The Antagonist’s Character Arc

I always use an aftershave lotion with little or no alcohol because alcohol dries your face out and makes you look older. Then moisturizer. Then an anti-aging eye balm followed by final moisturizing protective lotion.

There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman. Some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me. Only an entity. Something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable, I simply am not there.

American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis

Antagonists often make the most interesting characters. In this lesson, we will explore the protagonist/antagonist, the moral antagonist and the immoral antagonist. Keep in mind that all antagonists are a combination of both moral and immoral, just as all humans are a combination of both moral and immoral. 

Patrick Bateman, the protagonist in American Psycho, exemplifies what many have come to know as the antagonist. In literary terms, he would be considered too evil to be a good literary antagonist. If there is an evil in the world, Patrick Bateman is this.  What makes him exceptional is that for one, he functions as the protagonist/antagonist. He is our focus. We are pulled into the motivations of his satirical representation of a morally destitute demographic. Two, Patrick Bateman is physically and socially beautiful. He is the mirage of beauty. He is a Manhattan success by day and a sociopathic serial killer freshly birthed to his craft at night. Third, Patrick’s story is told through dark humor and irony. The understatement of his overstatement creates a constant rub and makes the narrative voice interesting, fresh. You are laughing when you shouldn’t be laughing. 

Patrick Bateman is the epitome of what is seductive and treacherous about New York success and what is seductive and treacherous about basic human drives. Ellis has taken a profession, lifestyle and the id and has personified it all in a single socially satirical character. 

So, if Patrick Bateman is too evil to be a good literary antagonist, how is it that his character works? 

Ellis gives Bateman a sense of physical normalcy based on vanity, yes, but still a vanity to which all readers can relate on some level. For instance, not many readers will do 1000 stomach crunches and apply five different facial cleansers every morning, but all readers can relate to a driving sense of morality and aging.

What is an antagonist?

In a literary narrative, the antagonist will be complicated and not all “bad” but rather a person in a situation where his or her motivations compete with that of the protagonist. The best antagonists are empathetic to some degree and often act as a foil to the protagonist. (A foil would be a character that is very different or similar to another character and acts as a point of definition of the other character).

A good antagonist is not sympathetic but rather empathetic. It is easy to write a sympathetic antagonist with a bad childhood that would result in the antagonist making bad choices later in life. This sort of sympathetic characterization might briefly describe an abusive parent, tough neighborhood, early childhood trauma. These are all good starts, but to write the better antagonist, it is important to spend as much time creating the antagonist’s presence and history as you would spend on the protagonist’s presence and history so to move beyond sympathy and into empathy. You do not want your reader to look down on this character. You want your reader to empathize with and “fear” this character because the character’s motivations are familiar in some manner. Keep in mind that it doesn’t take an axe wielding serial killer to evoke fear. Fear can be evoked by an innocent child too vulnerable to protect him or herself, when that child reminds you of your former self.

Remember: Not all antagonists are “bad.” Some antagonists are actually “good.” We will study an example of the “moral antagonist” below.

The Secretary: Bateman’s Moral Antagonist & Foil

One of the most interesting critical elements to American Psycho, is that it is filled with morally destitute characters. In this story, there really are no sympathetic or “good” characters but for one, perhaps. Bateman’s secretary, Jean. We don’t know much about Jean, though, we do want her to survive. Jean provides a competing motivation to Bateman’s id. Jean embodies hard work, loyalty and a search for romance. She is the moral compass to Bateman’s lack of moral compass. In the below excerpt, Jean unknowingly pushes Bateman’s patience. As you watch the scene, consider how Jean is not all “good.”

Paul Allen & His Business Cards: Bateman’s Professional/ Social Antagonist & Foil

Another antagonist is Paul Allen, Bateman’s nemesis. Allen is not a morally rich man. He is smug and vain. Throughout the course of the novel, he is in some ways less charming than Bateman and in some ways more empathetic. Allen is very much a mirror and foil to Bateman. By the end of this scene, we are very aware that Paul Allen is Bateman’s main immoral antagonist. We both fear and anticipate what Bateman will do about it. As you watch, consider how Allen is not all “bad.” 


Assignment 1: Schematics

Download and complete The Character Arc: Antagonist

You’ll see that the above character arc is the same for both protagonist and antagonist. There is a craft reason for this. Often, our best protagonists would be great antagonists, too, and vice versa. Whether your character is a protagonist or antagonist, he or she must be fully fleshed so that he or she could play either role. The role you choose for this character is merely a personal choice based on situation and perspective.

Click on the above link and open the document. Save the document to your hard drive. Follow the directions and the writing assignment (also copied below) as given, step by step, in this document. Take one section at a time. Try not to skip forward to a later section. Let your discovery process build. We are focusing only on the antagonist for this week. We will focus on a supporting character next week. Please submit both your completed Character Arc and following Narrative Exploration by the Sunday due date.

Assignment 2: Narrative Exploration

Write a 1000 word or less scene/story about your character, making your antagonist a protagonist of his or her own scene or story.

You might find that this character narrative will become part of the longer work, or you may find it will not. Either way, writing this character narrative is essential to knowing your character better in narrative form, and this will help you write your character with more feeling and interest in the longer work. 1000 words. This word count is firm.