In novel writing classes, after we’ve discussed character arcs, pacing, prose-craft, world-building, voice, and a zillion other angels dancing on the head of a pin, somebody gets around to raising the topic of the antagonist.
The antagonist need not be a bad person, or even a human. The antagonist can be an immutable law of the novel world (treason must be punished–The Traitor), logistics (an ocean between our obligations/not enough money in the world–Elias in Love, The Highland Holidays novellas), values (she cannot tolerate violence, honor compels him to seek justice–The Captive), or a misunderstanding/secret (many novellas, The Laird), but to the reader, the antagonist, to quote Joanna Bourne, must be “real, interesting, and substantial.”
I have rarely written a truly heinous villain, in part because I don’t want to dwell on evil. In the Windham Bride series, I’m coming close, though. (Sorta spoiler alerts…) Hamish and Megan face a man who’d force an unwilling woman into the intimacy of marriage for the sake of his creature comforts. That’s awful–and he’s so cheerful about it.
Colin and Anwen face people who are cavalier about starving children, and unbothered by again, using coercion of innocents, even the threat of death, to get what the villains want. In A Rogue of Her Own, the hero, Sherbourne, is an outsider, meaning he both sees the titled villain more clearly, and also risks much more than scandal if he tries to hold his lordship accountable. (Can you tell I like that book?)
Those stories are in contrast to a tale like Worth: Lord of Reckoning. No bad guy, no bad gal. Just the competing demands of honor, a secret or two, stubborn pride, but it all works out in the end.
Then I come across this quote form CS Lewis (sorry I don’t know how to make it larger), about “scoundrelism,” and how it often germinates from the very human desire to be part of an Inner Ring. Our craving for intimacy and acceptance lead us away from decency. As he says, “Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”
That quote is scary. I don’t want to write that book, with an antagonist who seduces decent people away from the light, promising special status, acceptance, and perks. I’m not sure I could write that book, especially not as a romance, but the other rubric I hear in writers’ classes is that the protagonists are only as compelling as the forces they overcome. What force is more compelling than the creeping allure of intimate evil?
Where do you come down on antagonists? Have I written one that worked especially well for you, one that fell flat? Is a book like Worth, which leans toward comedic techniques, a more convincing romance than The Captive? What “real, substantial, interesting” problem have you seen most effectively keep a romance hero and heroine from waltzing away with an easy HEA?
To one commenter, I’ll send a signed Advance Reader Copy for A Rogue of Her Own (found another one since last week).