Writing Is Hard Work

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  • Roger Colby

Protagonists, Antagonists and Depth

Ferris Bueller house east view 1

My children watch mindless episodes of things like The Wizards of Waverly Place (a clone mashup of Harry Potter and Twilight) and other Disney/Nickelodeon offerings.  Of course, I turn them on to some great stuff like those classic ’80’s movies I love like Ferris Bueller’s Day OffE.T. the Extraterrestrial and The Goonies.  

I swear if I hear that Waverly Place theme song one more time I will scream. The protagonists and antagonists are always one dimensional characters who seem not to be created to cause the viewer to think, only to entertain and to keep the kids busy while parents do something else.  There is evidence on every book shelf in America (at least) that authors have fallen into this trap, traditionally published authors, and since we indies desire to prove Sue Grafton incorrect, we should create multi-dimensional protagonists and antagonists.

Protagonists Must Have Depth

As stated, the protagonists in these Disney teen shows are one dimensional “goodies” who consistently learn lessons about being a good kid when they behave badly.  I understand that they are trying to teach a lesson, but this leaves the characters flat and uninteresting only to the immature viewer.  It is, in the grandest sense, ugly.

Protagonists in our fiction should be multi-layered in order to maintain the interest of the reader.  A protagonist who is too “true blue” will soon become boring.  The reason we like heroes like Ferris Bueller is because he is constantly dancing on the edge of being a bad guy without losing his attractive qualities.  The genius of that John Hughes film is that Ferris is constantly thumbing his nose at society and getting away with it.  We, as viewers, are cheering him on knowing full well that what he is doing is absolutely unacceptable and in some cases illegal.  This is also true of Elliot in E.T. in that he is shirking the law to hide an extraterrestrial being who might or might not be dangerous.  The kids in The Goonies live on the edge, taking danger head on with screams and laughter, but every kid in that film is flawed in some way.  None of them are perfect.

Antagonists Must Be Attractive

Antagonists must not be one dimensional evil characters.  A villain is much more interesting if we see a lighter side to them.  The reason Bane is so interesting in The Dark Knight Rises is due to his character being somewhat gentle at times even though he is planning the destruction of Gotham City.  In one scene (no spoilers here) Bane is listening to a boy sing the national anthem at a football game.  He stands just inside the tunnel that empties onto the field and says “Oh.  The boy has a lovely voice.”  It is gentle and at the same time completely maddening because we know he is about to endanger that child’s life.  One of the villains in my latest novel romances one of the main characters, keeping her in the dark about his life as a villain.  This villain is quite capable of kindness and gentleness but in another scene is ordering his men to force march a group of elderly off the edge of an aircraft carrier at sea.

Writers must show through the antagonist’s actions a capacity for compassion, kindness and charm that can be used by them to feed their nefarious plans.  Without these qualities, antagonists become extremely dull and one dimensional.  Everyone loves the principal in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off because even though the guy is absolutely dead set on catching Ferris somehow deep down we all would like to see him catch the little con man.  Who could forget the giant deformed oaf from The Goonies, either, who turns out to be not such a bad guy after all.  Even the faceless scientist at the end of E.T. the Extraterrestrial has a heart and helps Elliot escape with his friend.

Related articles

  1. Protagonist Vs. Antagonist (adragonmuses.com)

  2. Writing better bad guys (johnaugust.com)

  3. Hubris: How to Write Great Villains Into Your Novel (writingishardwork.com)

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