The draft I wrote during NaNoWriMo this past November was based on an idea I’ve had (and written partial manuscripts for) for over a decade. Last year, before I started writing it, I decided to cut the main character. Yes, you read that right. I cut the main character. The main character, now, is the character who used to be the antagonist. She’s still antagonizing, but since it’s her series now, she’s the protagonist.
Although she always had a sliver of decency and goodness in her, now that she’s my primary character, it hit home hard about halfway through November that I really didn’t have enough good and decent in my head for her, especially for the first book of the trilogy, before she goes totally batshit. See, if you’re going to have an anti-hero as your main character, I feel like they have to be either (a) very funny, (b) heartbreakingly and tragically messed up, or (c) both. And characters are not tragic if they are merely whiny or annoying. No, what makes a character tragic is when they make the wrong choices while thoroughly believing they’re the right choices, or at least that they’re doing it for the right reasons. Tragic is not being able to see the big picture clearly, while being firmly convinced that you do see it clearly. Seeing no alternatives and moving steadily toward your own downfall because you’re missing something vital about yourself, the world, or life itself.
I’m getting to the exercise part, I promise. I’m just verbose today. Or loquacious. Either word is a good one.
Anyway, it occurred to me that, both as a reader and as a writer of this book, I wanted more of a sense of this becoming-a-villain’s vulnerability. NaNo requires such intensively fast work that one angle of that came out spontaneously – she’s claustrophobic about dim, underground spaces. This particular fear is especially odd coming from someone whose race can’t tolerate sustained exposure to sunlight (they get “sun sickness”) so they usually live in underground communities.
The other thing that clicked into place was, late in November, frantic for inspiration to up my word count, I dug through every single cut scene, “parts” file, and scrawled-on-napkin note to myself, that I’d ever written for the series in these last almost-thirteen years. And I ran across a nightmare that my previous protagonist (the one I cut) had. I wrote this nightmare scene about eight years ago, for a completely different person, but I realized that it would work perfectly for Tessen (my new lead character). The anxieties this nightmare points to, the imagery, the setting, and the foreshadowing all work for her inner conflict and the things to come for her, almost like I wrote it with her in mind in the first place…which I may have done, subconsciously.
So the exercise, finally, is this: Whether you use it in the book or not, write a nightmare for your antagonist. Start it as a free write, and keep in mind how dreams twist and settings change or combine, people in the dream with you shift into other people or aren’t actual people that you know (although, in the dream, you feel you know them). Just see what comes out of it. Afterward, give some brainstorm time to why this is your antagonist’s nightmare. What underlying fears does this expose? Is it the imagery of the dream that scares him/her, or what the imagery symbolizes (or both)? What do the other people in the dream represent to your character? The places? What does this dream show is on your character’s mind – anxieties for the near future, reflections on the past, etc? Does any of it foreshadow something further along in the book?