Buttressing Your Protagonist, Part 2

The other day, we talked about the different hats our characters wear, but I purposely left out a particular hat to save for another, if not rainy, day.

Okay, so this is a logo for for a virtual security comapny, but it gets my point across. Thanks, smartgridsecurity.blogspot.com!

The Black Hat

Why did I save this one for last? Why not lump it in with the top hat, took, and baseball cap? The quick and dirty reason is because the Black Hat is the most important hat of your story. (Sorry, Abe Lincoln.)

You can’t have a good conversation about the Civil War without Abe Lincoln, but you also can’t fully appreciate the accomplishments he made without understanding his opponent. That’s why the Black Hats are so important. The Black Hat is your Big Bad, and it forms the spine of your plot. Without it, your protagonist and teammates are just flailing around — or worse, paralyzed.

The Black Hat gives you your inciting incidents. It’s what changes the status quo of your protagonist’s life and creates tension within your story. Imagine your story like a game of Tug-Of-War — not much of a game if someone’s not pulling that rope tight. While your protagonist will be the main character of your story, if that character is spineless, your reader probably won’t want to stick around for all the flopping.

Okay, so this fish has a spine. And wings. The point is that it's flopping. Brought to you by weblog.greenpeace.org.

How do you create a believable Black Hat? Good antagonists have a few things going for them.


No matter who he or she is, your primary antagonist has some sort of motive. If you think of your antagonist as the protagonist of her own story, you will hit the mark right on…the mark. What does he want? Who is he? What are his goals? Why does your protagonist create a problem for her? (This antagonist switches gender at will — look out, world.)

My Big Bad, the ultimate craptastic evildoer in my trilogy, is something old. And imprisoned. He can still touch his flunkies and sometimes influence things outside of his little hole, but his ultimate goal is to get out. He has a lot of people working for him to help this happen, and each of them has their own goals. Power, revenge, chaos — all those are motives for my Big Bads.

It sometimes can be less than fun to get into the shoes of a Big Bad. If your books, like mine, have violent tendencies, it can feel like crawling into the cesspool mind of a serial killer — and not a fuzzy one like Dexter.

Head Start

No, your Big Bad is not a pre-schooler going off to learn her letters before everyone else goes to kindergarten.

"We're cooking up some world domination!" "It needs more salt." Image via minicircuit.ca

Remember that your antagonist is the star of his own show. He’s probably been around the whole time your protagonist was going about her status quo leading up to the inciting incident, which is probably the moment where your protagonist first gets in your antagonist’s way. Regardless, your Black Hat will be used to the game. Your protagonist won’t. If she was ready from the get-go, it wouldn’t be much of a story. Again we’re back to that whole spine thing.


Your best antagonists will have as many layers as a nice, juicy onion.

He wants to be such a bad guy, but he's just a big, squishy green love. Image property of Dreamworks, via allaboutshrek.com

Think of Voldemort. Was he singly bad? Yep. Did he give Harry a massive headache? Literally and figuratively. Did he have layers? More than the proverbial onion. (Maybe I should have made it a parfait. Ain’t nobody no like no parfait.) In spite of Voldemort’s Big Bad capability, he had a background people could even relate to — one not horribly astray from Harry’s himself. An orphan, tossed into a home that didn’t care for him, deprived of comfort — there are similarities there that audiences can find sympathetic. In many ways, it’s a picture of what Harry could have become if, which is what makes Voldemort such an intriguing character study.

Your antagonist should have layers. There should be moments of sympathy. This doesn’t mean they ever have to dither about what they’re doing. Voldemort sure didn’t. Whether it’s a flash of back story or a moment where a beloved flunky bites the dust and he shows a moment of emotion, your goal with these layers is to show the reader just a flash of how your antagonist is his own protagonist.

Kristen Lamb likes to say that if you know your antagonist well, your story will fall into place, and I believe her. If you want to read more about antagonists, I highly recommend zooming over to this link to read her article about the elusive antagonist.

Until next time, gentle viewers. Get bad.

About Emmie Mears

Saving the world from brooding, one self-actualized vampire at a time.

Posted on December 10, 2011, in writing process and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Excellent post, Emmie. I think this is something that I struggle with and am just getting a handle on in the second book of my series. It may mean I have to edit even more, but I think I need to work more on my antags as well as my protag. Maybe that will liven things up a bit.

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