We all know the basic formula ‘Hero vs. Villain,’ the simple brand of storytelling that has survived the test of time. It’s straightforward, full of conflict, and gives us epic tales of good versus evil. But as much as I love a good Hero vs. Villain tale, there’s something I love more – stories in which the hero goes up against several types of antagonists, not just one. An excellent example is one of my favorite films, Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. The film is set in Washington, D.C. circa 2054. Crime is at a standstill thanks to PreCrime, a new method of crime prediction via the visions of three ‘Precogs.’ Nobody questions the ethics of such determinism until John Anderton, PreCrime’s best officer, is accused of a future murder. The film wonderfully showcases the brilliance of storyteller Philip K. Dick, the genius who wrote the stories behind the Adjustment Bureau, Paycheck, Total Recall, and the Man in the High Castle.
WARNING: If you haven’t seen Minority Report this is not a spoiler-free post. Proceed at your own risk.
The film gives us three antagonist archetypes: The Mastermind in the Shadows, the Zealous Lawman, and the Deputy. Let’s have a look at these three types of antagonists to spice up your writing life.
Burgess (The MASTERMIND)
This is the character ‘behind everything,’ the figure lurking behind the curtain. Often this character’s greatest power lies in being unknown, as the Mastermind’s identity is only revealed at the end of the story. This is the character pulling all the strings, knocking over the line of dominoes and setting the game in motion. In a way, the Mastermind begins and ends a story, and everything in the middle is just the chain of events he sets in motion. Other examples of the Mastermind would be Sauron (the Lord of the Rings), Voldemort (Harry Potter), and Moriarty (Sherlock Holmes).
Witwer (the LAWMAN)
This is the character pedantically referred to as ‘the suit.’ Often a government agent, this is the character who wants so badly to catch ‘the bad guy’ that he can’t see the proverbial forest for the trees. Often, this character either a) is likeable because he’s trying to do the right thing, or b) becomes likeable once he realizes he’s wrong. I love this archetype because they serve two roles: they are both antagonist and protagonist in different ways and at different times. They may chase the hero the length and breadth of the story, but may finish standing side-by-side with the hero anyway. In the end, their objective is the truth. Other examples of the Lawman would be Tina (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), The Operative (Serenity), or Captain Lance (Arrow).
Fletcher (the GRUNT)
This character’s purpose is to cause smaller-scale conflict whenever necessary. The Grunt is a low-tier antagonist. He isn’t embroiled in the grander politics of his mission – he’s just doing his job. The Grunt usually lacks higher motivation – he’s out for a paycheck and he doesn’t really care about the deeper levels of any given situation. While a story can get complicated and messy with multiple Masterminds or Lawmen, multiple Grunts are acceptable because they don’t take up much ‘space,’ storywise, and instead lend well-timed conflict and tension to the story without weighing it down. The Grunt may even overlook a previous friendship with the Hero if he’s instructed to do so. Other examples of the Grunt would be Gordon (Agents of SHIELD), the Pilgrim (Legends of Tomorrow), or Ruby (Supernatural).
You may have noticed that I made many ‘definitive’ statements about each of these archetypes, and that’s where the fun comes in. Each of these characters serves a different function, but there’s no reason you can’t shake things up. Why not have give a Grunt emotional reasoning behind his actions? Or turn the Lawman’s quest for justice into a search for revenge? That’s the best part about writing – taking a preconceived notion and giving it a fresh twist.