April 9 – 15: “How do you create the antagonist?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Hero or anti-hero? Protagonist or antagonist? If the hero is only as good as his or her enemy, how do you create the antagonist? This week we tap into the creative powers of ITW Members Don Helin, Keith Dixon, Max Karpov, Linda Sands, Robert Black Whitehill, T. G. Wolff, Peter Beck, Kelli Stanley, Lee Goldberg, Humphrey Hawksley and Jacob Stone. Scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along!

Max Karpov is the author of the new Russia thriller The Children’s Game. Karpov is the nom de plume of James Lilliefors, who also writes the Bowers and Hunter mystery series (The Psalmist, The Tempest), featuring Methodist pastor Luke Bowers and homicide detective (and agnostic) Amy Hunter. Karpov/Lilliefors is a native of the Washington, D.C. area. He currently lives with his wife in South Florida.


Robert Blake Whitehill is a screenwriter and author of the award-winning, critically acclaimed, bestselling Ben Blackshaw Thrillers set on Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay. He has written highly rated true crime TV for Discovery, including The New Detectives, as well as UXO (Unexploded Ordnance), a feature script that won Whitehill a fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.


TG Wolff writes thrillers and mysteries that play within the gray area between good and bad, right and wrong. Cause and effect drive the stories, drawing from 20+ years’ experience in Civil Engineering, where “cause” is more often a symptom of a bigger, more challenging problem. Diverse characters mirror the complexities of real life and real people, balanced with a healthy dose of entertainment. TG Wolff holds a Master’s Degree in Civil Engineering and is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.


Peter Beck studied Psychology, Philosophy and Economics in Bern, where he also gained a doctorate in Psychology. He did his military service as a cyclist in the Swiss Army and has a black belt in judo. Having done an MBA in Manchester, UK, he went on to become an executive board member of a large Swiss company and sat on several non-executive boards. Today he is his own boss and divides his time between writing the Tom Winter thrillers and supporting businesses in shaping their culture, organization and strategy. He is fluent in English. His thriller DAMNATION (2018) was originally published in German (Emons Verlag, 2013), has now been translated by Jamie Bulloch and is brought to you by Point Blank, an imprint of Oneworld, twice winner of the Man Booker Prize.


Lee Goldberg is a two-time Edgar & two-time Shamus Award nominee and the #1 New York Times bestselling author of over thirty novels, including the fifteen Monk mysteries and the internationally bestselling Fox & O’Hare books (The Heist, The Chase, The Job, The Scam, The Pursuit) co-written with Janet Evanovich. He’s also written and/or produced scores of TV shows, including Diagnosis Murder, SeaQuest, Monk, and The Glades. As an international television consultant, he has advised networks and studios in Canada, France, Germany, Spain, China, Sweden, and the Netherlands on the creation, writing and production of episodic television series. He recently founded, with author Joel Goldman, the publishing company Brash Books.


Linda Sands is the award-winning author of five novels. Her short stories and essays have appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Walton Sun, Skirt! Magazine, Dogplotz, Moronic Ox, and a bunch of lit mags and anthologies. Most recent awards include Georgia Author of the Year for Mystery and two Silver Falchion Awards for Best Neo-noir and Best PI novel.


Don Helin is the author of five thrillers that draw from his military experience, including three tours in the Pentagon.  His novel, Secret Assault, was selected as the Best Suspense/Thriller at the 2015 Indie Book Awards.



Kelli Stanley is the Macavity Award-winning creator of the Miranda Corbie series (City of Dragons, City of Secrets, City of Ghosts), literary noir novels set in 1940 San Francisco and featuring “one of crime’s most arresting heroines” (Library Journal). She is also a Bruce Alexander Award and Golden Nugget Award winner, and a Shamus Award and Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist. Kelli has also published numerous short stories and essays, holds a Master’s Degree in Classics, and prefers her bourbon neat.


Keith Dixon was born in Yorkshire and grew up in the Midlands. He’s been writing since he was thirteen years old in a number of different genres: thriller, espionage, science fiction, literary. He’s the author of seven novels in the Sam Dyke Investigations series, three in the Paul Storey Thrillers series and two other non-crime works, as well as two collections of blog posts on the craft of writing. When he’s not writing he enjoys reading, learning the guitar, watching movies and binge-inhaling great TV series. He’s currently spending more time in France than is probably good for him.


Humphrey Hawksley is a journalist, author and commentator. His work as a BBC foreign correspondent has taken him to crises on every continent. He was expelled from Sri Lanka, opened the BBC’s television bureau in China, arrested in Serbia and initiated a global campaign against enslaved children in the chocolate industry. The campaign continues today. Hawksley is the author of the acclaimed ‘Future History’ series Dragon Strike, Dragon Fire and The Third World War that explores world conflict. MAN ON ICE is his fourth international political thriller. His work has appeared in the The New York Times, The Guardian, The Times, Financial Times, Yale Global and other publications. His university lectures include Columbia, Cambridge, University College London and the London Business School.


Jacob Stone is the pseudonym for award-winning author Dave Zeltserman. Dave’s crime and horror novels have been picked by NPR, the Washington Post, American Library Association, Booklist, and WBUR as best novels of the year, and his short mystery fiction has won a Shamus, Derringer and two Ellery Queen Readers Choice awards. Dave’s crime noir novel, Small Crimes, has been made into a major motion picture starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Molly Parker, Gary Cole, Robert Forster, and Jacki Weaver, and will be premiering April 28th on Netflix. Several of his other books are currently in film development.


  1. Being in Switzerland and on Central European Time, I’m ahead of the US, so I’ll kick off with my thoughts. At the beginning of every story, my thinking process starts with Tom Winter, the protagonist in my series, who’s head of security of a Swiss private bank. Next, I put him into challenging situations where the odds are stacked against him. That’s where the antagonist comes in. The better he or she is, the more difficult it is for Tom Winter to figure a way out….

    Sometimes the antagonist is clearly visible, sometimes s/he’s in the background like a chess player or a puppeteer. Personally, I prefer the second kind of stories, where the readers have to figure out what’s actually happening. And why. In this kind of world, the antagonist might become a friend. Or be a friend who unexpectedly turns into an adversary.

    Friend or foe? In my eyes, the world is rarely so clear cut. It’s not always a Moriarty like in Sherlock Holmes, or a Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. For me the situations’ moods, dilemmas and complexities surrounding my hero are as important as a super baddie. Since I love twists, I spend a lot of time thinking about the characters’ journeys, motives and passions. A smart, well developed antagonist surprises the hero (and sometimes even me ;-)) and therefore – hopefully – also entertains the readers.

    In one of my books, for example, my hero befriends the police’s obvious suspect. Tom Winter is convinced the guy is innocent (and so readers believe him/me, thinking the suspect must be a red herring). But, right at the end, it turns out that he IS the killer after all and that he had played Winter the whole time.

  2. I admire Peter Beck’s subtle revelation process of who is protagonist and who is antagonist, and keeping that mysterious for as long a possible.

    My Ben Blackshaw stories so far have relied on building anticipation for the inevitable collisions between the hero, Blackshaw,and his clearly defined enemies. So yes, I make it obvious who is who from the very beginning.

    I take a Southern Gothic approach to drawing the antagonist. The name, and the character’s physical description, and his or her traits are as disgusting as I can make them. The antagonists’ motivations may involve some form of megalomania—like that of the psychotic Maynard Chalk in DEADRISE—usually the antagonist’s monstrosity is a virtue carried to an extreme, like patriotism in the upcoming BLAST (2019).

    Five books into the Blackshaw Series, I’m still experimenting with how close to his adversaries Blackshaw strays without completely crossing over to become the very horror he battles.

    Blackshaw does not want to hunt other humans in civilian life after retiring from the SEALs, but all his skills make him the perfect candidate to undertake a global counter-sniper mission for the government in NITRO EXPRESS.

    To locate and destroy human traffickers like the ironically named Joachim DePriest in TAP RACK BANG, Blackshaw must start to think like someone who buys and sells human beings.

    Blackshaw must adapt his world view to that of a repugnant White Supremacist in GERONIMO HOTSHOT.

    These missions take a heavy toll on Blackshaw, inflicting grievous moral injuries upon hi psyche. Post Traumatic Stress is a constant internal adversary all along the way for Blackshaw.

    So for me, Blackshaw defeating the most horrific antagonists means there is no such thing as an unalloyed victory; Blackshaw always loses something along the way. It could mean the loss of a loved one, or realizing a dreaded I-never, that is, committing some act he never thought he would ever do in order to survive and prevail.

    Does the end justify the cost? The answer to that question must never be black and white. It must lie somewhere in the grey range so that Blackshaw readers will have something to think about.

    The antagonist is the anvil against which Blackshaw is reshaped. As author, I wield the hammer of plot.

    Put another way, closure for my reader must feel like mentally stepping into an old, forgotten bear trap. (Picture closing the book covers after reading the last page, but with jagged edges.) The story is over, but the reader’s mind still thrashes in the rusting jaws of the outcome…

    For me, that’s a good antagonist. And yes, that means coping with some pretty spirited emails from astonished readers; thank goodness they keep coming back for the next Blackshaw installment, or I’d be one seriously bummed-out author. I have no other marketable skills…

    1. I love the bear trap / closed book picture!

      The good guy adapting to the world of the baddies (sometimes even crossing over) and loosing something close to his heart during the battle is something I can fully subscribe.

      But sometimes it’s difficult to anticipate, where the trap snaps closed: In my last thriller and “inspired” by all the pets on Facebook & Co I killed my hero’s cat, and – despite it was in the scheme of things a rather minor casualty – got loads of reactions. The readers didn’t like that the baddie cut it’s paws off….;-)

      1. Peter,
        I know what you mean about getting “fan mail” that’s more like hate mail. 🙂 I had a character hit a dog with her car, and leave it to die. Of course, the good guys came along and had a sincere moment with the dying animal and buried it- which I thought vindicated me with readers.. not so much. ;(

        1. Linda Sands, readers are tough customers. Violate the rules that their inner story tellers follow, and wow! Maybe this is exactly how Stephen King germinated the idea for MISERY? All I know is I can’t whip up on my most beloved characters, or my readers come to their defense with torches and pitchforks.

      2. Peter Beck, I have to admit that the death of characters is something I run by my beta readers first before publishing any significant fatality to the larger readership. From what you are saying, I should do this with potentially dead critters, too.

        Blackshaw’s dog, a Chesapeake Bay Retriever named Ginger, was killed in DEADRISE by a bad guy. It evoked considerable outcry from readers, but I was told that the death of the dog-slayer was grim enough to earn me clemency for writing this.

        I was cavalier about killing a major character at the end of Blackshaw Book 3, TAP RACK BANG. The beta readers raised holy hell, and earned the character a reprieve. I am glad I listened, because the character has grown to be a reader favorite.

        Another confession, I first schemed to kill the character mentioned above because I was watching how, with premeditated venality, Game of Thrones on TV was killing any character I grew the least bit attached to, with metronomic regularity. Neat character! Dead. She’s so cool—dead. I thought aping that authorial murder rate would earn some emotional sucker punches. I’ve learned it’s harder to craft a character readers genuinely care about. Watching how they grow and become part of the fabric of the series is better than a manipulative cheap shot.

    2. I too like the bear trap image … Btw, I write a series set in a rural place on the Chesapeake called Tidewater County, Maryland. Although it’s fictitious, it isn’t too far from the Smith Island you write about. Nice region.

      1. I’m very curious, Max Karpov, how you came by your interest in the Eastern Shore/Bay Hundred/Chesapeake environs. I was born and raised there. A fascinating place. My Ben Blackshaw hero could only be from there. Will you share websites, or point-of-sale links to your Tidewater County series?

        1. Robert, I grew up in the D.C. area and loved visiting the Shore and boating on the Bay and its tributaries as a kid. I envy you growing up there … Yes, the real Shore is a fascinating place. I haven’t heard the words Bay Hundred for a while, by the way. Will send you a link about the Tidewater County novels!

  3. I have two series of crime novels and the villains in each series are designed differently. In my Sam Dyke Investigations series, the villains have become more ‘larger-than-life’ as the series has progressed. I try to fix on a memorable name early on because I want it to stick in the reader’s mind, and the name then helps me to generate a larger-than-life persona. I guess this is the Ian Fleming route! Dr No, Goldfinger, Scaramanga etc … However, I also try to give the villain a believable back-story and motivation. Most thriller villains are motivated by money or revenge or power, I guess, but the stories they tell to themselves may well be different – they’re bound to justify themselves to themselves, so find ‘reasons’ for what they do. I’m interested in how they can continue to function when their reasons seem so outlandish to we ‘ordinary’ people.

    These books, while told largely in the first person by Sam Dyke, also move into the third person to investigate the bad guys’ motivation and thinking, so they’re revealed early on in the process. There’s no mystery who they are – just how the story is going to work itself out.

    My Paul Storey Thrillers series works slightly differently. While told in the third person largely from the perspective of Paul Storey, they again shift into the perspective of other characters, rather like in the novels of Elmore Leonard. In fact the other characters may have almost as much ‘air time’ as Storey himself. In these books, the villains are less outlandish, more ordinary, and this gives me the opportunity to explore their inner lives even more thoroughly because they’re not outlandishly large personalities. In fact, the characters have often been drawn from real life events – stories which have interested me in newspapers or online and which I want to investigate by fictionalising them. Again, there’s no mystery as to who they are but I suppose the difference is that I’d rather like the reader to empathise a little with the bad guys rather than simply see them destroyed.

    1. Keith Dixon, I appreciate both your approaches. Yep, the Blackshaw villains are always larger than life. A virtue or fear carried to an extreme. I also go third-person, a different character’s point of view in each character, but I adopt the speaking style, pattern, and vernacular of the character through whose eyes the chapter is being seen. It’s not horrifically drastic. Keeps it fun for me. RBW

  4. In my first three romantic suspenses the antagonists are clear from the start–the gangster ex-wife in hiding, the kidnapper etc but in my current story I wanted to have a sense of unease, building to fear as my heroine is stalked in her home with odd things happening for no discernible reason. When the antagonists do appear she doesn’t realise the danger and neither does (I hope) the reader, until they show their hand.

    I’ve enjoyed writing this but it takes meticulous interweaving of snippets of backstory, lying not just to someone else but also in the heroine’s case to herself, omission of information in dialogue while still staying true to the story thread of events so there are no gaps and annoying leaps of fact when the truth comes out.

    My pair of antagonists here are ultimately tragic cases with, I hope, understandable motives given their situations. Black and white in their actions but with massive grey areas.

    1. Elisabeth Rose, your approach sounds very cool. A tragic antagonist. That is difficult. I admire your undertaking it. But then, folks who seem always swept up in drama are tremendously damaging, therefore tragic, to those closest to them. RBW

  5. In my Russia novel THE CHILDREN’S GAME, the chief antagonist is a fellow named Vladimir Putin. But while Putin himself figures in one long chapter, much of the (Russian) villainy in the book is orchestrated by the man Putin has hired: a billionaire private-security contractor and former FSB officer named Andrei Turov. Because he’s not directly tied to the Kremlin, Turov offers Putin plausible deniability, in addition to a brilliant strategic plan and the resources to pull it off. Turov is a conflicted character, though, torn between family and country and haunted by a nagging distrust of the man he works for and admires; he fears that even if their operation, code-named “the children’s game,” is successful, Putin could still turn against him. Even as he plays high-stakes chess with the book’s US protagonist, former CIA officer Christopher Niles, Turov is in a chess match with Putin.

    I agree with Peter Beck that the distinction between friend and foe isn’t always clear cut in real life and probably shouldn’t be in fiction, either. A memorable antagonist is often ambiguous and mysterious, but fallibly human, someone who can evoke hatred and disgust but also pathos and empathy.

    Years ago, I interviewed Robert Ludlum and one of the things he said that stayed with me was that when he begins a new novel, he focuses first on developing a strong antagonist. “Even more than the protagonist, I start with the antagonist,” he said. Ultimately, the most satisfying stories are the ones in which protagonist and antagonist seem in some way evenly matched, with the outcome uncertain until the end – and sometimes not even then.

    1. With Putin featuring prominently in THE CHILDREN’S GAME, I just hope you won’t be poisoned (or just disappear). Were there no strange “friends” approaching you on Facebook or so?

      1. Yes, something to be concerned about these days. I live in South Florida and when I saw Putin’s address on nuclear weapons several weeks ago, with the animation of a nuke striking Florida, my first thought was, “Well, he must’ve heard about the book.”

  6. I write international political thrillers as well as doing journalism and non-fiction and have to admit to a challenge in separating one from the other. My latest thriller Man on Ice pits a Russian antagonist against an American hero on the border in the frozen Bering Strait with each character encapsulating in some way or other the vision and values of his country. When setting out I asked myself how compelling Churchill would have been without Hitler. While Churchill was a lion of a figure, it was Hitler who set the pace. Politically, Hitler exploited the fury and humiliation of a defeated Germany’s stripped dignity and, with through own festering personal vulnerabilities, powerful oratory and monstrous tendencies, he delivered war and the Holocaust. The really interesting characters striding the world stage today are Trump, Assad, possibly Kim Jung-un and Hungary’s authoritarian Viktor Orban who has just won a near-landslide on a nationalist, anti-immigration platform, and Putin whom I suspect will be the most enduring, as Max Karpov is showing us. With Russia stakes are always high. Man on Ice is set in a post-Putin backdrop, but far from vanishing on Putin’s exit, the hostile forces driving Russia have gathered pace, as they did in Iraq, Libya, Egypt and other places once the dictators were toppled. The antagonist is commander of Russia’s Far East Military District whose fury and humiliation stretches back past the fall of communism, the Chechen and Afghan wars, the disputed US-Russian border to the unfair 1867 Alaska purchase and, like a tongue unable to stay off a sore tooth, is embedded in the guilt of his unresolved personal life. The protagonist tasked to stop him is a regular guy who wants to keep his community and girlfriend safe.

  7. I’m a firm believer that “the bad guy” has to be as smart or, preferrably, smarter than my hero…and someone whose personality and actions will highlight all the weaknesses and conflicts that make my hero who he is.

    I also make sure my “bad guy” is more than just a bad guy…he’s someone with his own agenda, his own demons, his own needs, someone who has more going on in his life than whatever criminal act he is engaged in (or that he has already committed). Rarely is anyone just pure evil for evil’s sake…except in cartoons, Batman episodes, or James Bond movies.

    I always try to look at the story from the bad guy’s point of view and ask myself what he’d be doing if he was the hero…and if my protagonist was, in his view, the “bad guy.” I have to invest as much thought in my bad guy as do in my hero if the story is going to work.

    You can learn a lot about making bad guys rich characters by watching THE SOPRANOS, a show that’s ostensibly all about the bad guys. Sure, they killed people, but they also had mortgages to pay, worried about their kids, read the morning paper, had all the responsibilities, hopes, dreams, and anxieties that “good guys” have. They didn’t wake up each day and ask themselves “what evil can I do today…mwa-ha-ha.”

    I learned to make my bad guys fully-rounded characters, with lives and goals of their own, from watching COLUMBO…and later working for Stephen J. Cannell…and reading Elmore Leonard and Larry McMurtry.

    On COLUMBO, we spent the first half-hour of each episode watching the bad guys, getting into their lives, understanding why they had to kill. But what ultimately made COLUMBO such a pleasure was that he was always outmatched by the bad guys…and beat them anyway. The smarter the bad guys were, the smarter he had to be to beat them. Or, to put it another way, the best bad guys brought out the best in Columbo.

    It was Steve Cannell, one of my mentors, who taught me to always ask myself “What is the bad guy doing?” “What does the bad guy want?” “What is the bad guy thinking about?” in every scene where the bad guy wasn’t on screen. The bad guy always had to be doing something, not sitting around waiting for the detective to catch him or simply throwing obstacles in the detective’s way.

    Elmore Leonard and Larry McMurtry (in his westerns) made their “villains” as likeable, layered and interesting as their heroes…in fact, some times they were even more compelling. Leonard and McMurtry excelled at creating likeable, funny, believable psychopaths and killers.

    The bottom line: having a strong antagonist makes your hero stronger and your story better.

    1. COLUMBO is an excellent example for well developed baddies…

      And I have to admit that I mentally spend more time with my hero than with the villain. I guess this is easier and more natural, but I’ll try to keep one more thing in my mind.

    2. I like the idea of the bad guy having a presence in every scene even when he’s off stage. And how a clever antagonist can lift the protagonist to a new level – like an athlete rising to the occasion because of his competition. Which is what Columbo always did … It’s true about Elmore Leonard: his characters are so interesting you don’t think of them as “bad guys.”

    3. I’m a huge Columbo fan. I think he was my first favorite TV detective. In a way, it shouldn’t be interesting. We know who did it. We know Columbo is going to catch him. Yet every episode I was glued to the TV.

      Just one more thing, Mr. Goldberg…

    4. Lee, I agree with you about the bad guy needing to be fully formed–there has to be a reason for him to be where he is and wanting the things he wants. He has to be able to be the hero in his own book, in effect. In crime fiction probably more than in a thriller he doesn’t necessarily need to be as smart as the hero, but he has to be dangerous. His threat to the hero has to be palpable. In the Netflix series Jessica Jone, the antagonist in the first season is a character named Kilgrave. He doesn’t appear exceptionally smart–in fact he’s a bit aimless and very much a narcissist, but he is a very dangerous, and he ended up making a highly engaging antagonist who carried the show.

  8. Hi Everyone:I’m delighted to participate in this Thriller Round Table with many of my friends. Thanks to ITW for inviting me.
    As I write I try to remember what James Frey said in his book, HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL. “The Secret of writing a successful novel is the art of holding the readers gripped in a slowly rising conflict. The secret of slowly rising conflict is to think in terms of attacks and counter attacks as if evenly-matched protagonist and antagonist were conducting a war.”
    With my military background this makes a lot of sense to me. If your antagonist isn’t able to match your protagonist, it won’t be much of a battle and drop the conflict.
    My other thought is no one is all good or all bad. Just like the protagonist needs some warts, the antagonist should have some pluses. This makes him believable.
    More on this later.
    I look forward to the discussion.

  9. Peter,
    I know what you mean about getting “fan mail” that’s more like hate mail. 🙂 I had a character hit a dog with her car, and leave it to die. Of course, the good guys came along and had a sincere moment with the dying animal and buried it- which I thought vindicated me with readers.. not so much. ;(

      1. In my series, Ben Blackshaw’s Chesapeake Bay Retriever was killed in Book 1, Deadrise, but the killer had a bullet dig out a canoe in his skull for his trouble. Readers were good with that. Felt it was fitting. RBW

        1. Sadly, since I love dogs, I had to kill some also in a noir novel and a dark crime thriller (as well as suggest their gruesome demise in a horror novel), but this was before the readers had a chance to develop a relationship with them. I think in a thriller series you’re risking alienating readers killing off a dog they’ve gotten to know.

          btw. regarding fan/hate mail–when Robert Parker died the Boston Globe profiled me and some other local crime writers as possibly be the next faces of Boston crime novels. At the time I had just published a pitch black noir novel with about as extreme and unlikable noir protagonist you could find, and as far removed as any crime novel could be from Parker’s Spenser books, and that got me a flood of hate mail from Parker fans wanting to let me know that I’m no Parker. No kidding. But the lesson, no matter what book you write, there are going to be readers unhappy with it, and if their expectations were wrongly set, you’re going to get hate mail.

          1. Unpleasant though that sort of reaction is it’s kind of good that people take reading and books so much to heart.

            A literary writer friend of ours said (long before I started writing) that Communist Russia took their artists so seriously they locked them up for their views whereas in Australia at the time the arts had no influence on anyone and no one cared what they wrote.

  10. I agree with Lee. Making your antag smart and complex leads to a more complex and therefore more interesting hero/ protag.
    People are complicated, and cliched versions of the norm will have me tossing the book across the room.
    In my book, 3 Women Walk into a Bar, it may be tough to figure out who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy. Like in real life, you have to dig beneath the surface to reveal true identities, and even then, you can expect a twist.
    Isn’t this what keeps the reader turning pages?

  11. Your so right, Linda Sands. But my unresolved conundrum is how good can you make the bad guy and vice versa. Where is that tipping point where readers aren’t sure who they want to win? On the international stage, Putin, is a fascinating antagonist because, unlike Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt, Mao and others, he’s still writing history. Max Karpov draws that web of cross loyalties and leverage in THE CHILDREN’S GAME. Here in Britain, now, we have the government demonising Putin because of the nerve agent attack on former spy Sergei Skirpal and his daughter Yulia, while the opposition is demanding more evidence. Very murky.

    1. Yes, Humphrey, agree that Putin is a historic figure whose role in history is still TBD. In the States, we have a different kind of murky over Putin, largely because of the man in the White House (and his peculiar, still not fully understood, relationship with Russia).

  12. The protagonists may get the glory but without the antagonists, our hero doesn’t get out behind his desk. I don’t care for flat characters. They don’t challenge me as a writer; they don’t entertain me as a reader. As such, I spend as much time on the antagonist as I do on the protagonist, even though they may get only 5% of the word play.

    In every story I craft, the antagonist comes first. He/She drives the events that gives our hero something to respond to.
    So how do I create them. I start with what they did. This is usually simple enough. The murdered someone.

    Then comes the why and the related who. The quality of the storytelling depends on the why being solid and logical (to the antagonists mind). As the “why” evolves, the details of the antagonist emerge. I discover what he/she is passionate about, what life events shaped them, and where they are emotionally. I learn who loved them and who they loved. The best antagonists are the ones the reader can empathize with, which makes it my job to connect his/her life to the readers. The antagonists need to be developed well enough that I can tell the same story from their point of view and it still works.

    Finally comes the how. Once the play-by-play of the crime emerges, the process pivots and the protagonists gets off his/her lazy butt and gets to work.

  13. Since I also write noir and horror, my protagonists in those books could very well be an antagonist in one of my thrillers. Whether the character is my protagonist or antagonist, I flesh out a full backstory for the character and when I write them I try to get in their heads so that their actions and thought process make logical sense for those characters. I like intelligent characters, and I like my protagonists and antagonists to be clever. They’re have weaknesses and foibles like we all do, and they’ll make mistakes , but they’ll be mistakes that make sense for them to make under the circumstances, and never simply to advance the plot. So to answer the question for this round table discussion: I create my antagonists exactly the same way as I create my protagonists, but they sometimes will have darker impulses and less benevolent motives driving them.

    1. A little more about noir. You can put 20 writers together and come up with 20 different definition, so let me use Otto Penzler’s definition which he published in his Best American Noir of the Century anthology, which is how I think of noir and is the type I write:

      “Noir is about losers. The characters in these existential, nihilistic tales are doomed. They may not die, but they probably should, as the life that awaits them is certain to be so ugly, so lost and lonely, that they’d be better off just curling up and getting it over with. And, let’s face it, they deserve it.

      Pretty much everyone in a noir story (or film) is driven by greed, lust, jealousy or alienation, a path that inevitably sucks them into a downward spiral from which they cannot escape. They couldn’t find the exit from their personal highway to hell if flashing neon lights pointed to a town named Hope. It is their own lack of morality that blindly drives them to ruin.”

      In these types of noir stories, you can have as an antagonist someone trying to do good (i.e. trying to catch your noir anti-hero and restore moral justice to the universe), which in effect reverses things by having the reader rooting for the doomed bad guy to get away with it. As an example, in Double Indemnity, Keyes being Huff’s antagonist. You can also have someone just as bad or worse than your noir protagonist who’s making his situation more dire, like the way Staples does to Frank Dillon in A Hell of a Woman. With these types of noir stories, the noir protagonist is doomed by his crossing a moral line where there’s no coming back from, and nothing is going to save him or her.

      While this is unique to crime capers, which are not quite noir, but still involves criminals trying to pull off a crime of some sort (often a heist) is the interloper–an antagonist who stumbles on the plans and screws everything up. Richard Stark used this brilliantly in The Seventh.

  14. Conflict always drives narrative. Whether that conflict is in the shape of a human antagonist (as opposed to nature, circumstances, or even a deity (the story of Job), the actions and reactions of the protagonist are the result of that conflict.

    Noir and its close cousin tragedy are examples of the conflict originating at least partly in the body of the protagonist himself (Hamlet, Oedipus, Walter Huff). The primary antagonist of such a story can often be a symbol of a more monolithic problem, too–organized crime, societal corruption, racism or bigotry, etc.

    Because I write PI novels, most of my words–and certainly the perspective–is centered around my protagonist, Miranda Corbie. Miranda’s motivation for taking a case often revolves around her sense of justice–a justice that the police or dominant culture often mishandles or ignores.

    To be honest, I’ve never been a fan of “super villains” like Professor Moriarty or Hannibal Lecter. Most criminals aren’t that smart. What’s important to me is that all characters, major or minor, sympathetic or antagonistic, are believable within the framework I build (1940 San Francisco), historically accurate and psychologically plausible. Whether or not an antagonist is more clever than Miranda isn’t as critical as the fact that she is successful at hiding something (a secret, a psychosis) and hold the edge in power throughout most of that particular narrative.

    I’ve used historical figures like Mickey Cohen as characters–and in this case, though Mickey is clearly Mickey, he does Miranda a favor because it furthers his own agenda. He’s not an antagonist in this instance but could easily become one in another story. By the same token, I’ve written about complex characters who are driven to an act of crime and who are more victim than antagonist.

    Fundamentally, the most important rule for me is to write three-dimensional stories about three-dimensional people, regardless of their role in the overall and secondary conflicts. Conflict is where you find it, whether in the actions of a seemingly upstanding person or the surprising courage of a career criminal.

  15. Dave,
    I love how you quote Penzler on the NOIR definition. And, as someone who has read and admired your work, I must say, you have the complex character down.

    What do you all have to say about this statement: The protagonist cannot be the antagonist.


    1. Thanks, Linda, for your kind words. In noir, at least the noir that follows Otto Penzler’s definition, we flip things around where the protagonist is the character we should be rooting against–he’s done at least one unforgivable act. We follow him as he’s desperately trying to escape his fate, and in the best noir, we (the readers) find ourselves being suckered into hoping that he somehow makes it. But even given this, he could have his own antagonists, such as in the examples I mentioned in my second. So I guess you can say noir is complicated… and really, any noir anti-hero could be written as the antagonist in a book focused on one of the other characters. Similarly, almost any Ross Macdonald book could be rewritten the guilty party’s perspective as classic noir (and I’d love to get permission to rewrite The Chill as a noir novel).

    2. Jo Nesbo’s Blood On Snow. Olav is a’ fixer’ for a crime boss but he is an immensely sympathetic character who, in another story would easily be the straightforward, dreaded antagonist. In this one you know he can’t logically or morally survive but really hope he might.

      Similar scenario is used in the brilliant movie The Professional with Jean Reno as a hitman.

      Are they both protagonist and antagonist? It depends on POV.

  16. This discussion is really drilling down and I am learning a lot. Many thanks to José and ITW for inviting and arranging. Working with Kelli Stanley’s concept of tragedy and conflict and David Zeltserman’s apt use of the great Otto Penzler’s ‘Noir is about losers’ Syria’s Assad came to mind as over the next few hours he’s likely to be pitted against America’s Trump. Until his mid-thirties Assad and his wife Asma were a fashionable middle-class couple. He was a junior eye doctor in a London hospital where colleagues spoke of his diligence and kindness. Assad was then summoned to inherit is father’s dictatorship. He began with a vision to bring democracy to Syria, but soon found himself boxed in by his father’s brutal security agencies and networks of corruption. Then, came the seeds of street rebellion that he had little idea how to handle, so they got worse and this inexperienced London eye doctor was left with the choice of running away or defending his family and his community, by whatever means necessary. Given that Trump is simultaneously villified character, albeit for different reasons, this is where Elisabeth Rose’s comment is so apt that antagonist/protaganist all depends on the POV.

    1. Good summary of how Assad rose/descended to his current position as a vilified character on the international stage. Assad is a good example of how an antagonist can be forged through the very human process of responding to pressure and responsibility. Agree with Kelli Stanley about conflict. Whether a character is an antagonist or protagonist often comes down to how he/she handles conflict – whether they’re able to summon grace or whether the conflict stirs up ugly self-preservation tendencies. Assad (and Trump) would not seem to fall in the first category.

  17. Is it the case that for the widest audience, readers need to know, like and care for the protaganist, and the more the antagonist makes the skin crawl and anger rise the better to final showdown will be?

  18. Humphrey,
    I have noticed a new crime fiction trend in the psychological crime/drama area of books: the unlikeable protag who readers end up cheering for. Sometimes called the “whiny” protag, at first you’ll be put off, and later find yourself cheering for her/him, sort of like the underdog theory, or when you kinda sorta “like” the serial killer in a Dexter-ish way.
    Maybe I’m noticing this because I wrote a similar character in a new standalone that’s looking for a home. I even gave it a title to honor one of my favorite authors, Elmore Leonard. 🙂
    What do you all think about the whiny protag, the unlikeable hero?

  19. Thanks, Linda. The challenge with this, I suspect, is to identify the tipping point at which the reader discards the story because of its unsympathetic ‘whiny’ protaganist and to draw that tricky line between a genuine loser or characters who are down on their luck or cornered by greater powers and have to get smart to find a way out. You made me ponder this and I think in the UK we have a tendency toward the ‘whiny’ protaganist.

  20. Noir has as many definitions as a hydra has heads, as Dave points out, though I’ve tried to corral it a bit and came up with a 10-point guideline a number of years ago.

    Humphrey, you bring up an interesting case study. If a writer or filmmaker wants to elicit our empathy and compassion for, say, a hired killer, the assassin is typically portrayed as one with boundaries that seem to make that person less of a sociopath. That’s because we, as human beings, normally need to feel that the person we spend the most time with, through close perspective and story, is not irredeemable … that they are capable of change or (in the case of someone morally reprehensible), a surprising act of contrition or heroism. We need that hope in order to feel the empathy the author is trying to create, or (as is often the case in tragedy or noir), we need to see the person punished for not being capable of change.

    In real life, however–the example you use–it doesn’t usually work that way. And I personally don’t subscribe to the theory that there are no moral absolutes.

    Whatever pressures Assad felt or feels, one would argue that his inherited position merely brought his true nature to the fore, as Max’s comment suggests. He, like war criminals in the past, has proven he is willing to do anything, no matter how heinous, in order to hold on to power.

    Trump is a sociopath on par with Hitler in terms of his ability to attract a fervid, completely irrational cult following, and is doing more damage to the U.S. than any person or event since the Civil War. Whoever the power structure behind him is (signs pointing to an unholy confederation of Russian oligarchy, organized crime, the NRA and far-right interests like the Kochs, Sinclair broadcasting, etc.), he and his enablers are bent on demonizing immigrants, people of color and Muslims, punishing the poor, eradicating the middle class, allowing monopolistic corporations an unfettered ability to profit at the expense of people and the planet, and erode or eliminate democratic participation and civil rights.

    In other words, I don’t see anyone but antagonists here, nor do I consider POV to be relevant. Both of these men are capable of further destruction, and Trump is arguably the more insane and dangerous of the two, at least on a global scale.

    I see people–common, working, fighting-to-survive people–as the only protagonist in our current conflicts. And I hope and pray we prevail.

    1. To these real-world antagonists we could also add Putin, Kim Jong Un, Duterte, Erdogan and a few others. Geo-politics is in a scary state. I see protagonists eventually emerging, though, some of them from within the power structures – particularly in the States, because of the tradition of “democracy” here. But that tradition is being tested and altered because of the aberration in the White House. These would be “common, working, fighting-to-survive” people, I agree, and also people who want to hold on to simple, enduring concepts such as morality and truth. The stuff that makes us human.

  21. I like the “We need to see the person punished for not being capable of change,” very much, Kelli, and used Trump and Assad as they are characters we all know and have views on. That made me think about George W Bush who wrought damage but is more opaque as either a good guy or a bad guy. I was trying to think of a universal ‘whiny’ character mentioned by Linda. Lear cam to mind, but there must be many more.

  22. Lear and Hamlet are two huge fictional characters who allow destiny/fate/hostile powers control them without getting the upper hand. Jack Reacher, Hannibal Lecter and….let’s find another… are imbued with a self-certainty that they will finally overcome and control their own destiny.

  23. Multiple antagonists?

    When I look at my own thrillers and crime novels (leaving out noir) I find that I tend to have multiple antagonists with competing interests. Sometimes they’re aware of each other, sometimes not. Sometimes loyalties shift–there might be times when one or more of them might appear to be in league with the protagonist until an event changes that.

    How about other writers here?

  24. A common form of this, Dave, is probably the protagonist cop or spy up against bad or stupid people in his or her own organization as well as the main antagonist, prompting the reader to ask which is the bigger challenge. To take the Syria analogy again, the protagonist could be an undercover agent in Damascus tracking Assad. But, to succeed he has to deal with Trump, Bolton, a snake-pit of bureaucracy as well as the Syrian and Russian agencies which have discovered him and are chasing.

    1. Humphrey, to expand on our example, it could be someone under Bolton who has been corrupted and has his own agenda which requires the protagonist to fail spectacularly.

  25. True – about the multiple antagonists and protagonists IF you have a strong subplot. Right?
    Think about it. Every story has a “romantic” element. Not necessarily used as the main plot, but always as an undercurrent. As my friend, Bob Butler teaches, “There must be yearning.”
    In a romantic subplot to a thriller, the protag/antag might be in love with her partner, or might be in love with booze, or money or power.
    In a screenplay, these additional characters might be called secondary, might not even be assigned a name, but in books, we should be approaching and developing the subplot with as much care and complexity as the main plot.
    I’m going to use that idea as I write today and see how deep I can go with the minor characters. ( all of which can be cut, but hopefully will lead to a deeper understanding of the main conflict and tension in the storyline… like why is the secondary protag/antag even here?)

    1. and sometimes it’s not so much a subplot as two parallel story lines t5hat may or may not intersect. Or what appears to be the main story line turns out to be secondary as is subsumed by a “subplot” that takes over the story.

  26. Are there not two separate categories here? In the UK there is ‘crime’ whereby the protagonist sifts through several potential antagonists to unveil the real villain at the end. This is Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle, Ian Rankin etc. Then there is ‘thriller’ whereby the protagonist is up an identifiable threat which he or she needs to stop as in Forsyth, Clancy, Le Carre, Furst, etc. In ‘crime’ the main antagonist’s identity is not known until the last pages and readers juggle several possibilities. In ‘thriller’ the real antagonist can be known from the start twists and turns come from how he, or it is stopped.

    1. Even two of the most well-known “traditional” mysteries, Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe, can at times enter into thriller territory, with each having their own dangerous antagonist (Moriarty and Arnold Zeck). In hardboiled crime fiction, the PI can be imperiled, even if he/she is not sure who is after him. Classic hardboiled PI novels Red Harvest and The Dain Curse certainly have a thrillerish feel with the Continental Op being shot at and almost being blown up and facing other deadly threats. So I would think there are a wide variety of crime/mystery fiction that can be considered thrillers with all different shades of antagonists where some are known, some are hidden, and some where relationships can shift–antagonist becomes and ally and visa versa.

      1. I read thriller a long time ago where we followed the protagonist through all the twists and turns on his mission to bring down the bad guy but it ended with his capture and imprisonment and one of the bleakest endings I’ve ever read. Instead of the expected daring last minute recuse or escape, the antagonist gave the protagonist regular heroin injections until he was a helpless addict. I can’t remember the author, plot or title but that ending stayed with me.

  27. Many thanks ITW, Jose and the very thoughtful debaters. My learning curve went high. Not sure if we had any conclusion or, indeed, if that was our aim. One Pavlovian reaction I have to non-writers who talk about thriller writing being ‘formulaic’ is that I have never known a formula which involves a web of paradoxes, a lunge into the unknown, layers of high-risk and, even then, getting it right most often remains a crap shoot. I’m to Balkans this week but back again after that. Until then….

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