Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Antagonists: Depths and Motives

It has been a long time since I’ve blogged about TV. I know everyone is dying to know what my latest TV obsession is (Merlin, thanks a lot Sabrina), but I’m going to talk about an earlier obsession, Avatar, the Last Airbender.

NOT THIS (Trust me if you haven’t seen this movie, don’t)


Yes, it is a cartoon.

The Premise

There are four nations each with the ability to bend one of the four elements: water, earth, fire, and wind. Every generation the Avatar is born who is the only one with the ability to bend all four elements. The Avatar keeps peace and brings balance to the four nations.

When the Fire Nation starts a war with the other nations, the Avatar disappears. One hundred years later, a water bender finds an iceberg with Aang (the new Avatar) frozen in it and frees him, but now the Fire Nation has nearly conquered the world. So Aang (A twelve-year-old boy) needs to master all the bending forms and defeat the Fire Lord to bring peace back to the four kingdoms.

The series

You really have to watch a few episodes to appreciate it, but it has all the elements of great storytelling: an overall complex plot, deep characters with rich back stories, an imaginative and fully realized world, and it is really, really funny. It just goes to show you that great storytelling can be found anywhere.

There is a lot to learn from this three season series, but the one thing that stood out the most to me was the main antagonist, Prince Zuko.

Prince Zuko

Prince Zuko is the one in the back
He is the prince of the Fire Nation who was disgraced and banished. He has to capture the Avatar in order to be able to regain his honor and return home to reclaim his birthright. He is intelligent, unrelenting, assiduous, and has some serious anger issues. He is a formidable foe for Aang and his friends.

Over the course of the series Zuko’s backstory is slowly revealed: his insecurities, his loss of his mother, and his desire to be accepted by his father. This enriches his character, strengthens his motive, and makes him very sympathetic.

I’ve heard the advice to make your antagonist the hero of his own story, and this series illustrates why this advice works. In fact, after a few episodes of watching Zuko’s character developing and how Zuko’s storyline often parallels Aang’s, it becomes apparent that Aang and Zuko are both protagonists, only on different sides. And I started to be equally invested in both their stories and hoped that they would unite against the Fire Lord, Zuko’s father, and turn from enemies to allies.

Not every story can or should develop the antagonist to this extent. Some stories really need an under-developed big bad especially when the antagonist is more of a symbol of evil than a character (like Sauron in LOTR). But most of the time, adding some depth to the antagonist strengthens the story.

Pros of having a well-developed antagonist

Increases or deepens the conflict-The stronger the motive of the antagonist, the stronger the conflict is.

Zuko doesn’t just want to capture Aang. He needs to. He is banished from his home and stripped of his honor. The only way he can return home and become the heir to the fire nation is to capture the Avatar. There is no other option for him, and he is determined and obsessed and this just ratchets up the tension.

Makes the plot more interesting-A lot of times, the antagonist drives the plot as much as the hero, so if you have an interesting, well-developed antagonist with real motivations and goals and not just acting like a plot device, your plot will be a lot more interesting.

Zuko always behaved intelligently and true to his character, this put Aang and his friends in a lot of sticky situations, and it was interesting to watch them get through it. When Zuko did make a mistake, it was true to his character and not just a plot device to help the protagonist out (see the Evil Overlord List).

Everything is more dramatic-When the antagonist is seen as a real person and not just some two-dimensional evil overlord, the conflict feels more real. It becomes two real people fighting for different goals, and even if it is clear who is right, just knowing that each have a clear, strong motive, makes the whole thing more dramatic.

When Zuko and Aang fight, knowing what each of them is fighting for and what each of them has to lose makes the fight scenes so much more dramatic and exciting.

The con

The antagonist could take over the story. The stronger, character-wise, the antagonist is, the stronger the protagonist needs to be. Otherwise the audience will start cheering for the antagonist.

In Avatar, they purposely made Zuko as important to the story as Aang. I have to admit that Zuko was my favorite character, but Aang and his friends were just as strong, just as well-developed, and really I loved them all.

Like I said before, not every antagonist needs to be this well-developed, a lot of great stories don’t. But if it can work for your story, it is worth the effort. Personally I love a real, complicated, deep bad guy or girl.

Okay, now I think I need to work a little more on my antagonists. :)



  1. I love Airbender! But I really have to laugh at this because I'm actually going to post about the show too this week - from a very different angle, however. Great minds think alike.

    Anyway, you've heard about this, right? I'm super, super excited. April 14th!

  2. YAY! Sabrina please, please, please, do your post on Airbender this week. I'd love to see what you have to say. Honestly, I could blog about this show for a year. I think they do so many things right.

    I have heard about The Legend of Korra. It looks awesome. It is one of the few reasons I wish I still had cable. :)

  3. MaryAnn! This is one of my favorite shows of all time because the storyline is just so amazing. I can't think of many stories that even begin to match it. Aang and Zuko made for such a compelling story that I was nearly obsessed with the show when I finally sat down to watch it. I should probably have a writers day at my house or something where a bunch of my writer friends come and watch Airbender all day... oh the memories to be made. :D

  4. A friend of mine keeps trying to convince me to watch this show, but his reasons were never so well-articulated. Alright. You've convinced me to give it a try.

    Hurray! It's on netflix instant. And double hurray! It's something my kids will enjoy too. Now I can't wait for them to get home from school.

    On a more scholarly level--I struggle to make my antagonist sympathetic. In one of my books, I accidentally made him so sympathetic that he's everyone's favorite character. I've decided to make him the main character of the sequel, if there ever is one. All my other villains stubbornly remain 2-dimensional. You've given me some great ideas.

  5. I'm off to put it on instant queue now. Sounds like a great show.
    And excellent advice on antagonists - it's something I struggle with, too.

  6. Okay, I'll admit that when you describe the premise it sounds like exactly the sort of thing that my kids and possibly husband would love but I would be unable to sit through... but then you piqued my curiosity by saying it was funny. That's my weakness in cartoons. Both my children were practically raised on Jimmy Neutron when they were too young for it because I couldn't get enough of the writing...

    So I'll check it out. Age recommendations?

    It's hard work making a sympathetic antagonist, because if your motivation & premise aren't rock-solid, you'll end up mired in a series of questions: But why doesn't he just...? Whenever I try to sort out my antagonist's motivations I start to feel like I need to write an entire prequel just to get my story straight. This is a problem. It's just so much easier to say "Because he's evil, darn it!!" and be done with the whole thing. But of course you're right, and evil for the sake of evil only works in a very specific kind of story. Great post, as always!

  7. @Jayrod-YAY!! Another fan. I got pretty obsessed with it once I got started. My poor kids started out liking the show, but ended up groaning every time I turned to it. They got sick of it, but to be fair they were really young then. I think they'd like it more now.

    @Melanie-I think it is very easy for a sympathetic villian to steal the show if he/she is redeemable in any way. I love to see a bad guy turn good. I think it appeals to the idea that we, humans, are capable of change and that there is fundamentally goodness in all of us. Those themes really appeal to me.

    @Susan-glad it was helpful. I hope you enjoy the show. I think it takes a few episodes before you start seeing a hint of depths in the story line. But I thought it was fun from the start.

    @Sarah, LOL, this show may not appeal to you. We all have different tastes, but I suggest giving it a try. I bet your boys will love it though. It is a very tame show. I let my girls watch it a very young age, maybe too young to appreciate it, but there was definitley nothing there that was too scary or too violent.

  8. Found your page through Jayrod's (his enigmatic "She mentioned Prince Zuko" and little more made it obligatory...). WOW. Thank you. Both for articulating something I've been trying to figure out (some of the problems and needs for antagonists... I've always though the best antagonist as protagonists for the side we're not currently favoring at the moment).

    Thanks again. Already sent the link home so the hubby can get it on the Netflix cue.

  9. I love when the antagonist is a good guy with opposite goals. Airbender has been on my instant queue for basically ever, but I haven't started it yet. Maybe now's a good time.

  10. Ha! Just watched the first two episodes with my son.
    His comment: "Wow, the Avatar rides an A Lot!"
    (from hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com)

  11. Oh my goodness, Susan, that is SO funny! My seven year old is obsessed the the A Lot!

  12. @Eden-Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad it was helpful. I don't think this type of antagonist works for every story, but when it works, it is pretty awesome. Don't think it would ever go out of style.

    @Sheena-me too.

    @Susan-LOL, I love Alots. Abba took a while for me to get used to. A flying buffalo with six legs. It's just crazy.


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