March 4 – 10: “Which do you prefer to write, the protagonist or the antagonist, and why?”

This week: “Protagonists? Antagonists? Which do you prefer to write, and why?” Join ITW Members Mick Sims, Shannon Baker, Phillip Donlay, Jess Faraday, Erin Hart and Anne Petty and they discuss the advantages and disadvantages of both!

Anne C. Petty is the author of horror/dark-fantasy novels The Cornerstone, Thin Line Between, Shaman’s Blood; a Florida Gothic suspense series co-written with P.V. LeForge, three books of literary criticism, and many essays on the craft of writing. Recent short fiction includes her award-winning story “Blade”; a novella “The Veritas Experience” published in The Best Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction of 2009; and “The Real Deal,” included in the anthology Slices of Flesh from Dark Moon Books.

Erin Hart’s archaeological crime novels are set in the mysterious Irish bogs. HAUNTED GROUND (2003), was shortlisted for Anthony and Agatha awards; LAKE OF SORROWS (2004) was a Minnesota Book Award finalist; FALSE MERMAID (2010) made ALA/Booklist’s Top Ten Crime Novels of 2010. THE BOOK OF KILLOWEN will be published in March 2013.

Len Maynard & Mick Sims, Maynard Sims, are authors of six novels, four novellas eight collections. DARK OF THE SUN is their first non-supernatural thriller, but not their last. It has its own website. It features a hero who is quite happy with his lot in life in the Bahamas. Then people start getting killed, and his life is turned upside down and he is dragged into an underworld of intrigue and danger.

A lover of mountains, plains, oceans and rivers, Shannon Baker can often be found traipsing around the great outdoors. She is a member of ITW, MWA, SinC and Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and makes her home in Boulder, CO. TAINTED MOUNTAIN, the first in her Nora Abbott Mystery Series, is set in Flagstaff, AZ, where she lived for several years and worked for The Grand Canyon Trust, a hotbed of environmentalists who, usually, don’t resort to murder.

Philip Donlay has been a flight instructor, flown a private jet for a Saudi prince, and for twenty-eight years flew a corporate jet for a Fortune 500 company. His travels have taken him to over forty countries on five continents. He currently divides his time between Minneapolis and the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of three novels: CATEGORY FIVE, CODE BLACK, and ZERO SEPARATION.

Jess Faraday is the author of the Lambda-shortlisted novel of historical suspense, THE AFFAIR OF THE PORCELAIN DOG. She is also the mystery editor for Elm Books. She lives and writes in the Western United States.



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  1. For me it has to be the protagonist. The protagonist is the heart of the book, the motor that keeps the book running. At least he/she should be! If your character development is up to scratch your protagonist should be going on a journey from the start of the book; learning and growing as circumstances of the plot make him/her question themselves about their beliefs and their view of the world around them, until, by the conclusion, they are changed in some fundamental way. This is far more interesting to write about. The antagonist tends to arrive on the page fully formed (it’s not always the case, but usually) There’s not a great deal of room for character development without undermining the antagonist’s purpose in the book. The behaviour of the antagonist is what asks questions of the protagonist and leads them through the journey.

    At least that’s what I think.

  2. Team Antagonist!

    When I read, I always feel cheated when it turns out the antagonist is “just bad” or “born evil” or clearly invented only because the protagonist needed someone to create conflict. Life is full of conflict, and it affects us all in different ways. Some people rise to the challenge. Others become bent and twisted by it. Some people use a conflict to their advantage, and become the antagonist only because their goals run counter to those of the protagonist—that’s the most interesting kind of story for me.

    T.C. Boyle writes these amazing, convergent stories that spend a lot of time introducing different characters and showing how they came to their points of views and their goals. Then he sets them on an inexorable collision course. This is the kind of story I like to read, and, one day, hope I’ll have the skill to tell.

    For now, though, I really enjoy making both the protagonist and the antagonist complicated, flawed, ultimately sympathetic characters. I give my antagonists a little extra attention, because while it’s accepted that the reader has to understand why a protagonist does what s/he does, it’s still acceptable to give the antagonist short shrift.

    Giving the antagonist depth, a history, and reasons for his/her actions not only makes a richer, more complicated story for the reader, but also gives the protagonist some additional moral dilemmas to consider.

  3. I love my villains, and in the type of books I write my antagonists are often demonic. I see my protagonists as the everyman characters, the ordinary person that readers can relate to. But for me, I have the most fun writing from the POV of the character throwing a wrench in the story arc of the standard protagonist.

    In my latest novel The Cornerstone, the most enjoyable scenes were those where I inhabited the mind of the demonic characters who aren’t mere dumb brutes or monsters. They have a subtle agenda that the protagonist only becomes aware of over the course of the novel.

  4. I’ve been with my protagonist(s) for years. I’ve introduced them to future spouses, helped raise their kids, walked them through relationship issues, and generally propelled them along their way as they struggle with life like the rest of us. In between all of that, they of course do go out and save the day, if not the world. I’m so familiar with my protagonists it’s almost as if I can finish their sentences.
    Which brings me to the antagonist: I tingle in anticipation as I prepare to create something or someone new, both compelling and deadly. Antagonists aren’t always people. In one of my novels, the antagonist was a hurricane. In another, a half-destroyed airliner was the principal antagonist. The way I structure my books, the antagonists aren’t point-of-view characters, so initially the reader only catches a glimpse of the antagonist’s capabilities and intentions. We’re introduced not by dialogue, or back-story, merely by appearance and actions. It’s not much, but it’s more than enough to convey the gravity of the situation. With antagonists, I write with the belief that less is more. We all know that everything is a little scarier when it’s obscured in the shadows. I find it great fun to write the antagonist, turn them into worthy adversaries and then hang everything in the balance. In the end, we see who’s standing, and the better the antagonist, the better my protagonist had to be to prevail. It’s a win-win.

  5. My daughters used to ask me these kinds of questions when they were little. What’s your favorite color? If you could only have one food the rest of your life, what would it be? Because I was raised to be obedient and to always get along, I used to try to answer them truthfully. It frustrated me to come up with a definitive choice. “Blue.” “No, wait. Sometimes, I like red.” “Yellow is cheerful.” “Okay, do you mean my favorite color to wear or to the paint the living room?”
    One day, it dawned on me that I don’t have to answer every question. It’s not a vote and the winner lives and the loser dies. I took a giant step on the road to self-actualization that day and I refuse to go back. So, do I prefer to write protagonists or antagonists? Yes. Yes, I do.
    I love the protagonist because in genre fiction, you usually want to write a character that people root for. So you want to create someone fun to hang out with. I love making up someone smarter, prettier, wittier, and a lot braver than me. There is comfort in knowing that no matter what terrible trials I put her through, she’s going to come out okay in the end. I’m going to batter her and crush her spirit and mash her heart through a meat grinder, but she’s a series character so I’m going to make her stand up to it all and triumph to live for another book.
    I love writing the antagonist, who in my case, is the villain. It’s fun to take some characteristic that is usually noble and good and twist it just a tad to make it all go wrong. Like the protagonist, the antagonist needs to be smart, brave, and determined. In fact, the villain needs to be just a bit more of all that stuff than the hero. I can relate to the villain. Not because I’m so much better than the heroes in my life, but because I can see just how a good intention can lead to evil. Like the Cheerleader Mom who murdered her daughter’s competition: The motive to help her daughter achieve is good but it tipped way to the dark side. That’s interesting stuff. (No, I did not start that nasty rumor about the prom queen candidate and my daughter would have been voted queen even if that other slut hadn’t been outed.)

  6. Thank you Shannon, I was hoping someone would appreciate that line. This was such an interesting topic (One I hadn’t thought all that much about) and it’s insightful to see how other writers feel about the subject.

  7. Interesting question! As a reader, I’m with Jess. I want a whole lotta complexity in all the characters in a crime novel, even —or maybe I should say especially—in villains. (That’s the word I use in my head when thinking about the antagonist. So wonderfully old-fashioned…)

    As I’m writing a novel, I find it somewhat easier to write secondary characters than primary characters for some reason. Maybe it’s the fact that the protagonists are continuing characters in the series, so their development is slower and more measured. Secondary characters can pop in and out as needed (or just as they please!) and it’s especially fun when they show up fully formed when you’re not even trying.

    One of the writers I most admire is P. D. James, and one of the main reasons is that even her antagonists are fully human, with backstory and complex, conflicting feelings and desires. To my mind, all the characters in a novel should be as fully human as possible.

    While I confess that I’m not much of a devotee of the inside-the-head-of-a-serial-killer subgenre, I do enjoy creating characters who walk in the gray space between good and evil, whose motivations and actions might make them guilty—or at least suspects. Many of the people in my stories are loners, outsiders, strange characters not understood by so-called ‘ordinary’ people. So it’s difficult even to characterize some of them as ‘protagonist’ or ‘antagonist’ in the context of the story. I also enjoy giving my leading characters some questionable thoughts or feelings, because we’re all human, and everybody grapples with moral questions about their own beliefs and behaviors. And that’s a good thing.

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