The core of story is conflict. If your story contains no struggle, it’s just a tale about nobody important who never overcame anything. Conflict takes many forms; physical, mental, and spiritual conflicts are all crucial, and even necessary. Ideological conflict, however, is invaluable to developing character arcs. Without it, your protagonist won’t grow because his beliefs are never questioned. Ideological conflict is often facilitated by villains and side characters who challenge the hero’s beliefs and worldview. If you start with your protagonist, creating these characters is relatively simple.
How to Create an Effective Villain
Let’s say your hero has a positive change arc. This means your protagonist initially has a negative Experiment in Living and clings to a lie that damages or hinders him somehow. Over the course of the story he learns the truth, which he eventually uses to replace the lie and defeat the villain.
For example, your protagonist is daring, smart, and not-too-shabby with a blade. He’s a great guy on the surface, but underneath he has a big problem: he’s harbored a grudge over his brother’s accidental death for too long. His belief that revenge will satisfy him is the falsehood at the core of his negative Experiment in Living. Forgiveness could free him, which is the truth at the core of the positive Experiment in Living he needs to embody by the story’s end.
Once you know your protagonist and what he needs to learn, you can create his adversary. Imagine what would happen if your hero didn’t find the truth, if he refused to forgive. He’d burn up inside, push others away, and be consumed by bitterness. It would affect all his decisions. He might even destroy others in his quest for revenge.
Now you have your villain.
The easiest way to build a bad guy who challenges your hero on an ideological level is to make him reject the truth your protagonist embraces. Sure, the villain may differ vastly from the protagonist, but the most important contrast between the hero and his nemesis is the path they ultimately choose—in essence, their character arcs. At the end of the story, the protagonist will forgive, but the villain will not.
Forging your villain as a negative version of your protagonist’s arc benefits your story in three major ways:
1. It ingrains your story’s conflict into the nature of your villain and protagonist. Almost every time they meet your protagonist’s beliefs will be confronted. How the villain and hero have dealt with problems has shaped their lives, and when they face off in the climax, their opposing viewpoints will clash like fire and ice.
This battle will reveal and sharpen your theme. When your theme is deeply woven into your story’s plot, that will prevent it from feeling preachy.
2. It raises the stakes for the protagonist. Readers realize your protagonist has faults, but now they are given a glimpse of the monster he could become if he doesn’t change.
3. Your villain becomes more human. Readers can relate to him because they see where his downfall began.
This principle works with various combinations of character arcs as well. Your villain can have a flat arc while your protagonist has a positive one. Both villain and protagonist can have a flat arc. Or, the villain can have a flat arc while your protagonist has a negative one.
How Side Characters Affect a Protagonist’s Character Arc
Side characters can also impact your protagonist’s arc if they serve as foils. If a side character has accepted the truth, she can guide and encourage your protagonist throughout the story. This can also produce conflict if the protagonist doesn’t want to recognize the truth. Conversely, a side character who believes the lie can generate conflict as he drags your hero further from the truth. These characters not only demonstrate the different paths the protagonist can follow, but they can show the consequences or rewards associated with accepting or rejecting the lie/truth, just like the antagonist.
These side characters can play any role. Perhaps your protagonist’s mentor is the one who encourages him to hold onto his bitterness. The love interest might urge the protagonist to pursue vengeance because she thinks it will assuage him and draw his attention back to their relationship. Maybe one of your minor antagonists notices the lie destroying the villain and ends up counseling your protagonist against revenge. Providing side characters with their own Experiments in Living and beliefs about the truth/lie opens up new and unique opportunities to develop your protagonist’s arc.
Frozen is a wonderful example of using character arcs to raise ideological conflict. Elsa is the main antagonist for most of the film. The protagonist, Anna, has a flat arc; she knows that love casts out fear and that she can help Elsa by loving her as a sister. In contrast, Elsa believes for the majority of the story that nothing can stop the fear and the best she can do is keep it under control and away from others. One sister lives under love, the other under fear. Each time they meet in the film, especially in the middle and end, their perspectives are contrasted. Anna’s belief in the truth eventually saves the day.
Weaving All These Characters Together
Not all characters need to echo the protagonist. However, a villain or side character who negatively or positively handles the issues your protagonist is struggling with will help define his character arc and enhance your theme. Your book will be imbued with more meaning, bringing it one step closer to a story worth reading.
How have you used side characters and villains in the past to deepen your protagonist’s character arc? Please share in the comments!