Today, in preparation for the class I am teaching at Central Piedmont Community College, I am thinking about what makes a memorable antagonist. All writers are tempted to create absolutely good protagonists or absolutely evil antagonists. But as Robin Hemley points out in Creating Fiction, "Most people are neither all good nor all bad, and even the best are capable of small and large betrayals." (p. 84)
I subscribe to Delanceyplace.com which sends daily selections from a variety of books. Today's e-mail was from Deeper into Movies and shared excerpts from Pauline Kael's 1972 review of Marlo Brando's acting in The Godfather. This struck me as a good example of an interesting and layered antagonist:
"Don Vito could be played as a magnificent old warrior, a noble killer, a handsome bull-patriarch, but Brando manages to debanalize him. It's typical of Brando's daring that he doesn't capitalize on his broken-prow profile and the massive, sculptural head that has become the head of Rodin's Balzac - he doesn't play for statuesque nobility. The light, cracked voice comes out of a twisted mouth and clenched teeth; he has the battered face of a devious, combative old man, and a pugnacious thrust to his jaw. The rasp in his voice is particularly effective after Don Vito has been wounded; one almost feels that the bullets cracked it, and wishes it hadn't been cracked before. Brando interiorizes Don Vito's power, makes him less physically threatening and deeper, hidden within himself." (p. 422-423)
Hemley makes a number of good points in her essay, "Sympathy for the Devil: What to do About Difficult Characters." Here are a few:
"While fiction certainly deals with conflict, it's also about seeing into the true nature of people, uncovering falsehoods and half-truths. Most people (and by extension, most characters) have fatal flaws." p. 88
Interesting characters are complicated. "If we understand why someone feels she has to kill her child....we might be brought to a place of genuine compassion and understanding that would hardly seem possible without the prose writer's magical ability to make us recognize our deepest selves, the ones we try daily to bury." p. 89
How about you? How do you layer the antagonist in your work? Or, what character have you found in literature who portrays this mixture of good and evil? Let me know and I might include your comments in my class on Thursday night!
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