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Who’s Your “Bad Guy?”

Today’s writing Definition of the Week, as posted on Innovative Editing’s Facebook page, is “Antagonist.”

Traditionally seen as the “bad guy,” an antagonist is really just anyone or anything that gets in your protagonist’s way as he or she tries to reach a given goal.

It can be a schoolyard bully, a set of space debris, a shark or an FBI agent trying to stop your antihero.

Just to prove that point, no matter how strange it sounds, I’ve comprised a very short list of antagonists I’ve come across throughout my movie-watching existence. I’ve chosen movies instead of books for the simple reason that more people are likely to watch or at least recognize the same picture than read the same book.

  • The Schoolyard Bully: The 1984 classic Karate Kid features Johnny, a high school jerk and stereotypical antagonist. While I don’t remember Johnny ever actually encountering protagonist Daniel in a schoolyard setting, the bullying theme is definitely there. Johnny kicks Daniel around with no real provocation, menacing him or making fun of him whenever he can. So he’s a physical threat and a psychological impediment.

  • A Set of Space Debris: The much more recent Gravity stars Sandra Bullock as Ryan Stone, an astronaut whose space station gets pulverized by a blown-up satellite. In this context, she’s all alone. There are no human allies to rely on or forces to battle. Instead, time is her enemy, as is her panic and that blasted cloud of blown-up satellite bits that keeps orbiting the Earth back around to her a few too many times in my opinion.

  • A Shark: I didn’t see it because I thought it looked epically boring, but I had to watch the previews to last year’s The Shallows about a dozen times, so that’s what automatically pops into my head when I think of animal villains. The Shallows follows a surfer who finds a beautiful beach that features the perfect waves and one vicious, determined shark. While the main character manages to escape the first attack, she’s only able to reach a piece of rock outcropping in the middle of the water. As a result, she’s trapped there while the shark keeps watch, waiting for high tide.

  • An FBI Agent: In Catch Me If You Can, a 2002 box office smash hit, the main character is a con artist. He’s a very likeable con artist, but he’s a con artist nonetheless. That makes him an antihero and his FBI antagonist the “good guy” who hunts him down in America and then across Europe, giving the main character a literal run for his money.

Like protagonists, antagonists clearly come in all shapes and sizes. In fact, the protagonist and antagonist can be the same person.

My dear friend Lia Mack’s novel, Waiting for Paint to Dry, follows a main character who has to fight herself the whole entire time in order to reach her happy ending. She experienced some significant trauma as a teenager and spent the next 14 years shortchanging herself in order to keep from getting hurt again.

Again, an antagonist is simply just anyone or anything that gets in your protagonist’s way as he or she tries to reach a given goal. And in Waiting for Paint to Dry, Matty Bell, is definitely getting in her own way.

Here’s another way to look at the antagonist-protagonist relationship: The antagonist is the one who sets a protagonist into motion by either just existing or deliberately forcing the main character down a specific route.

Defined in that light, it’s really the “bad guy” who makes the story go ‘round.

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