Face it, every good story needs a great antagonist but if you think that means that it is necessary to have a Sauron... or Jack the Ripper... Hitler... or a mean-spirited Miss Scatcherd, then you might be looking at antagonists wrong. Conflict does, indeed, propel the story forward, but you might find that learning about different antagonists will help you to develop conflict that is more effective for the historical story you are trying to tell.
Believe it or not, there are four types, and you can use one or more than one, to create conflict and, ultimately, stand in the way of your protagonist's goal. With a successfully chosen antagonist, this is another way to develop the theme and the stakes for your main character.
You may not have to have an 'in-your-face' antagonist such as Hitler or Mengele if you are telling a WWII (Jew versus Nazi) story, or whatever era you've chosen but, no doubt, having such characters in history readily available for historical fiction authors as blatant opposers of your main character is nice. After all, none of us were privy to the actual conversations (unless historically recorded) so we can pretty much stretch our wings when developing an actual antagonist character.
Keep in mind that there are some aspects of a classic villain that are irrefutable – they are irredeemable and unempathetic, and their sad backstory or any possible humanizing qualities go far in adding to their horrific nature. Think of Jack the Ripper. Any injustice or childhood trauma he experienced, which you add to the story to flesh out his character, only adds to the deplorable actions and attitudes he has against his victims, one of which might be your main character.
Examples in historical fiction include:
Miss Scatcherd in Jane Eyre
Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park
Uriah Heep in David Copperfield
Cathy Ames in East of Eden
Captain Ahab in Moby Dick
Grendel in Beowulf
Sauron in The Lord of the Rings
When set against the protagonist, the contrast of extremes should be well-defined, even if your villain is placed in the story as a cliché, and the historical accuracy of the actual person needs to be addressed so as to not portray someone unfavorably if it is not accurate in recorded history. In other words, it's not necessary to make a historical figure a classic villain just for evil's sake – history is filled with opposers enough to warrant a character's role without sullying a historical person's reputation. Also, this is a chance for you to 'make up' someone instead of using an actual historical person as an antagonist. Developing an antagonist through their actions and attitudes adds quality depth to their character and again, helps your reader to engage with the story. Much of this can be done through 'showing not telling' (which will we cover in a separate article).
While we all know the role of the antagonist, that of the constant bad guy in the book, the main goal of having an antagonist is to create conflict for the protagonist's journey. Does this mean that they always need to be irredeemable and evil? No.
The Ordinary Antagonist merely serves as an obstacle but may only have innate flaws which stand in the protagonist's way. One way you can tell the difference is by gauging this character's humanity. He or she may be mean-spirited but still display the human qualities of fear and pain. Something in them may be redeemable but still, they stand in the way of the protagonist's ultimate goal.
Case in point:
Gollum in The Lord of the Rings – while his focus is entirely on the ring and stalling Frodo's goal of destroying the ring, sometimes as a reader Tolkein has you feeling sorry for him, that maybe he is redeemable after all. When his demise comes, when all his hopes, dreams, and fears come to pass, there is a measure of slight sadness in the fall.
Sometimes this type of antagonist has the same goal as the protagonist but their two different paths are in contrast to one another, creating obstacles. They may feed lies to the protagonist, urge them to go against their better judgment, or even stoke the flames of some emotional turmoil the protagonist is facing. With this type of antagonist, it is necessary to develop their humanity, again, possibly on a separate page in your notes, to craft out their personality, background, their history, flaws, quirks, goals, desires, etc. Once you have their own story in your mind you can carefully and skillfully place them within the story to create the necessary conflict you desire according to your protagonist's stake and the theme of the book.
Sometimes, as in the case of books like Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, or perhaps an entire kingdom, religion, military force, etc. in a historical novel, the antagonist can be an organization rather than a specific character. Yet, the goal is still the same – the desire to keep the protagonist from their goal and use all power and control at their disposal. As with someone like Hitler you have the advantage of not only him as the leader but also the entire Nazi organization as an antagonist against the main character. Even in a small way this can be done, weaving the details into the storyline so the corrupt organization is revealed, or in large ways where you can add more than one character representing the entire organization as antagonists against your character.
Most often, especially in well-crafted historical literary fiction, the internal antagonist is quite profound. The protagonist stands in his or her own way in reaching their goal. This provides an excellent way for the reader to truly get to know the heart of the character. Whether from past experiences, doubts, low self-esteem, negative views, false beliefs, etc., the conflict within may drive the protagonist forward or stall them from their goal – sometimes without even knowing it, yet a skillful writer will weave this throughout the narrative in a way that the reader can see what even the protagonist may not.
A good example of this is Jane Austen's, Elizabeth Bennet. She recognizes the prejudice of Mr. Darcy but does not recognize it in herself, which almost costs her his love. Her ultimate goal is hindered by her own internal conflicts.
And secondary characters can often help reinforce or add to the internal conflicts which, again, block the protagonist from reaching their goal. Even outward physical characteristics or traits of your protagonist can add to the internal conflicts they experience. Think of Lennie in Of Mice and Men or Frankenstein's monster.
Of course, these are just four. There are other aspects to these four which might add another level and depth to your chosen antagonist, such as using nature, technology, supernatural aspects, or a physical condition (time traveling) that might serve as an antagonist. Of course, to take it to a different level altogether, as in the case of historical fantasy or alternate history, you could make the forces a physical character, such as using 'pride' or 'wind' or 'lightning' as an antagonist. We know that George R. R. Martin does this with much success, not only with actual characters but in using forces as antagonists as well. All of this adds to the complexity of your novel, and again, in historical fiction, where truth is often stranger than fiction, a writer is given plenty of opportunities to lay out the history and reveal the antagonists along the main character's journey.
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