Goals, Wants & Needs
When it comes to characterisation, most writers know that a protagonist needs to want something – and stuff needs to block the way of him/her getting it. Those same writers will also know the antagonist will be one of those obstacles: perhaps s/he wants the same thing as the protagonist; or to get it first; or to prevent said main character from getting it altogether?
It’s Characterisation 101
From there, however, writers’ notions of characterisation will begin to falter, usually in 2 ways:
i) Comic Book Villains
Look, we live in the age of the superhero movie. The success of movies like the recent THOR RAGNORAK shows this subgenre isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon. Audiences invest in movies that carry the ‘good versus evil’ theme and we like to see heroes like Thor and his mates save the day. End of.
But even comic book villains can’t literally be comic villains anymore. You can’t just say they’re evil and leave it at that. Nor can you say they’re just crazy, which is why their EVIL PLAN makes no sense.
Your antagonist needs to be more rounded, have more overt motivations, even a smattering of back story to make them ‘relatable’. So your own antagonist needs to be the same.
This is non-negotiable.
ii) Secondary Characters That Don’t Pull Their Weight
If main characters like protagonists and antagonists need goals and counter-goals, then secondary characters need to pull their weight and either:
- a) HELP the protagonist or antagonist or
- b) HINDER the protagonist or antagonist.
It doesn’t matter if your secondary is the BEST-WRITTEN character in the whole universe. If they don’t have a PURPOSE in the narrative that relates to the above? They are not pulling their weight.
Y’see. secondary characters ALSO need role functions in stories, otherwise there is literally ‘no point’ to them. Role functions may include Love Interest; Mentor; Comic Relief; Straight Guy/Gal; Magician/Wizard; Care-giver; Expendable Hero and many, many others besides. You may merge them, flip them, or even create whole new looks at the various tropes that have gone before. (Basically, you can do anything you like as long as these characters pull their weight! Fancy that).
My 2 Tips, then?
1) The Antagonist Doesn’t Know S/he’s The Bad One
Who wakes up in the morning and says ‘Today, I shall be as evil as possible.’ No one, that’s who. Yet too many antagonists in spec screenplays and unpublished novels are evil for the sake of it, which impacts negatively on the resonance of their characterisation.
This is not to say every single antagonist needs a specific reason for their bad behaviour (like a traumatic past, such as a dead baby!), but a justification can help. Even in the case of literally evil characters such as Hela in THOR RAGNORAK, she’s the Goddess of Death … Of course she’s going to cause death, destruction and mayhem! That’s literally her job. LE DUH.
Yet even Hela has a strong motivation (besides ‘just’ being the Goddess of Death). After all, Odin was only too happy to use his firstborn as a tool to get what he wants … As soon as he got it, he locked her away and hid her very existence from her brothers, Thor and Loki and the rest of Asgard. No wonder she’s pissed. I would be too! I can relate to that.
So Hela’s quest is righteous, from her point of view: she is the eldest child, she deserves the throne. If that means raining fire down on the whole of Asgard and killing everyone, so be it. Remember, she is the Goddess of Death. Tough luck!
TOP TIP: You don’t need tragic backstories for your antagonists, but understanding WHY they do what they do can really help. Get into their shoes every bit as much as your protagonist.
2) Everyone needs ‘a reason to live’
When it comes to secondary characters, they literally orbit the protagonist and antagonist, HELPING or HINDERING them. That is their dramatic function and how the story is told.
On this basis, they inhabit LESS story space. Again, they have to – even with ensembles, audiences cannot cope with ‘too many’ characters (whatever this means).
But if secondary characters ONLY ‘help or hinder’ the two main characters, then they swiftly end up feeling like cardboard cut-outs. These secondary characters need their own elements to distinguish them from the rest, but not so many they take up too much ‘story space’.
With this in mind, it’s worth thinking about how NONE of these characters knows s/he is a small part in *someone else’s* story. Instead, s/he has a ‘reason to live’ beyond what that protagonist or antagonist wants.
In the case of THOR RAGNORAK then, Loki wants to be treated like a God again (and will do whatever it takes to get it). In contrast, Bruce Banner will do anything to try and avoid being the Hulk (Hulk just wants to SMASH), plus Valkyrie is trying to avoid her painful past.
All will come together to help Thor vanquish Hela, as we’d expect from this type of movie.
TOP TIP: What is the role function of each of your secondary characters? What does each of them want – what is their ‘reason to live’? How does this fit with the story as a whole?
Then check out my book, Writing Diverse Characters For Fiction, TV & Film, out now from Creative Essentials. Available in paperback and ebook, from Amazon and all good book stores. Click on the link or the pic for more info.