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The Back-up Antagonist

We recently had a guest join us to talk about creating characters with good character. If you haven’t read that post, I strongly suggest you do, since creating likable characters is always a hot topic with writers. However, it turns out I’m a contrarian. I’m crazy about unlikable characters that run from those skirting the edges of being jerks, to the ones that cross the line into the realm of the truly hated! I’m also one of those writers who’s nuts about secondary characters in general, the ones that were never meant for story center stage, but often find a way to steal a chunk of the spotlight anyway.  So put these two traits together and give me an unlikable secondary character and I’m in heaven.

I’ve been thinking about this composite character for over a year now, ever since I started writing a book featuring a bunch of teen criminals, and it turns out that when secondary characters are pompous, shady and egotistical, they serve a number of important story functions. These characters fall into some predictable patterns, too many to count, but here are four of my personal favorites.

Pirates and Mercenaries: When characters don’t care about being liked, they can say and do all the things the hero can’t. Since they tend to look out for number one, they don’t share the value of sugar-coating the truth for the sake of others. This character never lets the reader forget the stakes. They become the voice of the devil’s advocate. They up the tension and sometimes offer comic relief with the forces of their self-serving agenda and natural pessimism. Jayne from Firefly is the perfect example of this character, being unabashedly rude and the first one to speak up when a plan sounds stupid, or just lacking in financial gain.Firefly Jayne

Tough Love Mentors: Sure, everyone thinks they want a mentor who is kind, supportive and praising, but not all mentors are cut out to be that way. Mentors are who they are often because of wisdom gained through a lifetime of hard work and often harder knocks, and that can change a person. Tough love mentors are bitter, and callous, unwilling to trust. They hide behind a wall of ice, or in some cases, alcohol. Hamish from The Hunger Games is the perfect example. After watching countless tributes under his sponsorship die, he has given up caring about himself or others. That is until he finally believes he might have a shot at bringing a tribute home alive.

Hunger Games photo

The Absentee Antagonist’s Understudies: It’s easy to forget that in the Harry Potter series many of the unlikable characters are story stand-ins for the missing in action Lord V. The Dursleys, Crabbe, Fudge, Umbridge, even little Mrs. Norris are only there to provide obstacles, and in the end most of them never cause Harry any lasting harm. I like Argus Filch, he is a character who just oozes animosity and frankly looks like he smells bad, but underneath it all he is just venerable and scared of his own secrets getting out.Harry Potter

Kindness Killers: From high atop their sturdy soapbox, and speaking in a voice too high for mere mortals to hear, this character rains down upon a story with moral fortitude and impressive list of righteous conventions. This character strives to create change for what they think are all the right reasons, but they’ve gone terribly wrong. I think my favorite literary example is Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice, but who can forget Marianne Bryant in Easy A. She is just the right nasty blend of know-it-all faith and insufficient grace. Easy A crop

I love a large cast in stories. Give me groups of heroes or packs of story-helping characters, and if a few of them are quirky, creepy, and downright morally busted, all the better! If you don’t already have one of these powerhouse characters in your story, you might be missing out on something big. If you have a favorite unlikable character, please share them in the comments.

About the author

Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, an educator and historical consultant. She writes dark young adult fiction, with diverse characters. She's currently querying a novel, and working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook(https://www.facebook.com/robin.rivera.90813) or on Twitter @robinrwrites. However, Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/RRWrites/) is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

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  1. Jan

    Mr. Collins (from P&P) is one of my favorite characters as well!

  2. Seth

    Every character has to have depth. The secondary ones can often times end up stealing the show. Take the Heath Ledger Joker in the Dark Knight. His character was so atrocious but he kept a mystery about him that kept people curious. I totally agree, secondaries and antagonists make your story!

  3. Alex Hurst

    Sounds like you and I have the same weakness for secondary characters, Robin, haha. I always regret it, because they usually end up forcing me to make the story about them… and then I have to make another secondary–oh wait, he deserves center stage, too! It’s a vicious circle. 😉

    1. Robin Rivera

      That can happen with secondary characters. : ) They need their own space!
      I tend to plot a lot before I write anything, so my characters don’t evolve into bigger roles very often. However, I did write a manuscript with twin sisters and I never intended the younger sister to have her own book, but now I think she might need one. She was just too misunderstood by those around her. I think our little problem is a good thing. Story is characters!

  4. Jenni C

    Is that Adam Baldwin in the first pic? I have been loving his character, John Casey, in Chuck, which I am re-watching on Netflix. Great article!

    1. Robin Rivera

      Good eye. Another character that fits the back-up antagonist bill, but I would call John Casey in Chuck more of a loose cannon type! Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Shawn Griffith

    Robin, It would be interesting to see if you had a hero that did not care what anyone thought or said about them. Batman seems a little like that to me and so does John Wayne in Rooster Cogburn at least at first. Great article, I love a story when there are well written characters that one can love and a couple to hate or at least dislike. 🙂

    1. Robin Rivera

      It’s not easy to have a protagonist who is unlikable, and still have a really popular story. Yes, it can, and has been done, but I think starting with a secondary character who is a total jerk is a great way of learning how to write this type of character.

  6. Diane Coto

    As a reviewer, I can appreciate both good characters and bad. If the author has done a wonderful job with the bad character, I actually feel hate for him or her. I have to be careful that my feeling for the bad character doesn’t sway my overall review of the book. 🙂
    @dino0726 from 
    FictionZeal – Impartial, Straighforward Fiction Book Reviews

    1. Robin Rivera

      I can see that happening with a review. You can hate the narrator, but if you can set aside those feelings, you might still think the book is amazing. Thanks for pointing this out, Diane. It’s a great discussion point. : )

  7. Alana

    Love the pics / commentary.

    1. Robin Rivera

      Thanks, Alana!

  1. Five Links Friday 11/20/15 | Write Good Books

    […] 1. Robin Rivera has a guest post at Write On Sisters discussing something I haven’t really thought about before: The Back-up Antagonist. […]

  2. Top Picks Thursday 07-09-2015 | The Author Chronicles

    […] beliefs help motivate their actions, which Jo Eberhardt examines. Robin Rivera takes a look at unlikeable secondary characters and their functions in a story, Kristen A. Kieffer breaks down what is needed to create a powerful antagonist, and The Script Lab […]

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