Last week, I wrote about creating the YA protagonist. Now I flip the equation to discuss creating the YA antagonist. A protagonist is only as compelling as the antagonist he or she has to deal with. Would Sherlock Holmes be as memorable without matching wits with Professor Moriarty? You should invest as much care in developing your antagonist as your protagonist.
General Rules for Antagonists
They Don’t Have to be People.
An antagonist is whoever or whatever prevents the protagonist for reaching her goal. In Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, the main character is up against surviving in the Canadian wilderness with nothing but a hatchet and a windbreaker. In the nonfiction book Dove, Robin Lee Graham, who began sailing around the world at sixteen, must battle the sea and his own thoughts while he’s alone on the ocean. The antagonist for the main character in Challenger Deep is his own schizophrenia.
They Don’t Have to be Villains.
The antagonist doesn’t have to be evil or the bad guy. Just the person who is throwing obstacles in the way of the protagonist. Let’s say the main character is a sixteen-year-old boy who wants to become a cop like his late father, who died in the line of duty. His mother is dead set against his goal and does everything in her power to dissuade him in the name of safety. She’s the antagonist but not a villain.
I think it’s far more challenging to write about an antagonist, who is a good person, but is at odds with the protagonist. I can’t rely on painting my antagonist in pure black. I have to use more nuanced colors. While this can be challenging, and even frustrating, there’s also a greater reward if I succeed, creating two characters who aren’t just the good guy and the bad guy.
Rules for YA Antagonists
Your Antagonist is an Adult.
Don’t fall into the cliches I’ve seen in a lot of teen books in which all the adult characters are either stupid or mean or both. The adult characters in a YA story should be as fleshed out as the teen characters. If the adult antagonist is a villain, I have to supply a better reason for his villainy than “I said so”.
It’s difficult for a teen to contend with an adult because of the vast experience an adult has built up. But don’t level the playing field by making the adult antagonist a dope. First, you want your teen main character to have a worthy adversary. As I said in a teen writing workshop I led over the summer, you don’t want Conan the Barbarian going up against the Easter Bunny. You have to develop a realistic way for your teen to overcome the adult antagonist to make the characters both believable and the story rewarding for the reader.
Your Antagonist is a Teen
If your antagonist is a teen, you may run into the flip side of the problem above. To make the clash between protagonist and antagonist interesting, I may end up with two characters who dress like teens but act like adults. Since I write mysteries, I might have a teen as the culprit. Having been a teen and known teens, I don’t buy the teen villain who hatches his plan like a master criminal. What seems more believable is the teen who commits a crime in a sudden burst of anger and then spends the story trying to stay ahead of the police and the teen protagonist.
What are your thoughts on creating the YA antagonist? Who are your favorites?