The Agony of the Antagonist

Let’s take a minute to talk antagonists in romance. Not every romance has them and there are a few different kinds. Do you like them? Some types but not others? I’m also not talking about romantic suspense, here. I’m talking about a romance where the main story is the two characters falling in love, making the antagonist someone who creates obstacles on this journey.

One of the hallmarks of romance (pun intended), is the commitment to the happy ending, to fair treatment of the characters, to a healthy romantic relationship (at least by the end). Where there are antagonists in romance, authors do face a fair amount of pressure in the genre to ensure the antagonist doesn’t get away with their behaviour. Within these clear and rigid expectations, there is rather a dilemma with antagonists.

On the one hand, an antagonist can help the main characters band together or make them fight more for their happy ending, which can really add tension to the story. The characters can grow brave enough to stand up to the baddies or defend each other from them. This is all good stuff.

But there are enormous pitfalls.

Firstly, it can be too easy to let the antagonist stand in place of a real internal conflict. If the only thing keeping the characters from falling in love is the evil stepmother, then the internal growth required for this falling-in-love stage won’t be satisfying. It will become a story about vanquishing the evil stepmother, rather than falling in love, or the story won’t have enough emotional tension.

Another issue is when the antagonist is little more than a plot device. If everything is sailing along, but then suddenly a baddie does something bad and the character has to rethink, perhaps there’s an issue with the structure of the romance that it needed this extra injection of external tension to keep it going. It’s much more satisfying to have the tension come from between our main characters than for someone to suddenly be nasty to them as a plot point.

There are a few stereotypes and cliches here that can be a bit of a warning sign that the antagonist isn’t necessarily adding anything: the crazy ex, the controlling family member, the nasty boss.

Now, I will admit I’ve written a nasty ex, a controlling grandmother and an asshole boss in my time. As with a lot of things in writing fiction, the way you do it is important, with subtlety and nuance in these antagonists. If they’re nasty all the time, they won’t necessarily be believable. Also, the antagonist has to be an integrated part of the story, for the entire story, rather than suddenly appearing at a point where more conflict was needed.

Interestingly, I’ve had lots of reviews about my antagonists, where readers obviously found them very triggering, which is something to watch out for when writing them, too. Perhaps mine are harder to take for some readers because I do write them with shades of grey, to the point where it might not be clear that they are very much an antagonist in the book and presenting the ‘wrong’ side of the story to the reader. I’ve had some people equating the views of my antagonists as my own views, when I intended very much the opposite.

All of which brings us to the question of what to do with these antagonists at the end of the story: comeuppance or change? As I mentioned at the beginning, genre conventions dictate that they need to be challenged. A romance reader isn’t going to be happy if the cheating husband continues to swan around cheating and congratulating himself on divorcing the female main character. This is something else I struggle with and some of my critique partners have pointed out in the past that they wished for a little more comeuppance. I have a bad habit of redeeming my antagonists.

As I was reflecting on this, I realised why I’m always desperate to redeem them: to me, seeing them change their ways or their opinions is actually a stronger result than seeing them suffer. To me, the permanent, believable happy ending for the main couple is only possible if peace is achieved with the antagonist, my means of them changing and admitting that they were wrong. Comeuppance is a temporary vanquishing, whereas remorse feels more promising for the future.

I do know, though, that readers often have a different opinion. Some readers love stories where the crazy ex stalks and bullies and manipulates and that’s fine for them. Some readers prefer an openly bad antagonist, who’s clearly a vehicle for conflict, beyond redemption and obviously expressing the opposite of the author’s views.

I still think it’s valuable to consider conflict in a romance outside of the actions of an antagonist and to make sure those actions don’t feel contrived. And I will probably go on redeeming my antagonists…

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