|Character Art by Rachel Gillespie
We all know a villain when we see one. Black cape, nefarious cackle, possibly a mustache or long, sharp fingernails. Villains generally have evil goals, so they’re easy to spot even when they're not dressed in standard villain attire. But what makes a character an antagonist?
By definition, an antagonist is a character who stands in the way of the protagonist’s goals. An antagonist doesn’t have to be evil or act with open hostility against the hero. Sometimes, the antagonist might not be what he or she appears to be, as is the case for Andrew Clements’s character Mrs. Granger, the teacher who tries to thwart Nick’s efforts to adopt a new word for pen in Frindle.
In my latest book, The Eighth Day, which releases today (Today! Today! Today!), I have a few villains (some minor, some major), but there's also an important antagonist who, like Mrs. Granger, is not what he seems to be: Riley Pendare.
In an email regarding his review of The Eighth Day on Middle Grade Mafioso, fellow Mayhemer Michael Gittel-Gilmartin said that he liked how I “made a couple of initially not likable characters into people that by the end we were rooting for completely.”
I’m guessing Riley was one of them, since I deliberately set him up to be disliked. The protagonist, Jax, lays it out bluntly on the first page:
Riley Pendare is the 18 year-old tattooed and motorcycle-riding stranger who showed up after Jax’s dad died, claiming to be his legal guardian. Riley whisks Jax away from the only family he has left and then proceeds to neglect him.
What Jax told the caseworker was that Riley had forgotten to pay the electric bill and almost missed the gas bill; that he only brought home as many groceries as he could carry on his motorcycle; that he could barely take care of himself and was in no way capable of taking care of Jax.
Even after Jax gets an introduction to Grunsday, the secret eighth day of the week, via his guardian, he stubbornly refuses to revise his opinion.
Just because they shared this weird Grunsday thing didn’t mean he liked Riley.
Change happens slowly – and only as Jax learns about Riley’s backstory. They have more in common than he realized, and there’s a reason (a sad one) for his guardian’s neglectfulness. Almost against his will, Jax starts seeing Riley as person instead of an obstacle …
“When did I start worrying about Riley?”
… and eventually as someone to be admired. By the climax, when Jax is steeling himself to do something brave and daring, he knows who he needs to model himself after.
Riley would do it, he told himself.
They say that a villain is always the hero of his own story. Likewise, antagonists might not really be blocking the way to the hero’s goal – but, rather, pointing out the right path to a better goal!