I'm going to start my month-long Daniel Abraham series by discussing A Betrayal in Winter, which is the second book in his fantasy series, The Long Price Quartet. If you haven’t already, you can see my introductory post on what I’m hoping to do over the month of October.
I wanted to talk about this book because it displays something that I believe that Abraham does rather well: writing the sympathetic antagonist. The novel as a whole is character-driven, meaning that the motivations of the characters drive the action of the story and inevitably pit them against other characters. The antagonists, then, create tension by who they are as people and by the decisions that they make.
First, a quick summary for context:
In the country of Machi, it is the tradition that the sons of the ruler, the Khai, must kill one another in competition for the throne. The last remaining son will be the next Khai. While the current Khai is dying, the eldest son is unexpectedly killed, causing each of the remaining brothers to suspect each other. Unbeknownst to them, someone in Machi has allied themselves with the power-hungry Galts to destroy the ruling house.
There’s a LOT more to it, but this will suffice for our purposes. What was so intriguing to me about this book is that we know who is behind all this as early as chapter two!
We find out that the only daughter of the Khai, Idaan, and her lover Adrah are conspiring to murder all of her brothers! As a woman, Idaan cannot inherit the throne, so she decides to clear the way for Adrah to be the next ruler so that she can rule alongside him as queen.
How does Abraham keep the story going if we already know who is behind the plot? The key, in my opinion, lies with Abraham's choice of antagonist, Idaan. My initial thought on reading this book was that Abraham had set himself quite the challenge in revealing the conspirators so early. And I'm sure it was challenging to write. But as I kept reading, I realized that it created a host of opportunities for building tension into the story apart from the protagonists and subplots.
So let's dive in.
This is a lengthy passage, so stay with me. This is from chapter two, when we first learn that Idaan is the culprit:
No had ever seen Idaan’s rebellions as hunger. That had been their fault. If her friends or her brothers transgressed against the etiquette of the court, consequences came upon them, shame or censure. But Idaan was the favored daughter. She might steal a rival girl’s gown or arrive late to the temple and interrupt the priest. She could evade her chaperones or steal wine from the kitchens or dance with inappropriate men. She was Idaan Machi, and she could do as she saw fit, because she didn’t matter. She was a woman. And if she’d never screamed at her father in the middle of his court that she was as much his child as Biitrah or Danat or Kaiin, it was because she feared in her bones that he would only agree, make some airy comment to dismiss the matter, and leave her more desperate than before.
Perhaps if once someone had taken her to task, had treated her as if her actions had the same weight as other people’s, things would have ended differently.
Or perhaps folly is folly because you can’t see where it moves from ambition into evil. Arguments that seem solid and powerful prove hollow once it’s too late to turn back. Arguments like Why should it be right for them but wrong for me?
This is the back story of Idaan's experiences that fuel her betrayal, the feelings of alienation that fester and warp into evil. We can easily see the seeds of resentment that grow and follow her into adulthood and eventually lead to the murders of her brothers and father.
What can we take away from this passage?
Consider your antagonist’s motivations. Where did things “move from ambition into evil”?
An antagonist with a relatable background is a compelling antagonist. Notice how many emotions with which an average reader can readily identify: feeling as though your actions are not weighed as heavily as those of others; feeling disregarded due to gender (or status or whatever); sibling rivalry; desperate desire to be taken seriously by parents. These are all real feelings or scenarios that drive the way that ordinary people interact with the world. It is easy to see how these feelings can be channeled in the wrong direction. While one character takes these experiences and learns from them, another character uses them to fuel resentment and anger.
Incorporate feelings of regret or sadness about decisions.
Compelling antagonists are conflicted. An antagonist becomes impersonal when there appears to be no regret or remorse, or even no questioning of previous decisions. What, in my opinion, makes Idaan relatable, and therefore prevents her from turning into a psychotic monster, is that she continually regrets her decisions and feels trapped into continuing the murders of her family.
I asked earlier how Abraham manages to carry the story when he reveals his conspirators in the second chapter. He is able to do this because it’s woven into the character of his antagonist. Idaan constantly questions her decisions and longs to take back everything that she’s done. As Idaan is drawn further into her self-created web of deceit and murder, the tension we feel as readers increases as we wonder, “Will she draw the line here? Will she be caught here?”
And Abraham doesn’t allow her to rest. She is driven from lie to lie as she tries to hide her activities from the other protagonists attempting to discover them. Her regret is almost palpable when you read passages like the following: “She felt something warm in her breast—painful and sad and as warm as the first sip of rum on a midwinter night. She wondered if it might be hatred, and if it were, whether it was for herself or this man before her.”
Throughout the novel, Idaan does truly terrible things. At no time do we condone her actions. But she is a convincing antagonist. We see her inner life: her actions are accompanied with a deep sense of guilt and self-loathing, and she’s constantly plagued by the desire to go back and change everything that she has done.
The secret that Abraham shows us in Idaan is that an antagonist is, first and foremost, a person—a person comprised of ambitions, dreams, and motivations that shape the way that that character interacts with the world. Even when the characters make terrible choices, we are able see the progression of motivation and perspective that leads the character to make that choice, whether or not we agree with that choice.
I won't tell you what happens in the end; you'll have to read for yourself.
As a final word, you ultimately need to decide on the type of antagonist that works well for the story that you are trying to tell. There are many influential works of literature that don’t have three-dimensional antagonists. Sauron from The Lord of the Rings comes to mind. One would be hard-pressed to say that Sauron is a well-rounded character. He is bent on wholesale destruction of Middle Earth with no other motivation than the desire for control. He doesn’t really have a personality (unless you can prove to me otherwise; if so, please do). We recognize that Sauron is an individual orchestrating the battles and moving armies. But, I argue, we don’t think of him as a person.
So The Lord of the Rings, influential in so many ways, has a flat (main) antagonist. But Sauron works well for the story that Tolkien is telling, and we encounter conflicted antagonists in other characters like Gollum and (for a time) Boromir. Sauron would not work in other types of stories, particularly character-driven stories. Most of these things that I’ll be writing about in the coming weeks will hinge on the type of story that you are telling and what works well for that type of story.
Writing well-rounded, realistic characters is a difficult task in itself, and compelling antagonists possibly more difficult. Hopefully this is helpful and opens up some ideas or avenues for you to explore.
Cheers and happy writing.