“Edward Blake, The Comedian, born 1918, buried in the rain. Murdered. Is that what happens to us? No time for friends? Only our enemies leave roses.”
— Rorschach, Watchmen
You know they are out there, plotting against you, watching your every move and waiting for you to fail. As hard to shake as your shadow on a fine afternoon and as difficult to control.
Antagonists come in all shapes and forms. As literary character types, they are my favourites and also my most frustrating. Protagonists (often the good guys) are clear cut; they are fighting the good fight. Solving the mystery, going on the hero’s journey, and saving the world. Protags tend to be straightforward, their motivations are defined by the situation they are faced with. The conflict they must resolve. The MacGuffin they must return to the village temple before the demonic curse plague turns them all into melted cheese.
It all sounds so clear cut, right? Brave hero(ine) fights the forces of oppressive evil. Great, write it, edit it, and publish it.
The antagonist is the force they are up against. The dirt floor to their dropped cream bun, the darkness to their light, and the thing puts the conflict into conflict. My personal issue with writing antagonists is that I enjoy them more than the protagonists.
What drives someone (or thing) to oppose and act in a way that is not altruistic, or socially cohesive? It goes against everything that makes us human. To be a true antagonist you have to either suffer something traumatic enough to change your world-view or you have to be inhuman (either alien, or just a monstrous entity).
Rorschach’s comment above is what I like about antagonists. Only our enemies leave roses. They are the ones whom our heroes have given existence to. The protagonist is their raison d’être. There is no reward in being an enemy unopposed. It makes the antagonists really interesting.
Thinking over my books, my antagonists rarely take a personal form. In the Tankbread series – the antagonists are the Evols (the intelligent zombies) and time (if you have read the book, you know that there is a deadline for the completion of the quest). Ultimately, it is the evol Adam in the first book. The further three titles also have similar faceless antagonists.
Apocalypse Recon: Outbreak – has a clear antagonist. The biker leader ‘Jesus’ is in direct opposition to Minty, his second in command. Sure a deadly fungus that turns people and animals into zombies is also an antagonist, but the main conflict comes down to Minty’s history and the secrets he has kept for so long.
Hell’s Teeth, it’s sharks.
EAT, the crazed Russian cannibal cult-leader.
The Trench, more zombie creating organisms, and the fight to find the source of the infection is the antagonist.
Not really a lot of well-developed personalities in that list. Some complex ideas and forms, but no Darth Vader, Judas, or Joker.
Is it enough to write these faceless antagonists? I hope so. As long as there is a reason for conflict, a force to fight against (be it faceless or a clearly defined main character) the position of antagonist is well filled.