Friday, November 19, 2010

Guest Blogger author Leslie Wheeler

Please welcome guest blogger Leslie Wheeler!

When the Antagonist is a Good Guy

I used to tell audiences that I needed to know who the hero, the victim, and the villain were before beginning to write a mystery. But after taking a synopsis writing course, I realized I was leaving out a key player: the antagonist.

But isn’t the antagonist the same as the villain? you may be wondering. Not necessarily. The antagonist is the principal character who opposes the protagonist and creates problems for this character at every point in the story. The antagonist is the villain ONLY when that character poses a threat in some way to the main character. Otherwise, the antagonist can be a good guy.

When I sat down to plot my third mystery, MURDER AT SPOUTERS POINT, I decided the book needed two villains. Villain #1, the actual killer, would be a shadow villain, or someone who’s not present throughout the story to clash with my protagonist. Villain number #2, a bad guy but not the murderer, would provide the tension that villain #1 couldn’t. But as the story evolved, villain #2 turned out to be another shadow villain, providing conflict at certain points, but not others. I needed an antagonist to supply this all-important element.

After taking a hard look at my manuscript, I discovered I already had an antagonist in place.
He is Nate Barnes, the boyfriend of my main character, Miranda Lewis. Miranda is a workaholic writer of books about American history, while Nate is a hot-tempered former American Indian Movement activist. Coming from such different worlds, they’re bound to lock horns. And they do in the opening scene when Nate goes after another driver in a burst of road rage. Miranda begs him to stop, and he does.

But Nate soon becomes less and less compliant, especially when the fiancĂ© of a good friend of Miranda’s is brutally murdered, and Nate’s Native American buddy is the leading suspect. Convinced that his friend has been set up by prejudiced white people, Nate wants Miranda to seek the real killer among her white friends. When she resists and even questions Nate’s friend’s innocence, Nate accuses her of being racist.

Once I realized that Nate is the antagonist, providing most of the conflict that drives the story, I re-wrote his exchanges with Miranda to heighten the tension between them. But in doing so, I risked making Nate too unpleasant—a genuine problem because he’s meant to be a good guy, despite his faults.

For example, in an early scene, Nate races off in a fury to confront the person who’s fingered his friend. Miranda is so angered by his reckless behavior that she leaves the B & B where they’re staying and drives back to her apartment. Nate follows, and they spend a sleepless night apart. The next morning, things between them are still unresolved, and they both feel terrible. One person in my writers critique group described this scene as my most visceral writing to date. But another reminded me, “We have to like these people, and this scene doesn’t make us do that.”

I’d gone too far. In the next draft, Miranda doesn’t leave, Nate returns and apologizes, and they make up—at least for the moment. Thereafter, I tried to tone down some of the antagonism between them. It’s still present, but I temper it with lighter moments intended to show how much they really care for each other.

Whether I’ve succeeded is another question. One pre-publication reader was really put off by Nate, while another found him “so alive, so male, and so real.” Obviously, different readers will react differently to him. But as I map out my next book, I’m going to focus first and foremost on my antagonist, because this is the character that really propels the story. And if he or she is supposed to be a good person, I’ll just have to walk the line between too nasty and too nice.

Leslie Wheeler is an award-winning author of books about American history and biographies, who now writes the Miranda Lewis “living history” mystery series. Titles include: MURDER AT PLIMOTH PLANTATION, MURDER AT GETTYSBURG, and the just published MURDER AT SPOUTERS POINT. Leslie’s short stories have appeared in five anthologies of short crime fiction by New England authors, including the recently released, THIN ICE, published by Level Best Books, of which she is now a contributing editor. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, serving as Speakers Bureau Coordinator for the New England chapter. Leslie and her family divide their time between Cambridge, Massachusetts and a home in the Berkshires.


Cassy Pickard said...

Leslie: How great to have you join us on M&M. I noticed Thin Ice flying off the table at CrimeBake last weekend. Congratulations!

Your points about creating the villains and the antagonist are so well taken. I'm working that through right now, so your words rang very true.

I'll give more thought to who has the most to lose and who has the best chance of making that happen.

Were there any particular approaches you used to keeping it all in balance while still raising the stakes?

Kari Lee Townsend said...

Can't wait to read it myself. So glad you're here, Leslie!

Leslie Wheeler said...

Hi Cassy,
Yes, my co-editors and I were thrilled to see the copies of THIN ICE moving off the shelf at the Crime Bake last weekend. Thanks for noticing and commenting!

Good to hear that you are working on the villain/protagonist angle in your work, and that my words were helpful. As for approaches to use to keep things in balance, I think it's a question of creating escalating conflict. You don't want to get your protagonist and antagonist reach a point of no return too quickly in the story. Especially if the antagonist is a good guy as mine is. But this is also true if the antagonist is the villain. So they keep clashing, but each time, it gets worse and more difficult to resolve.

I like your idea of focusing on who has the most to lose and who has the best chance of making that happen, because our characters' conflicting wants and goals are so important! Will have to look at that in the book I'm working on now.

Leslie Wheeler said...

Thanks, Kari, I'm happy to be a guest on your blog, too!

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hey Leslie,

I often write a book with two villains as well - I like the way it keeps the conflict engine revved.

I've also struggled with making difficult characters unlikeable by making them too strong. I don't know as there is an easy way to do that.

Wishing you all the best with your sales.

Maggie Toussaint

Joyce Yarrow said...

Hi Leslie - great post about the role of the antagonist! Thanks for sharing your insights!

In THE LAST MATRYOSHKA the antagonist is hidden until near the end but his "hand" is everywhere. I really enjoyed using this technique.

Jan Brogan said...

Hi Leslie,
Well, I am a big fan of Nate in this book. Actually, I surprised myself by liking his anger -- when the love interest is a sensitive new-age guy, I suspect he is a figment of the female imagination and he never becomes real for me.

But I've had your same problem -- making the conflict between protagonist and her love interest real, without making the boyfriend too unlikeable -- its definitely a balancing act.

I've never thought about him as an antagonist before, but you are definitely right! Great post.

Mary Martinez said...

Thank you Leslie, for joining us today. What great points about the 'bad' guy. I love when authors share their insights and their methods with us.

Cassy Pickard said...

Leslie: Your comments have been on my mind today as I'm going through a ms that's been sitting for a long time. I haven't read it in quite awhile and you are SO right. I need to beef up the conflict and have it come from others in the story, not my main protag vs antag. Again, thanks.

John Achterkirchen said...

I like the concept of using a 'good guy' in the story as an antagonist, especially when he's in an evolving relationship with the main character. Nate's hot temper, it seems to me, is a great gauge of how much he cares about things, and his passion. The tension between Miranda and Nate is a vehicle that really helps carry the plot for me in the story.
Best wishes,
John Achterkirchen

Nancy Means Wright said...

Leslie: A few chapters into your new book--and wholly hooked and loving it along with those great epigraphs from Moby Dick (which I used to 'teach')--I'll admit I wasn't sure about Nate, and worried about Miranda. But that's part of the point, I gather,to ratchet up the tension early on... Yes, that "antagonist" as opposed to the "villain" is an excellent "device" and you do it so well. Original and effective! Now I'll take a fresh look at my own work-in-progress! On with the antagonists! Nancy

Liz Lipperman said...

Leslie, welcome to M & M. I have to admit I am one of those people that has to like the main characters. I judge a lot of contests and can't tell you how many times I write that the hero or heroine isn't likable.

But then I thought about Rhett Butler when I read your story points. Sometimes he was mean to Scarlett but who didn't love him?

So, I've come to the conclusion that a little bad never hurt anyone.

I can't wait to read these stories.

Leslie Wheeler said...

Interesting that you have two villains in your book also: the more villains/and "good guy" antagonists, the more conflict! The concept of antagonist can probably be expanded to include anyone who gets in the protagonist's way in the book, whether it's her family, a character who refuses to answer her questions, or puts a road block in her way.

I agree that one can have a problem with difficult characters becoming too unlikeable when they're too strong, but I also think it's important to put "force of nature" characters in books--ie. characters that you either love or hate, or that you love to hate. This is how I've come to see Nate: as a "force of nature" figure. Some readers will like him; others will be turned off.
Thanks for your comment, and good luck with your sales also!

Leslie Wheeler said...

I like your "hidden hand" technique. If I could have figured out how to do this in MURDER AT SPOUTERS POINT, I would have. But maybe next time
. . . Curious if you got the idea from other books, or if it just "came" to you.

Thanks for your comment!

Leslie Wheeler said...

As I've told you before, I'm glad you like Nate--anger and all! Especially as I just got another comment from a reviewer who found him too "insensitive." It's a balancing act all right, and I guess at a certain point, you just have to decide you can't please everyone, and go with your vision of a particular character.

Like you, I didn't realize that the boyfriend was the antagonist until I was well into the book. The unconscious at work again!

Leslie Wheeler said...

Thanks, Mary, I like hearing about other authors' methods and insights myself, and this is turning out to be a useful discussion for me. So, once again, thanks for having me on your blog!

Leslie Wheeler said...

I'm so glad that what I've said about conflict is turning out to be helpful as you revisit an old manuscript. As I was preparing this post, I happened to read a section from a forthcoming book on screenwriting, in which the author advises screenwriters not to open with a theme, but with a conflict. This same author also says that when viewers say they identify strongly with the main character in a film, what they're really saying is that they identify with the conflict the character is involved in. The author further states that screenwriters (and novelists, too!)
need to focus on developing their antagonists, because that's where the real action in a story lies.
So yes, beef up the conflict!

Leslie Wheeler said...

I like your point about Nate's anger being a gauge of his passion and how much he cares about things. So true!
Reminds me of something a creative writing teacher I had at Stanford said: "We write about what we love and what we hate." And it's that passion that gives our writing and our characters their energy.

Thanks for sharing!

Leslie Wheeler said...

Glad to hear you are as hooked on MURDER AT SPOUTERS POINT, as I am on MIDNIGHT FIRES, your Mary Wollstonecraft mystery. And thanks for being honest about your reaction to the Nate-and-Miranda conflict in the early chapters.

Don't think you'll have to worry too much about developing your villains and antagonists in your work-in-progress, because one of the things I admire about your writing is the way you give your characters' deeply felt emotional lives. And it seems to come so effortlessly! I, on the other hand, often struggle with issues of what a writer in my critique group calls "emotional resonance."

Thanks for sharing!

Leslie Wheeler said...

I understand your point about needing to like main characters, and think that's true for me--to a certain extent. I do, however, find myself drawn to edgier characters--people I probably wouldn't want to spend much time with in real life, but am happy to follow in fiction.

The main character in SIMILA'S SENSE OF SNOW, for example, is hardly the most likeable character, and yet I couldn't put the book down!

Thanks for your comment, and for having me on your blog!