Two of the most eye-opening moments for me came about as the result of conversations about antagonists. The first time, my screenplay adaptation instructor Stephen Molton asked me who the antagonist was in Ordinary World (I had chosen this work to adapt). I had to think about this. Remember, I'm trained in rhetoric, not literature. This stuff doesn't come as quickly to me.
"Um, I think it's Andi's grief," I replied, my voice full of uncertainty.
Stephen, the nurturing teacher, clarified that grief was certainly one obstacle in the way of Andi's intention. (And then, a blast from the past: "man vs. man", "man vs. nature", and "man vs. himself" emerged from the memory vault marked "7th-grade English".) But there was a more obvious antagonist.
Of course. He's the guy who always pushed Andi's buttons, first as Devin in Faking It. Literally, the antagonizer. I had never thought of him as such because I had always believed antagonists to be villains with sinister motives; and quite frankly, Devin/David never appeared as such to me.
Eye-opener number two came on the heels of this revelation in a second workshop with Will Chandler who mentioned, almost in a by-the-way fashion, that "the antagonist never thinks s/he's the antagonist; s/he always thinks s/he's the protagonist."
And just like that, my world opened up. Of course. Of course! No wonder David never appeared to be the antagonist. He even fooled me into thinking he was the protagonist (well, one of them). This revelation brought with it a new pair of eyes with which to see my current "cast" of characters in my latest novel-in-progess. It opened up possibilities in terms of exploring their depth, their motivation, and their perceptions. It made me excited to (re-)visit them.
And if that wasn't enough, Stephen, with super-screenwriter x-ray vision of his own, saw another antagonist, "the one hiding in plain sight," as he called it, that could be developed for the Ordinary World screenplay.
Can you guess who it is?
So, to sum up, here's what I bring back to my novel-writing: when getting to know my characters, it is key for me to ask what my protagonist wants (intention) and what's in the way of her/him getting it (obstacle). It is key for me to identify my antagonist not necessarily as the villain (although s/he very well may be), but perhaps either as one of those obstacles or, more literally, the antagonizer. And as I explore my antagonists' psyches, it will be key for me to listen to them make their case for protag status. No doubt I will learn plenty from them when they tell me. And so will you.