In any great novel, we will find a memorable antagonist – one who is fully formed, with their own motivations and who is not just a cardboard cut-out or a caricature of pure evil, but a many-layered and complex obstacle to our protagonists main goal. This week, we discuss some of our own favourites and why…
Miss Trunchbull from Matilda by Roald Dahl
Terrifying Headmistress of Crunchem Hall Primary. “Looking at her, you got the feeling this was someone who could bend iron bars and tear telephone directories in half.” A perfect caricature in her ‘breeches!’ Poor little Matilda, Lavender and Miss Honey.
Mrs Coulter from His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
Intelligent, charming and very ambitious, she is able to manipulate even the cleverest of people and undergoes the most incredible character arc across the trilogy of novels. From evil, child-experimenting kidnapper, to caring, sacrificing mother she is the very definition of a complex and multi-layered antagonist who engages your interest from her first appearance to her last, and keeps you thinking about her for much longer.
Jeanine Matthews from Divergent by Veronica Roth
Cold, calculated and cruel. The main antagonist does a multitude of vile and horrible things in the first two books of the series, but what makes her a great protagonist for me, is that everything she does can be explained, at least from her point of view, and is almost understandable. Her incredible IQ and use of scientific methods, such as the serums, make her a formidable antagonist to defeat.
Rex from Way Down Dark by James Smythe
Rex is a brilliant antagonist for one main reason. She is essentially the same as our protagonist, but just born into a different world, or part of the space ship, in this story. It’s a classic tale of how upbringing and environment can shape a person. She displays many of the attributes of the protagonist, Chan, and they are very equally matched when they do fight towards the end of the book.
Mayor Prentiss from the Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness
Patrick Ness’ trilogy is one of my all-time YA favourites. Truth be told, I love all of the characters on New World. I’m still feeling slightly guilty for not including Todd or Viola in last week’s blog on protagonists!
Anyway, I love to hate / hate to love the enigmatic Mayor Prentiss because like the trilogy itself, he’s absolutely packed full of twisted moral complexity. He genuinely believes that he’s a ‘saviour’ of men but really, he’s a duplicitous, charismatic manipulator. And he often mixes his own special brand of brutal tyranny with a dash of politeness and a gentle touch; he is sinisterly nice. Fantastic!
At one point Todd calls him ‘a man who’s made himself of stone.’
There’s a lot of truth in that, after all, he’s capable of sacrificing the person he should love most in the world – in the worst way possible. On the other hand, it would be wrong to say that he’s completely lacking in feeling and even moments of weakness. We just never know when to believe him and always have to be on our guard in case he tricks us all over again. He tells Todd that he believes in the redemption of others and, against our better judgement, we are sometimes seduced into wondering if he’s a man who’s capable of finding his own redemption (no spoilers).
What the Mayor wants and needs above anything else is control – to
own people, bending and shaping them to his will, so that they themselves choose to be players in his grand plan. And part of his wonderful modus operandi, is to give people genuine hope – only to ruthlessly snatch it away again whenever it suits. Basically, he messes with your head and everyone’s loyalties so much that nobody knows right from wrong or which way is up anymore. I love him.
The Tzaddik from The Tiger in the Well, Philip Pullman
Illusive, mysterious, cunning, evil. Any antagonist who plans to kidnap and train a small girl to replace his personal serving-monkey ticks the seriously bad guy box for me every time.
Captain Jack Sparrow, Pirates of the Caribbean: Captain Sparrow is my salt and sugar popcorn, the most irreverent, double-crossing swindler of the Carribean! A Pirate Captain of weak, volatile morality, he is a master of self-interest, and fights a constant, losing battle with himself. And yet we find it impossible to hate him. Quite aside from the fact he is played by the prodigious talent that is Johnny Depp, the character sails the finest of lines between genius and madness – and we love him all the more for it.