How would the antagonist tell your story?

I’ve been thinking about antagonists, motivations and character arcs lately. Partly because I’ve got to that chapter in James Scott Bell’s “Plot & Structure” book, but also in general because for the murder mystery or action-adventure stories that are brewing as my next projects, I feel like I need to have a much better idea than I currently do of what the bad guys are going to do to try to thwart the efforts of the detective/heroine. That means understanding who those baddies are and what they are trying to achieve.

One of my favourite tarot decks is the Tarot of the New Vision, which takes the standard imagery but effectively rotates the camera 180° to show the view from “behind” the scene. Less symbolically, for Christmas my sister (the same one who’s inspired my secondary project) gave me Tucker and Dale Vs Evil on DVD, a movie that takes the classic (or, if you prefer, stereotypical) horror movie “scary hillbillies” storyline and flips it around to make the hillbillies the well-meaning/innocent protagonists. So I’ve been thinking about that kind of approach to my own stories.

In my current WIP, I have three central characters: two people in the central D/s relationship plus the antagonist, whose name is Pat (introducing her name now, because otherwise the language will get very confused later in this piece). I wrote the first draft by flitting between three first-person accounts, with different aspects of scenes or of the story described by each of the three main characters. That was a great way to get into the heads of the characters and understand their intentions and why they would do the things they did, but not a great way to present the story to others. (I vaguely recall some quotation about the first draft being for you, the second for the reader, or something – can’t place it right now.) So for the second draft I had to choose one character to be the Lead, and redo everything in third-person, largely told from his or her POV. I chose to make the female Submissive in the D/s relationship the Lead, and make her POV the main one.

Changing things from the first-person accounts into a third-person (mostly) consistent POV is both forcing me to look again at the language to make sure I don’t miss any pronouns, and thereby helping me tighten things, and also forcing me to re-examine how I view the characters’ development. What lessons do each of them learn by the end, and what is the overall message? The take-away point and the beat on which I ended the first draft turns out to be one that could be summarised as “You can’t take a loved one for granted”, even though there’s a lot of gender/kink/LGBT political messages along the way that were the ostensible reasons for writing the story. It is still, to a great extent, a story about a clash of worldviews. It’s just that this clash has become a backdrop or context for the relationship changes between the three central characters, rather than the central story.

In choosing one character as Lead, I needed to think about what her character arc is. As mentioned, there’s a theme of, “You can’t take a partner for granted”. Most people would expect a Dominant to have a basis for needing that message, but the way the story turned out even before I stopped to think consciously about these matters, it seemed that there was a similar and complementary arc for the Submissive partner that carries a similar message. The character arc is also about what changes in a person from the start to the finish, and there it gets interesting. The novel opens with Pat (that’s the antagonist) arriving to deliver assertiveness training for employees under the Lead, a provision the Lead feels is important because her Master (and now husband) encouraged her to take assertiveness training, which boosted her up the career ladder and opened opportunities for her. But even though she had this training, we only see rare flashes of assertive behaviour from her until a flashpoint towards the end of the novel forces her into a more decisive move and risk everything. Her arc is from being someone who can be assertive when pushed, to someone who knows she should be assertive. The Dominant’s arc is similar, in that he goes from passively accepting their dynamic to understanding the need to engage actively with his partner about it.

The main idea running through my mind recently is what the story would look like if told from Pat’s perspective. In telling the story with the Submissive partner as lead, and from her POV, I inevitably interpret the story with her perceptions of Pat’s motives. But I also wanted to create a sympathetic antagonist, because Pat’s actions often come from a position of determination to do what is right, according to her understanding of the world. One scene I am convinced has to be told from Pat’s POV is the final confrontation between the two, so that the Lead’s fury is seen not as righteous anger but incomprehensible hatred. The reader will already know why she’s acting that way because the build-up scenes are told from the Lead’s perspective. Pat doesn’t.

Thinking about that scene and the motivations of the antagonist leads to the question of how the whole story looks from her angle. What would it look like if I wrote the same novel with Pat as the Lead? What if I interpret the events, encounters and conflicts through her beliefs and emotions instead?

The first thing that changes is the ending. When Pat is the antagonist, I need her to be immovable and unshakeable in her beliefs. That doesn’t leave much room for a character arc, so I need to soften her somewhat. I also need there to be a lesson or take-away for her to learn. The story either ends a few scenes sooner, or needs to continue a little farther down the timeline to reach a closure. Whichever way I would do it, the story would also end on a downward note: the events work out against her, and she experiences both romantic and social failure as a result of sticking to her principles. Her take-away lesson might be, “You can’t save everyone”. Her arc is therefore from supreme confidence (maybe even overconfidence in herself) to understanding that she cannot do all that she wishes. The events of the novel as currently mapped out would also help to presage this theme or message, in the same way that various beats within the story flag up the messages I’ve identified for the other two characters.

The take-away message, being framed from Pat’s worldview, is one that would present an overall political message with which I disagree strongly (because some people don’t need or want to be saved). While I understand why someone like Pat and with Pat’s background and worldview would regard the events in the novel in a way to produce her message, that does not mean that I agree with her. This in itself is a good enough reason not to expend a lot of work on the exercise, even though there’s a way to argue that it would make for a more powerful novel. Another good reason is that it is already plenty of work to be getting on with just doing one version of the second draft. (A much less good reason is that there would be fewer sex scenes.)

Spinning back through the story, a few other points crop up. It would be extremely interesting to write the early encounters between Pat and the Lead purely from Pat’s perspective. While I had a clear picture of her motivations as I wrote those scenes, to write from the perspective of those motivations (as opposed to viewing their effects from the outside) would present a radically different take on the Lead character. We would also see the relationships that Pat believes exist rather than the ones that the Lead believes are there, putting a completely new complexion on events.

Another change would be that, when she’s presented as the antagonist, Pat needs an external character to act as a “conscience” and allow reflection on how she sees things (this also is in keeping with her personality type as a more extraverted character). With Pat as the Lead, the inevitable softening and flexibility that goes with that means she could be her own conscience (I feel that being her own conscience would weaken her power and threat when she’s the antagonist) and the reader would be privy to her reflections already. Since the character arc is one of (over)confidence being broken down, this change would show how she faces the tension between her desires, actions and beliefs as they come into conflict with an incompatible worldview, and how those tensions challenge her self-belief. As I said, she becomes softer and more flexible than she appears in the version I’m writing.

While I’m not going to write Pat’s version of the novel, I found it helpful to understand the scenes from her POV while creating them. Seeing how an antagonist’s actions need not be motivated by malice or “evil” is a good reminder to treat people in the real world the same way.

So, writers: how do you tackle the antagonist’s point of view, and have you ever thought about or even tried to write, the story from the antagonist’s POV? What would you change about your story if you did?

Readers, have you ever tried to see a favourite story from the POV of another character, such as the antagonist?

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About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
This entry was posted in Philosophy, Writing about writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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