In my writing posts, I’ve talked a lot about different types of antagonists. Today, I’m going to talk about a few more. It took a while because I had trouble defining these three, but I think I’ve got it down. So let’s begin.
1. The Crowley
This bad guy is a phenomenon of episodic storytelling. In particular, these guys show up in longrunning TV shows. In an early season, a threatening antagonist is introduced. They continue to show up causing problem after problem. They can be any archetype of antagonist, too, but they ‘re always funny and charming.
It’s often the case that these antagonists stop being the primary antagonist, but continue to show up anyway. Why? Because they’re fan—and writer—favourites. As time goes on, though, three problems may arise:
- This antagonist is supposed to be a threat. So why, asks the audience, do they keep getting defeated? How can they be seen as threatening now?
- If the good guys grow more powerful as the seasons progress, and the antagonists grow more powerful with them, then the Crowley starts to see less powerful by comparison.
- The Crowley is around for so long that they become a piece of the furniture.
To combat this, the writers have pretty much one solution: Turn the Crowley into a reluctant ally.
This might happen in a number of ways. Perhaps the combined powers of the protagonist and the Crowley are the only way to defeat a more powerful antagonist, as with Crowley himself in Supernatural. Perhaps the Crowley has to side with the good guys on occasion to save their own skin, as with Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Or perhaps a long, long history leads to a change of heart, as with Missy in Doctor Who.
Whatever the Crowley’s motivation, the audience often seems to be drawn to the way that the character toes the line between good and evil. The character’s sense of humour helps too.
2. The Good Guy
This type of antagonist is hard to define by any other label because the narrative doesn’t treat them as a bad guy. But they are. It goes like this:
You’re reading or watching something. And there’s this character. As time goes on, you start to think, “WOW, this guy is an asshole.” But the other characters don’t seem to agree with you. They rarely, if ever, call them out on their immoral actions. In fact, they might defend them. As far as the characters are concerned, this is a perfectly good guy.
Sometimes this is obvious. Everybody can call out Edward Cullen for his abusive behaviour. Sometimes, however, it’s a little more subtle. And it’s when it is that the characters get a little more interesting.
The example I’m going to use is Preston Burke, who was the love interest of Cristina Yang for the first four seasons. He’s … nasty.
Burke has ideas about what is correct and proper. He has ideas about what he wants, and what other people should want. While dating Cristina, he slowly alters her behaviour by constantly criticising her actions, morals, and beliefs—and by punishing her. If she doesn’t act how he wants, she doesn’t get surgeries. She doesn’t get her education.
This culminates a wedding that Cristina didn’t want, with Cristina’s eyebrows shaved off as Burke’s family force the “proper” appearance on her, with Cristina having to be cut out of her wedding dress. It’s very difficult to watch.
The interesting thing about Burke is that he wasn’t really called out while he was still on the show. He was revered for his skill and intelligence (even though Cristina got no credit for her contribution to his work) and is close friends with a number of the characters.
And then, in season six, came the scene in the above video. Burke clearly damaged her. A lot. (And in a way that, from personal experience, I know to be permanent.) He’s not a good guy.
Note: A Good Guy doesn’t need to be called out for them to qualify, but your story may be seen as demonstrating better morals if they do.
3. The Actual Good Guy
Sometimes, your protagonist isn’t such a good guy themselves. Perhaps they’re cooking crystal meth (Breaking Bad). Perhaps they’re washing counterfeit cash (Good Girls). Perhaps they’re a serial killer (Dexter).
An antagonist is any character who gets in the way of your protagonist’s goals. In this situations, a lot of your antagonists are probably the good guys.
Let’s take a look at Breaking Bad first. In this show, Walter White starts selling meth to pay for cancer treatments and leave money for his family. While a lot of the other criminals serve as the antagonists in the show, the longest running antagonist was Walt’s brother-in-law, Hank Schrader. Hank is a DEA agent, and ends up investigating the case of druglord “Heisenberg.” So Walt has to spend the show dodging his own brother-in-law.
Law enforcement antagonists are going to be pretty common in situations like this. In Dexter, the eponymous protagonist kills murderers that the police fail to catch. (And the later, he starts sabotaging investigations so that he can kill murderers. That show kind of fell apart.) Dexter’s sister is a homicide detective. She and the others even end up investigating his murders when bodies are found in the ocean.
The foils in Good Girls take a different form. In this show, a trio of women starts washing counterfeit money to get out of dire situations. While there is law enforcement in this story, including the husband of one of the women, much of the antagonist focus is on family and how the women keep their illegal activity from the people in their lives.
What’s important to remember about Actual Good Guys is that they’re created in situations where you’re playing with grey areas. Your protagonist might be a criminal. They might even be a completely reprehensible person. And your audience should have reason to want them to succeed.
But, playing with the grey areas might mean that they only want your protagonist to succeed at first. (I mean, if you didn’t end up siding with Hank, then I ain’t sure where your morals are.) If writing such a scenario, make sure that you think carefully about what each character is doing, and who you believe to be in the right.