Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the dynamic of the story’s antagonist and what that really means. Most books I’ve read have typically had a forgettable protagonist, just someone for the protagonist to defeat in a battle of good vs evil. But a memorable story tends to have an opposing force that serves to challenge the protagonist and their personal views.
I think the strongest and most common conflict in a story is a person vs person conflict. A lot of this is because having an antagonist present for the protagonist to bounce ideologies off each other and be a ever present force driving the story is great! When it’s done right of course. Far too many stories have an antagonist is literally just there to be evil and someone for the protagonist to fight. This isn’t to say those stories are weaker, they may be focusing more on character development and the dynamics of the group as a whole, but having a strong antagonist is easily one of the best payoffs an author can have.
One of the best examples of this dynamic is the Avatar series. Both series have a very strong story arc and both are a fun ride for those watching. The Last Airbender is a story with strong character development and examples of a fun and dynamic story. But despite that, the firelord is easily the weakest character in the series. Short of having a mustache to twirl, he’s a generic villain with no development nor clashing ideologies to explore or really invest in. This guy is evil for the sake of being evil. Now that’s not at all bad as The Last Airbender was all about a group of characters on a journey across the world. The character development was heartwarming and fantastic!
– SPOILER WARNING –
IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED THE LEGEND OF KORRA I STRONGLY RECOMMEND WATCHING IT
Now contrast this with The Legend of Korra. Korra was filled with some of the best antagonists I’ve seen. Each of them not only posed a direct threat to Korra and the gang, but also provided an ideological conflict that manifested in Republic City and/or in Korra herself. Amon brought a very real threat in removing the powers of benders, claiming them to be abusive with their power. But more importantly, you could see the rise of a movement in Republic City for equality between benders and non-benders. Suddenly being the Avatar had serious backlash being the most powerful bender. Unalaq was, in my opinion, one of the more forgettable villains in Korra. It felt like his ideological argument was weaker than the other three as it didn’t necessarily challenge a deeply held belief in Korra. He argued that the spirits and humans should live together in harmony instead of being isolated from each other.
Kuvira was a strong antagonist that I actually found admirable and my favorite of the four. Her taking the reigns of the Earth Kingdom and changing it to the Earth Empire felt very akin to the Fire Lord’s conquest. But the way she went about it, her veiled threats to the territories she “united” and the confidence she had was far more interesting than Fire Lord Ozai’s. She was at the front lines furthering her conquests. At the core of her argument though, believing that power should not be given simply by the passage of lineage was something everyone can agree with. The toppling of a royal family who was known to be abusive and decadent (The Earth Queen wasn’t winning anyone over) is a plot arc that is easy to understand, but the role she took on as “The Great Uniter” was a far more fascinating plot point. The Great Uniter was a reflection of what the Avatar was supposed to be. Here we see a perversion of what the Avatar’s role in the world is but when you think about it, it’s not too entirely different than what Korra was doing. Both Korra and Kuvira would talk to their opponent, argue with them first before resorting to violence to enact what they believed was the greater good. I thought this was beautifully done in the final episode when you see Korra and Kuvira brought into the Spirit World. Korra appears as blue and a reflection of herself that turns into Kuvira in purple, similar to the differences of Vatuu and Raava. Korra even says how she sees herself in Kuvira and we get to see the real character that Kuvira was, a sympathetic character who really was fighting to bring balance to her people.
While I love Kuvira as an antagonist, Zaheer was easily the strongest antagonist in the series however. Unlike Amon and Unalaq, Zaheer truly believed in his convictions. He was a very spiritual antagonist as we could see from his self-taught air bending knowledge (I wish he kept the beard, it was so fitting). Air benders were seen as the most spiritual of the four elements and Zaheer proved that he was the most talented and knowledgeable air bender. The man learned to fly! Aang couldn’t even do that. It was cool seeing this in comparison to Tenzin, who was previously seen as the leading air bending master in the world, struggling to enter the spirit world which Zaheer could do without issue. We as the viewer got to see how Zaheer was hard working and determined in his convictions.
But more importantly Zaheer believed in radical change of the governing of society. The man truly believed that a nomadic society without governing order was the true essence of humanity. He provides clear examples in the president of Republic City (who constantly stands in Korra’s way), the tyrannical Earth Queen (who opposed Korra’s investigation of air benders in the Earth Kingdom) and the best example being the Fire Lord Sozin who committed the genocide of the nomadic air benders. The best part about this whole conversation was that there was no argument to be had here. We as the viewers have seen Korra’s struggle against the President and the Earth Queen and the entirety of The Last Airbender was about how evil the Fire Lord’s intentions were. At some point when the viewer watches this arc, its hard not to agree with his viewpoints on the world’s problems. Both series of the Avatar displayed how the governments of the different nations always stood in the Avatar’s way and made the quest for peace more challenging. I don’t know anyone who felt bad about the Earth Queen’s assassination and Zaheer’s crew breaking down the walls (literally) between the classes of society in the Earth Kingdom. There was no question that Zaheer was evil but he was charismatic and intelligent, making him a fun and intriguing villain that I enjoyed seeing on screen.
If you’re struggling with developing your antagonist past a mustache twirling villain, I highly recommend watching (and re-watching) the Legend of Korra seasons 3 and 4.
Hope this helps! 🙂