According to the website http://www.literarydevices.net, an antagonist is described as “a character which stands in opposition to the protagonist or the main character. The term antagonist comes from Greek word “antagonistēs” that means opponent, competitor or rival.” A story needs conflict and antagonists are packaged for conflict—they attempt to thwart the protagonist’s desires and goals and voilá—a plot emerges.
But should your antagonist have a voice? Donna Jo Napoli tackles this territory in her YA novel Zel, which is a re-telling of the fairy tale Rapunzel set in Switzerland in the mid-1500s. In most versions of the fairy tale, Rapunzel is the main character: she’s the one locked up in a tower by a witch, she’s the one whose hair grows so long it becomes a ladder, and ultimately she’s the one rescued by a prince. And yet in Napoli’s version, the antagonist, the Mother character, is given a prominent role and voice. And not just any voice—Mother is the only character who narrates in the first person. Thanks to the intimacy of this POV, the character of Mother, who in most versions of Rapunzel is nothing more than an evil presence in the background, is the one the reader grows to know and understand the most. In fact, in Napoli’s version, the character of Zel has a story to tell because of Mother. In spite of the despicable choices she makes when it comes to her daughter, Mother is still painted as a sympathetic character. Giving a voice to your antagonist can help a writer breathe new life into a familiar story and can also help you ensure that your antagonist is as complex a character as your protagonist, instead of simply a foil.
Readers are granted access to Mother’s inner thoughts, including the all-consuming love Mother has for Zel, which often blinds her to the evilness of her actions. Because she has a voice, the reader is able to see that Mother loves Zel and believes that she is protecting her when she locks her in a tower, and this in turn allows Mother to emerge as a complicated character instead of a stereotype.
Halfway through the book, the reader learns that Mother sold her soul to the devil for a chance to have a child and she later kidnapped Zel as a baby. Both the kidnapping and her pact with the devil are odious acts. And yet leading up to these acts, the reader feels sorry for Mother because he knows Mother’s struggles both to conceive a child of her own and to lead a fulfilling, childless life. The reader is privy to the knowledge that the decision to sell her soul to the devil for a baby and kidnap another woman’s child didn’t occur overnight. Rather, it was a gradual process, a steady decline into madness and an overwhelming depression, the only way out a detour into the devil’s clutches.
Mother spends Zel’s childhood justifying how she became a Mother, and the reader almost believes her version of the story, that her absolute devotion to Zel overshadows the terrible act that brought her daughter into her life. She offers up proof that Zel was happy with her, and that Mother was always thankful and grateful to be Zel’s mother.
The girl smiled all the time. I rolled in the grasses with her…I splashed in the stream with her…I scrambled over rocks with her…And the girl laughed. (139)
Mother tries to convince herself that she can be everything to Zel, even as she realizes that Zel is blossoming into a young woman who craves independence and a life outside the small alm where she and Mother reside. Part of Mother’s pact to have a child was that she would convince Zel to hand over her own soul to the devil. It’s at this point that Mother decides to lock her beloved daughter in a tower.
Mother’s decision to imprison Zel—a decision so vile that calling it child abuse seems trite—is presented by Mother as an act of love. While the reader never sympathizes with Mother for this decision, he is granted insight into Mother’s rationale. When Zel meets a young count named Konrad in the marketplace, Mother realizes that Zel wants a life with a husband and children of her own. After everything that Mother has sacrificed to become a Mother, she is not ready to let Zel marry and leave her. Mother believes that with a minimal amount of persuasion, Zel will choose a life with her and everything will go back to the way it was before Konrad.
I was mistaken; my daughter is not ready to choose… There is time still. If I use enough skill and care, I will persuade Zel by the time her moon blood first flows. (62)
At the time Mother locks her daughter in the tower, Zel is thirteen. Mother knows that on an emotional level, Zel is ready for a family of her own, and it’s only a few short months before her physical body is ready. This is significant because it shows that Mother had no intention of locking her daughter up forever; she imagined that it would only take a few months to convince Zel to choose a life with her. This doesn’t excuse Mother’s cruelness but it does provide a complex layering to the story that is often absent in other versions of the fairy tale. As the story progresses, Mother must choose—release Zel and force her to live with only Mother or allow her to marry Konrad. Should she risk eternal damnation and allow Zel to marry Konrad? Or risk emotional detachment and resentment from Zel and keep her locked up from the world?
The climax occurs with a showdown between Mother and Konrad after Mother casts a spell which sends Zel flying from tree to tree to keep the young count from finding her. The reader knows that Mother is going to die; in all versions of the fairy tale, Rapunzel is rescued, and the witch dies. But will Mother die as a mother or a witch? Before banishing her daughter from the tower, Mother realizes Zel is pregnant with Konrad’s child.
When Zel stood before me … I saw within her womb the cells that split and multiplied, to the act of God that punished me worse than anything else, Zel had it without a price. (205)
This is a double betrayal in Mother’s eyes – not only has Zel chosen Konrad over Mother, she’s pregnant. Everything Mother has sacrificed for Zel has been futile. Mother and Konrad fight, and Mother uses Rapunzel’s braids to whip him out the tower window. At the last second, Mother makes the surprising decision to save him, and she uses her magical powers to grow brambles around the tower to catch Konrad. This is her final act of love for Zel, saving the father of her daughter’s unborn child, while sacrificing her own life. The chapter ends with the words “He lives. I die” (208).
It would appear that Mother’s story is finished once Rapunzel and her prince are reunited and can live happily ever after. But Mother’s story isn’t finished; the novel ends with a final thought from Mother, with the last line of the book switching from Zel’s third person narration to Mother’s first person. “And they see each other and, yes, oh, yes, we are happy.” (227) The exact meaning of this sentence is debatable, but there is no disputing the realization that Mother’s death—whether it be physical, spiritual, or both—was not the death of a witch but of a mother. The reader sees that Mother’s love for Zel was her downfall but also her redemption. Without access to Mother’s thoughts throughout, readers would have been hard-pressed to accept that Mother can share in the lovers’ happiness as she clearly does by the line “yes, oh, yes, we are happy.”
Understanding the motives and desires of not only your protagonist but also your antagonist will add complexity and a deeper meaning to your story.
Napoli, Donna Jo. Zel. New York: Dutton-Penguin Putnam, 1996.