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  1. divided_crown

    divided_crown Member

    Oct 4, 2010
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    Aberystwyth, United Kingdom

    Antagonist's motivation: Show or Imply?

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by divided_crown, Nov 22, 2012.

    I am currently pondering how to properly establish the antagonist of my current project, a crime/sci-fi novel.

    The gist of the story is this: the antagonist experienced a traumatic childhood, being raised and trained as part of a unit of telepathic (it's a genetic condition in this world) child soldiers during a world war. After the war, he is essentially dropped and left in the cold to die. He survives, and tries to take revenge by murdering a famous politician, formerly remotely involved with the project. The politician however offers him a deal - he will give him the opportunity to take revenge against those who were really responsible in exchange for a service which will also hurt those people - he needs a number of scientists, previously working on disastrous but highly classified energy project, silenced (i.e. brain-wiped). The telepath agrees.

    As the antagonist (the telepath) is an occasional PoV character, I am looking to establish his motivation at the very beginning. So far, I have come up with two options to do this:

    One, show him trying to kill the politician and his faith fade as the politician disarms him verbally ("Read my mind, I'm not lying.")

    Two, imply his motivation but don't show it - this might backfire unless done really well, and I am not confident enough in my experience as a writer to be able to pull this off. Then again, it might be good practice.

    Three, open with his traumatic childhood in the trenches, and the horrors he experiences actually murdering someone with the power of his mind (which is actually a plot point that will haunt one of the protagonists later on). I prefer this version, as it is more interesting and slots better into the entire narrative. There is however one issue: the next chapter (originally the prologue), which introduces all other PoV characters, also takes place several years before the main action of the book. I can very much see this confusing readers and stifling the pace of the entire narrative, and leading to the expectation that time skips will be the rule rather than the exception in the story. I have been thinking about moving the antagonist's childhood further into the novel, but I am not too sure whether that would help at all.

    Since this comes down to both a matter of preference and literary understanding, I would greatly appreciate any hints, pointers or ideas you may have to help me past this hurdle.

  2. captain kate

    captain kate Active Member

    May 4, 2008
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    Cruising through space.
    It needs to be a bit of both. If a reader doesn't see, or know, what drives him or her, then the 'bad guy' becomes just another character. What's his or her Achilles heel? Why are they driven the way to be? Does it, combined with the Achilles heel, bind him/her to certain actions leading to mistakes?

    My antagonist, is physically obsessed with my MC, to the point of it being a picture perfect case of obsessive love. It blinds him to things he needs to do, and prevents him, most of the time, from acting to stop my MC from beating him. The man just can't imagine not being able to "have" her, and that weakness brings him down.

    Just an example, but both are generally what it takes.
  3. jid

    jid Member

    Aug 23, 2012
    Likes Received:
    Can you give an example of hinting at it? Personally I don't think it's the hardest thing to do, people who read your stuff usually end up understanding far more than you give them credit for. At least I often end up clarifying too much, only to realize half an hour later that my writing seems like it's aimed at people with an IQ of a shoe.

    If you go with the flashback, you could point out something that gives an approx time and/or place. Say there's a famous building, and on the future scene it's a parking lot.
    Or an easy way out, mention a date on a newspaper, or just write the date on the opening, but those seem a bit meh to me.
  4. Macaberz

    Macaberz Pay it forward Contributor

    Nov 19, 2012
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    Arnhem, The Netherlands
    This is a problem I am facing myself too. I think that it is best to indeed show and imply. Show the politician scene but only imply how he got that weird power and the whole war backstory. I think you can tell it by having the protagonist figure it out piece by piece. Just as long as you do not go for the Disney Evil Witch which somehow is retarted enough to reveal all her plans and backstory to the protagonist, giving him just enough time to conveniently escape.

    Anyway, I am getting off track here. You could also tell a bit of his backstory (possibly best through a character, someone that might have know the antagonist) and hint at his power.

    In short, I do not have a clear cut solution but if you go for both telling/showing and implying then you only need to decide if which you are going to apply to the telepath bit and which to the war history.
  5. Showpony

    Showpony New Member

    Nov 22, 2012
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    I think this is a case of knowing your audience. What is the sophistication level of the intended reader? Are you writing something aimed at young adults? They might need more explicit demonstrations of the protagonist's motivations. Are you writing this for a more sophisticated and well-read audience? Then maybe let them get to know the character and interpret the hints.

    If you're not writing for a specific audience, then use yourself as a guide. How would you like it to be presented, if you were the reader? Sometimes I read books and watch movies where things are shown and explained explicitly, and I think "This is pretty heavy-handed. I'm not an idiot - I get it".

    --- D
  6. Prolix Plotbunny

    Prolix Plotbunny New Member

    Aug 25, 2012
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    Actually, I think that is standard operating procedure in regards to modern storytelling. The antagonist usually starts as an evil force serving as an obstacle for the protagonist(s), only later given a (possibly sympathetic) backstory. This acts as a revelation or a twist that makes either the protagonist(s) or the readers understand the so-called villain a bit more.

    Of course, I don't really know what you're going for, particularly with your "antagonist." Is there a good reason the reader needs to know the antagonist's backstory, and the reasons he does what he does, from the beginning---or close to it? Is there a reason for the "antagonist" having a POV, especially so early on with so many details revealed?

    I don't know his relationship with the protagonists, or what he does to obstruct them---but your antagonist having his motivations revealed so early on, from his POV, makes me refrain from calling him the antagonist, but simply another protagonist. An antiheroic protagonist, but an antagonist nonetheless.

    I also don't know any given "morality" involved (does the antagonist cross the line in his quest for revenge, what harm does he do the protagonists, etc.) so I can't opine much further than that.

    What I would do (with the information I currently have): Show the politician scene early on, make their whole exchange cryptic, have antagonist antagonize actual protagonists, reveal much later what that early assassination attempt thing was all about via flashback/backstory scene.

    I apologize if I misunderstood anything. I hope this helps.

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