Thursday, February 18, 2010


In our last exercise from Donald Maass' workbook, Writing The Breakout Novel Workbook, we talked about changing your protagonist so s/he was anything but too predictable. Today's exercise centres around your antagonist, whether they be a character, place, thing, or life itself. Mr. Maass advises that you do everything necessary to make your antagonist well-rounded, an equal match for your protagonist, and a character that we believe we understand. That last part interests me, so we'll deal with it last. For now, I want you to come along for the ride and see if you can turn your cardboard cutout into an antagonist as fascinating and memorable as Hannibal Lector. How to succeed is also too large a topic to cover completely in this post today; however, what's below should point you in the right direction.

1. Write down your antagonist's name? __________________________________

In Dead Witness, I have two antagonists: brothers Miguel and Vicente DeOlmos.

2. What is the most important thing to your antagonist? __________________________________________

Miguel DeOlmos honours family above all things. Vicente worships his brother and would do anything to gain his respect.

3. What does your antagonist want? ________________________________________________________
Miguel DeOlmos wants Valerie McCormick dead so that his dynasty remains intact. He believes Valerie's death protects his family and those most loyal to him. Vicente wants anyone who threats his brother's safety destroyed. He also desires that others fear him.

4. What five important moments or actions are crucial to your antagonist and must be part of your story?





First - Miguel appoints his brother in charge of eliminating Valerie so that Vincente feels a part of the family struggle to overcome this adversity. Second - He sends a man to Prince George, Canada to kill Valerie. Third - after Valerie is supposedly dead, as a precaution, Miguel sends someone to watch her family. I won't list the rest so as to not spoil the story for you if you happen to buy a copy.

But go ahead and list the five most important happenings that must stay in your story because they move your antagonist closer to obtaining his goal. If your antagonist isn't a character, there should still be 5 events that move the story forward and get in the way of your protagonist obtaining his goal. Remember: These five or more events, actions, steps must happen to move the story toward its conclusion and, in doing so, create suspense, conflict and thrills for your reader.

Donald Maass ends the chapter by suggesting that your antagonist be on an inner journey just as your protagonist is. The most successful antagonist are a mirror image of your hero. They want, they need, and they desire. They also must appear larger than life, human beings with emotions. Donald also suggests you go one step further and give them a moment of kindness, joy, happiness, or compassion. But don't forget: your antagonist should be truly frightening and don't forget evil. That might be a difficult combination to come up with, but if you do, be assured that your manuscript will be noticed.

Excerpt from Dead Witness by Joylene Nowell Butler   


From the stern of his yacht, Miguel DeOlmos looked first at the calm waters of Puget Sound and then the city surrounding his boat. His soldier, Lope Ramirez had served him diligently for many years. For that Miguel had shown his gratitude. Lope’s only child, Rosa, living in San José del Cabo, had been well taken care of. After her graduation from high school last spring, Miguel had arranged a position for her at one of his hotels on the Sea of Cortez.

And what had he asked for in return?
For several days, Lope had been acting suspicious: sullen and distracted; going so far as to argue with Reynaldo in Miguel's presence. And now Lope's inability to see the woman before she witnessed the disposing of the greedy gringos threatened everything Miguel had worked for. If the family empire fell, Miguel would accept his fate, but what would become of his hermanito Vicente? Although a grown man, Vicente would never survive on his own; his mind was that of a child's.
Miguel relaxed his clenched jaw, his tight fists, freeing himself of his anger. With his emotions now in check, he faced Lope. "Contact Sanchez and tell him to send the seaplane. Then prepare the boat. When we are airborne, instruct the captain to continue through the locks. Someone will pick him up."
"Si, patrón. ¿Y la mujer?"
The sun’s brutal intensity was of no consequence, and Miguel did not blink. The soldier standing before him had become a threat, and Miguel could barely tolerate his presence. After all these years, did Lope not understand that family meant everything to him? "I will take care of the woman. Contact Sanchez."
"Si, patrón, but allow me to assure you the woman was not in the area when we arrived. I searched the grounds. There was no one."
 Miguel lowered his head but kept his glare on Lope.
"I will contact General Sanchez over the secured line." Lope turned and rushed to the radio communication center.
Miguel was sitting on the white leather bench, his eyes half-closed, his arms crossed, his mind saddened, when Lope returned. "Well?" he asked.
"General Sanchez has given the pilot the coordinates. He will meet us in ten minutes. As soon as you are safely aboard, the captain will take the boat through the locks. When he reaches open sea, he will sink the boat and escape on the dingy. The Coast Guard will find nothing."
 Miguel raised his eyes. "You have been with me how long?"
Lope stood rigid, as if to ward off the blow. The flesh under his eyes paled. "Since 1990, patrón. Six years." 
"They have been good years?"
"Si, patrón," he said in a quiet, strained voice. "They have been good years."
"You made a mistake today. You said the area was clear."
The Adam's apple in Lope's neck clawed for freedom. "Give me any order and I will obey without question. I will not fail you again," he said.
"Any order?"
Lope swallowed hard and wet his lips again. He stood at attention; his gaze fixed on the land behind Miguel. "Si, patrón."
"Está bien." Miguel saw the relief on Lope's face. "I do have one order." He unfolded his arms, his right hand gripping his gun. He pointed the 9mm at Lope's head, ignored the horror on his face, and said, "Die." Then he squeezed the trigger.

* * *

In reference to Donald Maass' comment about needing to believe you understand the antagonist. I agree with him, though I'm not sure I want to. To admit I understand Hannibal Lecter is a disturbing thing. What does that say about me? Perhaps it's part of the requirements of being a writer: I need to see, understand and appreciate even the most evil character ever created. Can I write a convincing antagonist otherwise?
Now it's your turn, what does your antagonist want?


  1. Good excerpt, Joylene. I remember thinking how fascinating Miguel was and how attractive and sexy he came across as. It was one of the things I really liked about Dead Witness, your bad guys were bad boys and therefore very appealing.

  2. Thank you, Martha. And thanks for your support.

  3. Thank you, Jenny. I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

  4. The antagonist of my WIP isn't the same at the end as the beginning, or perhaps discovering who he trusts is part of the protagonist's journey, so I'm going to think about your worksheet a bit.

  5. I'm glad, David. I know it can't hurt. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

  6. I decided nuts to this, until I thought about it for awhile. I guess it wouldn't hurt to make my antagonist care about his dog or something. Make him seem more human. Okay. Good work, Joylene. This book sounds worth buying.

  7. I scratched the hell outta my computer screen tryin' to fill in the blanks on your little test. When I hit SEND, none of my answers went through! No more screenwriting for me.

    My antagonist has really bad hair. Frightening.

    Keep up the good work.

  8. Dave, I slapped my monitor silly, and now I think it should work.

    Bad hair? Does it affect his disposition? Is he more inclined to act out on bad hair days? Then I think you've done an excellent job.


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