to be careful to not make reluctant Protagonists annoying. Fine, yes they might not want to be where they are, and they might find a lot of the things that are happening in the plot distasteful, but want they need to find is their purpose.

Eustace Scrubb in ‘The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader’, is another classic example of a reluctant character. He does eventually find his place, and then he finds himself as a main character in the next book. All that has to happen is that his greed turns him into a dragon. Han Solo is more lucky, he gets his reward, gets to help blow up the Death Star, finds a better place in the universe and wins the heart of a beautiful Princess. He pays for his past mistakes, which is part of what made him a reluctant character in the first place, but he gets over that because he’s honourable and it is that honour that condemns him to be hunted by Boba Fett.

The Hopeful/Determined Protagonist

Never ending optimism that your character thinks they can make the world a better place. These are usually the characters can see glasses that are half full and light at the end of the tunnel. In a way they are similar to naïve protagonists, but in reality, Hopeful and Determined Protagonists have a great deal more to lose. They think they know what they are doing and when they are proved wrong, or encounter set backs, their emotional journeys and character developments become some of the best stories to want to both read and write. One of my main characters  is a combination of Hopeful/Determined but also Damaged. They are in no way naïve that the world I’ve created for them can be dark and dangerous, and they have inner demons which make them hesitate when it comes to finding happiness, but they are still full of hope that their life and their world can be better, if not for them then at least for others.

Hope and determination can be costly for your characters.

Hope and determination can be costly for your characters.

Because these types of protagonists can be more complex, pin pointing examples is not easy. Eddard Stark in ‘Game of Thrones’ is one. He’s a little naïve, at least about politics, but he has hope and determination to find justice and answers. It ends up costing him and his family a lot. We’re still waiting to hear the result of that man’s actions. Gandalf in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, is another contender. He’s isn’t naïve about the dangers of Middle Earth, but it doesn’t make him any less determined to help destroy the One Ring. His determination inspires Frodo and his journey becomes a tortured one because of it.

So there you go, a few examples of protagonist types for you to think about. Just remember your characters can be more complex than these basic examples. In many ways they can be all of them, like some of my characters are, but for different reasons. Or they can develop into becoming a different type of protagonist. Naïve protagonists can become damaged or reluctant.

It’s up to you.

The Key to a Great Story – Understanding Yourself When Creating Characters


If your character was stood in this field how would they react to being attacked?

If your character was stood in this field how would they react to being attacked?

You can read a lot about how to go about constructing a character from scratch; advice such as knowing their favourite music, knowing who they are related to, knowing their favourite colour, their last mode of employment, etc. This is all brilliant, and if you’re writing fiction set in the modern world, this is actually quite useful information for a writer to at least be aware of even if the reader never needs to find it out. However, if like me, you write fiction set in a world that you’ve created yourself, the sort of background information that you need to know, you’re going to have to create entirely from scratch yourself.

Character creation in fantasy writing is a great deal more complicated than you would imagine, especially in worlds that have been dreamed up by the writer. The sort of background information that you’re going to need to know draws upon the dimensions of your self-constructed world. While this post is not about how to go about creating a fantasy setting, the ability to create ‘who’ your story is about does rely on you understanding ‘where’ your story is set. Equally your characters in turn define your setting. They are interwoven in ways that can not be entirely separated from each other.

As a starting point, it is easier to imagine who your main character is first and you build your world around your characters. While you’re in the planning frame of mind, you’ll find that your ideas are very fluid; your character, your plot and the world it is set in develop as one. You’ll end up having ideas about who you want your characters to be, and as a result you’ll end up creating the world in which you’re setting your story. The reason being is because your world has defined your characters and have made them who they are.

For example, I am a person interested in history. I can consciously remember that it was while I lived in America when I was a child and I was studying the history of the state of Virginia that I truly became passionate about the subject in general. However, I had a pre-existing interest, because my parents like visiting stately homes and historic sites and I can remember doing that before we moved to America. That pre-existing interest though was sparked not just because learning about the early European settlement of the Americas was different, interesting and challenging to my young view on the world, it was sparked because the woman who taught me history at school was very kind, encouraging and I engaged in her classes more than I did in my others. That little period in my life shaped who I became; I now have two degrees in history.Having this sort of in depth understanding about how people can develop is absolutely critical in creating characters. My love of history certainly has an influence on my writing beyond character creation, but what studying the past has taught me is how to evaluate myself. It has made me reflective on my past, and of the decisions I have made which have influenced who I have become. It has also taught me that not everything which has influenced my life was within my control. Moving to America for example; I was eight, I had no control over it. My parents made that decision.

When you come to creating any character’s personality, not just your main character, you need to understand how they will react. Knowing their favourite colour or piece of music isn’t going to help you very much if you put your character in a situation where that information is irrelevant.

To start constructing a character you need to form ideas about how your character would react in certain situations. Here are a few examples of situations for you to experiment with; what I recommend you do first though is picture yourself in these situations and then picture your characters in them.

1. Combat – This is a good exercise for developing a character’s morals. They don’t have to honourable; they can be based in self-preservation.

  • Your character is stood in a field unarmed, being charged at by a deadly foe who will kill them. Do they stand their ground or do they run?
  • Same situation, but your character has a weapon. What do they do now? Do they react differently with a sword, a bow and arrow or a gun?
  • They’re alone and they are being charged at by multiple foes. What now?
  • They are part of an army, fighting an army. What are they thinking of doing?

2. Sensual Drivers – This is a good exercise for developing dynamics between potential romantic relationships between characters, using one of the most basic of human instincts as a starting point. Be aware that I am such an open-minded person when it comes to this topic my brain has fallen out.

Your character finds themselves in a situation where they have an opportunity to engage in lovemaking with another character.

  • Are they more willing or less willing than the other character? If they are as willing as the other, why is this the case for both characters? Is it the same reason?
  • Do the dynamics between people in your world mean that genders are on an equal footing or an unequal one? (Bare in mind that it is your world; women can be the domineering gender.)
  • What are they feeling about the prospect of engaging in lovemaking? Lustful, loving, frightened, nervous?
  • The characters are of the same gender; what are the power dynamics then? Is your character submissive or dominant or longing for an equal standing?
  • Is your character as open-minded about same-sex lovemaking as I am? It’s okay if they’re not, but ask why they aren’t? Is it a personal belief or a cultural one? Is there a difference between the personal beliefs of your characters and the cultural beliefs of your world?

So there are two exercises for you start with in developing characters. If you have similar responses for when you conducted the exercise on yourself to when you subjected a character to it, then you have a fantastic opportunity to really develop a character that you understand fully. I recommend though that you be very cautious about doing that; writers should write what they know and believe, but you need to limit that. Develop characters with parts of your personality in it, but fundamentally I believe you should create characters who are entirely unique. You might have to piece them together from yourself and from experiences you have had with other people, but what you need to do is create entirely new people. You need to write about your characters as if they are real people, who react on both instinct and experience combined as they encounter the plot you write.

Why is it important to know? Because the situations above can be subjected to a great number of variables. The weather conditions in battle for insistence can affect the character’s reaction. For example the film Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, when it starts raining in Helm’s Deep, how does that make the characters feel and do they all react the same way? And what happens when the blinding sun pours out from behind the ridge that Gandalf is charging down?The light pouring into Helm's Deep evoked different reactions from both sides...

The light pouring into Helm’s Deep evoked different reactions from both sides…

Find answers for all those questions you ask of your characters.

Then figure out why those are the answers.

You can draw on your personal reactions to those questions, but the key to understanding your character’s reactions is to have an explanation for why that is the reaction. Is it something to do with the cultural beliefs of your world? Is it to do with your character’s own personal experiences of the world? Is it a combination of both? In finding out the answers to those questions you’re well on your way to beginning to build a character from scratch and while also constructing the world in which your character is a part of too.

When it comes to developing your plot, with this basic knowledge of your character in mind, what you will know is how they will react to that plot point. And that is the most important thing to need to know about your characters. If it happens that knowing what their favourite colour is turns out to be important, then great you’ll know, but I think it’s best to know why they have that reaction to that colour.

On the way you might understand a bit more about yourself as well.

Check out this interesting article as well. It’s about how Freud went about understanding people and very relevant when it comes to creating characters.

The Key to a Great Story – Write your story your way

Write the world the way you see it.

Write the world the way you see it.

It’s been a few weeks since I gave the bare bones of which characters you potentially might need to include in a story, and while I promised an article on main characters to appear quickly afterwards, I suddenly hit a bit of a dead end. (That and I’ve recently started a new job so my brain space has been occupied with learning new names etc.)

The main reason however I hit a bit of a dead end is because, while I’m writing a guide of how to write a story from the ground up, when it comes to writing I’m a firm believer in doing it your own way. When I first started to read writing advice on the internet, I got so confused and turned around about how I should be writing things that it took a while for me to realise that what I had been doing before had been the right way all along. The right way for me! So while I hope anyone who is reading this is doing so because they’d like to know a few basics, or because you’re interested in my perspective on the writing way, please don’t ever forget to write your story your way!

The posts on main characters will be coming soon, but I have to figure out more about what I want to say about them, because while I want to give you the basics, but don’t want to just tell you stuff that you can find just anywhere. I want to share my perspective, and dredging that out of my brain is a lot tougher than I’m imagined it would be.

So here’s one lesson for you, write your story your way, like I’m going to write this guide on writing based on how I think about constructing stories.

Lesson two; writing is not easy. You need patience, courage, and more than just an idea. I had an idea about writing a guide to writing a few weeks ago. As I’m sure we’ll learn together, it was a brilliant idea, just not an easy one to hammer out.