To continue from the previous post, we will now take a look at how a secondary character can become an antagonist by thwarting the protagonist’s plans to reach their goal. They don’t have to be evil or a nemesis, just interfering or misleading. Let’s take a look at Abram’s wife, Sarai, in Genesis chapter 16.
We already know she is extraordinarily beautiful, so we can imply she uses her looks to her advantage when necessary, perhaps as a crafty and cunning woman would. Although God has promised Abram a son, Sarai twists it around and convinces her husband that it isn’t through her womb from which God will give him a son, but rather her maidservant whom Sarai forces Abram to impregnate. It sounds logical. After all, Sarai is an old lady and Abram is 86 when he becomes Ishmael’s dad (the maidservant’s son).
But there is a fatal flaw here. This is not the hero’s journey. His path has been told to him by God, and he believes it. Through whatever sexual sorcery or logistics Sarai uses, she convinces Abram to take matters into his own hands. She becomes an antagonist.
What did this decision produce, beside an heir? Jealousy. Envy. Distrust. Anger. Rage. Hate. Of course, these are great elements to push any story along, but the emotions must be based in something; they don’t just happen on their own. What caused Sarai to feel this way, to “deal hardly with” Hagar, her maidservant, and to “despise her?” (verses 5-6) It was Sarai’s idea to begin with! The answer is simple: this wasn’t the hero’s journey. It wasn’t the plan. This event took the story in a new direction in which it was never meant to go. It brought in a thread that was never intended or written in the outline.
As writers, we can utilize this story function to naturally create tension and strife in our characters. By using a trusted secondary character with good intention to logically persuade the protagonist to head in a direction that isn’t on the hero’s path, he will be forced to correct himself to get back on track. The secondary character will have to face the consequences of their suggestions causing tension to grow among the two characters.
Now you’ve created all kinds of threads with lots of possibilities. Will the two reconcile or is the relationship beyond repair? Can the hero get back on her path? What sacrifices must she make now because of this decision?
In Sarai and Abram’s case, the problem really never resolves. Sarai blames Abram and asks him to punish Hagar. (verse) Abram tells Sarai that Hagar is her maidservant, so it’s her problem. (verse 6) Sari beats Hagar or emotionally breaks her down to the point that she flees into the desert. (verse 6) She eventually returns home and gives birth to Ishmael, who is prophesied to be “A wild man, his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.” (verse 12)
What a horrible description of your future child. Could you imagine? “Hey, Hagar, you’re gonna have the red-headed step child who nobody likes. Congratulations! It’s a boy.” Imagine being that kid, growing up in that environment.
I’m immediately reminded of the Dursley’s and Harry Potter. A very similar tension and shunning between Harry and Dudley that is consistent in each book. Another story that brilliantly uses the altered hero’s path and negative prophecy is the film Looper. A boy is prophesied to be the destroyer of society in the future. A man travels back in time to kill him as a boy. But our hero is supposed to kill that man when he time travels to that year. The only problem is that the hero is that man from a future story thread, and he has come back to force the hero (his younger self) on a different life path. It’s an awesome story, and somehow very similar to Abram, Sarai, Hagar, and Ishmael.
As you look at the relationships between the characters in your stories, do you see opportunities for secondary characters to behave as antagonists? What problems could that cause for the hero who sidesteps his quest? What new layer of agony does the secondary character face alone? For the hero? Deepening the trauma will give depth and life to all your characters, enabling secondary characters to face their own problems, consequences, and decisions independent of the hero. When you can give true motives with genuine cause and affect results to minor characters as well as the protagonist and antagonist, you will populate your story with well-rounded, believable, breathing people that your reader may never forget. Sometimes, these characters can grow so large that they are given their own hero’s quest, such as Riddick from Pitch Black or Logan (Wolverine) from the X-Men franchise.
(This is an excerpt from Writing Your Novel, Using the Bible as Your Guide, published by A Writer For Life, LLC, which you can purchase from Amazon as a paperback or ebook.)