by Kyle Massa
Protagonist: the character who propels your story forward. Usually the main character. Antagonist: the character who impedes that forward progress. Usually a supporting character. Seem simple enough. Except when it’s not.
What if your antagonist is more compelling than your protagonist? Contrary to conventions, what if your villain feels more like the main character than your main character does? What if it feels like your antagonist has stolen your story?
Let’s look into some answers to these questions.
Option 1: Improve Your Protagonist
If your antagonist is a 10 out of 10 and your protagonist only a nine, it’s time to turn the latter up to 11. In other words, maybe it’s not that your antagonist has stolen your story. Maybe your protagonist just needs to be a little stronger (or louder, as it were).
This imbalance is sometimes caused by focusing too much on building likable main characters. Since we most likely want readers to root for our protagonists, they can turn into types rather than individuals. Traits like courage, resourcefulness, and fairness are great. But they can also be a little boring all by themselves.
If your protagonist feels uninteresting, try adding flaws. These tend to create internal conflict, which builds good characters.
For instance, imagine you’re writing a heroic protagonist. We’ll call her Solara (after one of my cats). Since you want Solara to be likable, you write her as a kind, intelligent, capable character. Whenever she encounters a challenge, she succeeds. Although Solara sounds like an awesome person, she’s not a particularly interesting character. Pretty much any antagonist you set against her will overshadow her.
Instead, let’s add a flaw. What if she succeeds all the time, yet fails for the first time when the world needs her most? How does she react to that? How does she live with herself?
By adding this simple flaw of overconfidence, we’ve enhanced our protagonist greatly. Doing so returns her to the forefront of the story, which simultaneously reclaims some mojo from your antagonist.
Option 2: Shift the Focus of Your Story
If you feel your antagonist is the best character in your manuscript, it’s entirely possible that your antagonist should’ve been the protagonist all along.
But in the words of Treebeard, don’t be hasty. Agonize over this decision before you make it. Sometimes it’s exactly what your manuscript needs. Sometimes it means months of work with little (or no) payoff.
Furthermore, this solution is rarely correct because an author’s instincts are rarely wrong. You know your story better than anyone. Therefore, if you decided to tell it from your original protagonist’s point of view, that’s very likely to be the correct decision. Because when it comes to writing, initial inclinations are usually right.
Bottom line: This solution works, though not as often as you might think. Consider it, but don’t expect it.
Option 3: Accept It
Stories are best when conventions are broken. So maybe it’s alright for your antagonist to be more compelling than your protagonist.
The Dark Knight provides an excellent example. This film came out when I was in high school and became an instant hit. I myself saw it three times in theaters (and nearly a fourth, that time in IMAX). Everyone saw it. I remember the conversations about it vividly.
No one talked about Batman. Everyone talked about the Joker.
On its face, that might sound backward. The film isn’t called The Joker, after all. Shouldn’t Batman be the character everyone’s talking about?
Not necessarily. Ultimately it comes down to the story you’re writing. The Joker’s popularity works because villains are an essential ingredient of comic book films. In addition, the Joker himself is one of the most famous antagonists there is. Making him the emphasis of the film works, and works well.
Will the same work for your work? As with all of these tips, you’re the best judge. Figure out what’s best for your story, your protagonist, and your antagonist, then act. Because no one knows your story better than you!
Guest post contributed by Kyle Massa. Kyle writes speculative fiction, blogs, some non-fiction, and the occasional tribute to coffee.
Oppress your protagonist. Put her into ugly, untenable situations — caused by your antagonist. Cause her pain, anguish and misery. And then have her triumph… for a time, before your villain strikes again, and again. The more underdog and survivor your protagonist becomes the more we’ll like her.
I have had very close calls where my antagonists have nearly stolen the stage from my lead. That’s because, I see it now, I gave the bad person so much to empathize for. IOW, I really drew that character and provided a deep back-story. I had to go in there and improve the narrative profile and personality of my protagonist to overcome any outstanding cheer-leading for his/her foe.