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in my short story the antagonist is someone confident and street-smart who is hiding their gambling addiction from a friend staying with them, as they are looking to take advantage of their friend (they pretend they have a job at the casino, etc).

My question is how do I decide how far the antagonist is willing to go? For example, are they stealing just from their friend or also involved in organized crime or in serious debts to loan sharks and so on. I think it would be best for the antagonist to make up with the main character at the end, but I don't want to make them do so much bad that this is impossible.

I also worry that if the antagonist makes too few mistakes, the whole thing will be anti-climactic (it is set in Vegas).

(For more info about the story, see the previous question I asked).

3 Answers 3

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Looks like to want your antagonist to get redemption and turn to good. This is a relatively common theme in fiction.

You need to think not just the level of badness your antagonist is going to reach, but the whole character arc for this antagonist.

  1. What are those bad things that this character is doing? Is there a relatable explanation for it?
  2. What are the good traits of this character? There must be some, they can't just magically appear after the climax;
  3. What can prompt the character to rethink bad behavior and turn to good?

For the "level of badness", for your story it looks like everything is about the money. Money is something that can be returned or repaid. Or not, if you like to turn your story into something like "Ocean's Eleven".

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  • Money is a motivator, but it is more about the idea of being successful and overcoming a working class background. The antagonist came to Vegas to try and accomplish that dream, hence the obsession with gambling. Good characteristics include a strength of character and perseverance, a genuine care for those close to them even if the addiction has destroyed most of their relationships. Not sure about what causes them to rethink. I was thinking they would be caught red-handed (caught in a lie), but I'm worried this could come across as them being "sorry they were caught." Any suggestions?
    – abrac
    Jul 12, 2021 at 19:32
  • @abrac: My 2¢: The antagonist needs to lose something, ideally something which they value more than money. Then you can leverage the want-need distinction, so that they have to give up on their want (money) to get their need (the other thing) back.
    – Kevin
    Jul 13, 2021 at 17:15
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As bad as they can be - except for that last thing:

You need to make your antagonist as bad as you can make them. Nothing is too slimy and scuzzy for them to do to get what they want. Except for that one thing.

The one thing will be very personal and intimate to the antagonist. It will be best revealed at the climax, where the antagonist has a choice of betraying the one thing they absolutely can't bring themselves to do, or being successful. To redeem the antagonist, they must choose of their own free will to give up success in exchange for their last principles.

The form of that one thing is, unfortunately, so specific to the character that it's impossible for me to tell you what is is. In the movie Hannibal, Hannibal Lecter would rather cut off his own hand than hurt Clarice. Maybe the antagonist is reminded of a betrayal by his mother from childhood, and success means recapitulating that same betrayal. You know the character, and must decide what line they are unable to push themselves to cross in order to achieve their goals. Then ask them to cross it.

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  • That was very helpful, didn't think about it in terms of the lines that the antagonist is able or unable to cross. Should I avoid making the antagonist change his behaviour because he is caught red-handed? It would be the most obvious way for him to regret his actions, but perhaps it would be better for him to come to a realization by himself rather than just being sorry because he got caught?
    – abrac
    Jul 13, 2021 at 11:13
  • @abrac If you want the antagonist to be sympathetic to your MC and for them to reconcile, then you might not. If, however, the line they can't cross is to implicate someone else to escape the consequences of their own actions, OR if the line is to refuse to reveal another criminal so as to prevent self-incriminating evidence to come out, they could still be caught and yet also redeemed. But the antagonist should have a chance to escape punishment somehow, and decide not to take it on principle. Redemption/confession requires a true acceptance of responsibility.
    – DWKraus
    Jul 13, 2021 at 12:35
  • @abrac I had a character who was a terrorist, and believed in their actions at the time, but when confronted with a victim's brother couldn't defend herself from violence despite the opportunity to do so. Not quite a perfect parallel, but similar.
    – DWKraus
    Jul 13, 2021 at 12:40
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Just to add to what others have said already, it might be helpful to give the friend a reason to want to forgive the antagonist, no matter how egregious his deeds. Like they go way back to toddlerhood, have seen each other through some extraordinary event that creates a unique bond, or the friend feels they owe them a debt of gratitude.

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  • Thanks! I was just thinking about this, they need to have some good shared experiences which demonstrate character.
    – abrac
    Jul 16, 2021 at 20:47

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