Creating an Antagonist – Lessons from the Theater

Creating a character I know and love is one of the best parts of writing stories, as a book author. To understand a new character, I use a Script Work Outline, borrowed from theater studies. Script work requires actors to go deeper than the lines in a script, and to create a background life for the character. This helps actors to take on a new persona and understand where to place the emotions and actions that will ring true to themselves, and to an audience. As an author, it helps me get to know my character as I write each new book.

Even if a character is a muse, she tends to appear to me mysteriously and more like a dream than a person sitting across from me in real life.

Creating a Villan

Antagonists in stories are characters readers love to hate, villans. But first, the writer has to love the antagonist, in order to bring her to life. I love all my characters, the well-behaved and the ones who do bad things too. Readers of my stories often give me feedback on their feelings about my characters, and empathy for them or revulsion by them.

American Dream

Here is how I go about understanding the voice I’m representing in a new character, with Eva as the example. Eva is the antagonist in my 2nd novel, “American Dream“. The story centers on a young father in a period of clinical depression, who has a controlling older sister. She virtually comes out of the woodwork and into his life when they unexpectedly stand to inherit a family castle in the country. Her actions are quite vile.

I won’t give spoilers, in case you have not yet read the novel, but I share the Script Work Outline I created while writing “American Dream”, as a sample.

The Character Analysis outline below can be used for any character, and I have used it for all the main characters in my stories:

     Character Analysis for an Antagonist

Biography

  • Name: Eva Marcello
  • Age: 32
  • Birthday: Spring, Taurus
  • Physical attributes: Petite, smoker, nervous, pretty
  • Family history, personal relationships: Caretaker for Mother and sometimes brother Danny; Father passed away when Eva was very young, a suicide
  • Job: Banker
  • Pre-occupation: Money, possessions
  • Self image: Positive, capable, infallible

Social

  • Social status: Upper class
  • Social skills: Warped, controlling, insulting
  • Behavior (fashion, manner): Nervous, expensive clothes, smokes, takes stimulants
  • Social contacts: Family contacts from youth, Danny and Mother, doctors, friends from work at the bank, her driver
  • Romantic history: Divorced from a young marriage
  • Politics: Active in politics, conservative in views
  • Goals: Inheritance of family wealth, moving up at work

Psychological

  • Intellectual: Profoundly intelligent, alert, excellent memory
  • Emotional stability: None, excitable, easily disappointed
  • Energy level: Nervously driven, can not lose at any cost
  • Methods of action: Intrigue, manipulation, gossip
  • Limits: Jealous, limited by lack of compassion, lack of understanding feelings-hers and others, fragile nerves, lacks morality

Character Action

  • Status in the beginning: Successful banker
  • Stimulus: Death of Mother
  • Objectives in the plot: Inherit family fortune and have brother Danny declared incompetent
  • Obstacles: Inability to drive, Danny’s dependency, Danny as an heir
  • Way of doing business: Hires people to help her; driver, lawyer, and arsonist
  • Manner: Hyper, vigilant, cannot give up, cannot lose
  • Setbacks: Danny becoming healthy, Danny’s lawyer representing him, attraction to her driver
  • Achievements: Hopes to convince lawyers that Danny is incompetent
  • Status at the end: [This was taken out as a spoiler for new readers.]

~~~

Many of these details are never actually stated in the story “American Dream” at all. Some are not even mentioned nor alluded to in the final draft. Yet thinking through all these back-story items in Eva’s life definitely helped me with her voice and her actions as the story progressed. I used this outline to go back and work on all her dialog during book revisions, so that it would sing the same kind of song she might have.

How do you create your characters, as a writer?

Walking the path

Who are your favorite antagonists, villans? Do you feel like you really know what motivates them?

Please leave a comment to share views with readers, and I’ll look forward to hearing from you.

8 thoughts on “Creating an Antagonist – Lessons from the Theater

  1. I think that to create a believable character you have to know everything there is to know about him. You confirm that I am at least doing that right.
    I write a full bio – I started when I spent a couple of hours searching, amongst several thousand words, to confirm exactly what my character’s beard was like – I’d forgotten!
    Even the details that are never used help me to get to know the character.
    My characters ‘live’ in my head long before I commit them to paper. That way I feel that I know them completely. I know if I have them doing something out of character, it makes dialogue easier and there are times that I feel that they ‘lead’ me rather than the other way round. (I’m a bit nuts, I think).
    I enjoy the villains more than the good guys – they’re so much more interesting to create. The nastier, the better.
    Thanks for the post – very interesting.

  2. Jennifer, I’ve always believed that a villain should be despised. When I notice people liking villains, (Imitating them, dressing up as them for halloween.) I can’t help but feel that the character was not executed properly. Were I to create an antagonist in any medium I would want the character to be hated. My “favorite” villain is Cornelia from the film adaptation of Girl with a Pearl Earring, I want to kill her!

    1. This is a perfect example of a villian well developed, in Girl with a Pearl Earring, thanks Michael. When writing, I’m hoping readers will understand the antagonist and then avoid what leads to those destructive action that follow.

  3. Wow, I really appreciate the glance at another writer’s character planning, it’s definitely helps me to better organise the planning of my own. 🙂 Personally, I tend to randomly brainstorm words to define a character. Problem is, I end up with pages and pages of loosely organised word-clouds, which I gradually hammer and press my characters into.O.o

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