When we talk about antagonist we love to hate, Darth Vader has to be at the top of the list.
Who can forget the scene in Star Wars IV when Darth Vader comes striding out of the smoke of the laser fire, the sound of his ominous mechanical breathing adding an unknown power to his imposing figure? Just the sight of him was enough to strike terror into the faint of heart!
Face it. As much as we cheered for Luke, Leia, and Han in that movie, Vader was the one who stole the show. He was unforgettable.
He was the quintessential antagonist.
What is an antagonist?
There are two basic kinds of antagonists in fiction: personal and impersonal.
The impersonal antagonist is a force the protagonist needs to fight against. It might be a major weather event, or a natural disaster. It might be something like a mountain that needs to be conquered or a war that needs to be won. Or it might be the lies that trap the protagonist in a dead-end life.
The personal antagonists are more apparent. These characters are the bullies, the rivals, or the murderers...anyone that the protagonist has to strive against to meet his goal.
How do you use an antagonist in your story?
In my first book, "The Prodigal Son Returns," I had an antagonist that worked well for my character, Bram. A 1930's era Chicago gangster was on the hunt for him after finding out that Bram had been an informant for the FBI. As Bram hides out in his childhood home - the Amish community in northern Indiana - this antagonist is an impersonal threat in the background for most of the story. Will he find Bram or won't he?
But the story needed another antagonist. One that was more personal. One that would force Bram to make decisions that would propel the story forward.
I decided to use Bram's estranged brother, Samuel. In this book, Samuel was the perfect foil for Bram. He reminds Bram of all the reasons why he left the Amish community in the first place. When Samuel appears in the story, he comes across as a bully. Someone who forces Bram to dig deep into a past he would rather forget.
Redeeming the antagonist.
When the book was finished and I had the opportunity to write more Amish stories for Love Inspired Historical, I kept thinking about Samuel. Would he always remain an antagonist?
My August 2017 release, "An Amish Courtship," was my chance to let Samuel tell his side of the story. I had learned a lot about writing between my first book and this seventh one, and I was finally able to turn Samuel into a sympathetic character.
In this book, he starts out in the same place where we left him in Bram's story. Samuel is a bully with no friends, lost in his own self-pity. But he couldn't stay there if I was going to show readers how he was being redeemed. He had a lot to learn, but with the help of a good woman - Mary, the heroine - and his own antagonist to work against, he discovered how to trust God and became the man he always wanted to be.
Like Bram, Samuel had two antagonists. His rival for Mary's affections was one, but the other one was internal. Impersonal. Samuel had to fight against the self-image his dysfunctional childhood had seared into his heart and mind. But his trust in God and his love for Mary conquered the antagonist and Samuel found redemption.
Redemption comes at great cost.
In Star Wars, The Return of the Jedi, Luke saw Darth Vader's redemption, but at the cost of his father's life. George Lucas knew the value in bringing Darth Vader - Anakin Skywalker - full circle, back to the man he had once been rather than the monster he had become.
As the author, you get to choose if and how your antagonist can be redeemed. And that's a story we all need to hear.
Who are some of your favorite antagonists?