My six-year-old son taught me that as beginner writers we often underestimate the power of the antagonist.
Where’s The Baddie?
My knees are pressed up against my tonsils. I am scrunched up on a carpet next to a stain that I am praying is Granadilla Schweppes. All around me wriggling, squealing, bouncing bodies compete for a spot near the stage. My own little boy included. Bright eyes and big smiles all around. “Mommy, this is so cool.” My son says pounding his fist on my knee. I do my best enthusiastic mommy impersonation and try to move away from the stain. I barely get an inch. This place is a seething mass of miniature Ninja Turtle enthusiasts. I hunch even more, hoping the three-year-old behind me can see over my head. His mommy looks mean. It is December and I am in Sandton City waiting for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to appear on stage. Not my ideal habitat, but a mother does what a mother needs to do. At last April O’Neil appears on stage complete with a fake American accent and distorting microphone. The Turtles explode onto the stage soon after. They start training and doing a bunch of moves. My son is enthralled. “That’s Leonardo, Mom.” He introduces every one as they ninja-it around the stage. He bobs. He points. He is thrilled. I even forget about the lurking stain for a while. Happy kid. Happy mom. But it’s not long before he frowns. “What’s up?” “When are the baddies coming?” He asks. “What do you mean? What baddies?” “Shredder. The bad guy, where is he? He always does something bad and then the Turtles have to go save everything.” The baddie didn’t come. We left. He was quiet. “Mom, I don’t think those were the real Turtles.” “Why do you think so?” “Because Shredder didn’t come. He always comes to make trouble for the Turtles.” Sigh. To console ourselves for the lack of real Turtles we went for ice-cream. Two scoops each.
What I realised that day was that as beginner writers we often underestimate the power of the antagonist. If you look at any animated kid’s movie by Pixar or Disney, it is bloody scary at times. They don’t hold back on their antagonists and neither should you. Often, when we write for children (and adults) we are worried about scaring them and we decide to leave out an antagonist or create a weak antagonist.
But I want to remind you of the antagonist’s role:
- The antagonist is an opposition character who stands in the way of your protagonist. He or she stops the protagonist from achieving his or her goal. He or she should be as strong as your hero is.
- The antagonist does not have to be evil. Take the book Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney, which is the sweetest picture book ever written. The Big Nutbrown Hare is the Little Nutbrown Hare’s antagonist, because the Little Nutbrown Hare wants to win and the Big Nutbrown Hare trumps him every time.
- Study the antagonists in the books and movies you grew up with. For example, The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak both have antagonists.
I do believe a story should have inner and outer conflict. You protagonist will always struggle with his own shortcomings. We are own worst enemies, remember, but don’t neglect the outer conflict. Conflict drives fiction. We like it.
by Mia Botha
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