I know I'm supposed to be working on things that aren't a TAW fix and/or another Shiloh & Alexi story. And for the most part, I have been, I swear. But I was on a walk during one of my breaks at work when, just for the hell of it, I decided to think on what I could change in TAW to make it work. And that helped me realize a serious problem that I somehow missed throughout the entire creation process:
The book lacks a good, solid antagonist.
It's one of those things I would deny if I hadn't realized it myself. But it's true. The Big Bad makes two appearances, and we get little of its motivation. (Yes, it's an it. Demons in this world don't have genders.) Other than that, there are the demon's nameless minions, two minor demons, a powerful minion with a name whom I only brought in because he was going to be significant in the sequel, and ████████, who becomes the surprise antagonist right at the end.
So, since the antagonist's part is both weak and spread among too many beings, the entire story comes off as an excuse for the two main characters to go on a journey and end up together. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's not what I was going for.
I think this is part of a larger problem for me. I write characters I like, and I want to see them do well. Hell, I want them to be awesome. So it's a lot easier for me to write them doing great things rather than being in direct or indirect conflict with a main antagonist. Too many of my plots have the heroes and the Big Bad come into conflict only right at the beginning and at the end, with the main characters simply achieving various goals all throughout the middle.
I realize this structure is exceedingly common. Yet somehow it doesn't quite feel right.
It's kind of a given that the antagonist has to have more power and
resources than the heroes, otherwise it's not much of a conflict. The
trick is finding ways to keep both sides involved without either
overcoming the other until the end of the story. (Ways that make sense,
of course. If the antagonist is a political manipulator type, it's
hard to justify them as behind the carnivorous badgers that dog the
heroes' every step.)
The other side of this is risking the antagonist becoming a cartoon villain. If the main adversary has reason to kill the main characters, they can't encounter said antagonist every few chapters, or it turns into "I'll get you next time, Gadget!" after the third or fourth time. (Or you run out of main characters halfway through the book.) If the antagonist wants to capture them, it's easy to assume they'll always escape, until the story's final act. A variant of this is when the antagonist sends mooks of subsequently greater power after the heroes, all of whom end up defeated, leaving the heroes stronger and the reader wondering why the Big Bad didn't send the strongest mooks right at the start.
I think the Empire from the original three 'Star Wars' movies is probably one of the best examples of how to do this right. They bring about conflict both personal and galaxy-spanning. They're more powerful than the heroes, yet still the heroes can both achieve major victories and suffer significant defeats without either side being brought down. Lastly, their final conflict is orchestrated on multiple levels, and it couldn't have happened at any other point in the story.
So, question time: what sort of antagonists do you like the most? What sort do you like to write? Have you also struggled with making sure they work as they should? And if so, how did you fix them?