Tuesday, January 22, 2013

"Where Will You Go? I'll Find You": What Les Mis Taught Me about Creating Believable Antagonists

Have you ever read a book where the antagonist appears to have been clipped out of the Sunday cartoon pages?

It can be a challenge to create a believable villain.

One that has dreams and fears. Compelling backstory shared in small tidbits. True-to-life dialogue makes this character a man you love to hate.

My favorite literary antagonist? Inspector Javert.

Read on to find out why and what he taught me about the heinous art of villainy.

Let's begin at the end (this short scene may contain spoilers if you haven't seen any film version of Les Miserables).

Javert: I'm glad I had time to myself. I needed to think... about what you deserve. You're a difficult problem. Move to the edge.
Valjean: Why aren't you taking me in?
Javert: You're my prisoner. Do what I tell you! You don't understand the importance of the law. I've given you an order. Obey it. Why didn't you kill me?
Valjean: I don't have the right to kill you.
Javert: But you hate me.
Valjean: I don't hate you. I don't feel anything.
Javert: You don't want to go back to the quarries, do you? Then for once we agree. I'm going to spare you from a life in prison, Jean Valjean. It's a pity the rules don't allow me to be merciful. (He frees Valjean from the handcuffs) I've tried to live my life without breaking a single rule. You're free.

 This is the compelling end of the 1998 film version of Les Miserables. Although there are many film versions and the recent musical version is emotionally compelling and visually spectacular, Geoffrey Rush is my favorite in the role of Javert.

I quoted from the last scene of the movie, because it provides a number of insights into Javert's character that are demonstrated throughout the novel. The importance of the law and keeping justice are motivating elements in Javert's life, shown clearly in this scene.

"I need to think about what you deserve." How does your antagonist put his world together? Justice is the main lens through which Javert sees his world, therefore whether a character receives fair treatment is important to him. What is the motivating force that drives your antagonist? How might this cause his hatred of your protagonist? How does this influence what he thinks of your main character and how he might react to him or her?

"You're a difficult problem." Your protagonist views your antagonist as a problem to be solved, but don't forget your antagonist views your protagonist the same way. Look through his eyes for a few minutes. What  types of specific problems does your protagonist create for your antagonist? How does that further his fuel in opposing your hero/heroine?

There, out in the darkness
A fugitive running
Fallen from God
Fallen from grace
God be my witness
I never shall yield
Till we come face to face
Till we come face to face

This is the first verse of "Stars", a theme song for Javert in the 2012 musical (and previous Broadway versions). My favorite version is sung by Philip Quast in the London production.

Val Jean has thwarted Javert at every turn since he evaded his parole many years earlier. Javert's worldview does not allow for redemption. Javert views it as his God-given purpose to capture those who have disobeyed the law. He exacts the same harsh standards on himself as he does on others. Javert's lie is that character change is not possible. Just as Javert cannot change his past, he also believes he and others cannot change their future. Valjean stole a loaf of bread to feed his family, his identity is forever as a thief.

What is your antagonist's lie? How does it affect how he interacts with your protagonist?


"You're my prisoner. Do what I tell you! You don't understand the importance of the law. I've given you an order. Obey it. Why didn't you kill me?"

Life should be well-ordered. The law gives Javert's life meaning. His mother was a prostitute, his father a thief. Javert was born in a jail cell. He will do everything he can to make sure he does not become like his parents. When he strikes out at a prostitute, in some sense, he is trying to bring order to his disorderly past. 

Javert is flabbergasted that Valjean didn't take the opportunity to kill him in a back alley chase. He doesn't understand the changes in Valjean, who promised his soul to God when a priest forgave him for stealing precious candlesticks. Valjean's decisions are now based on mercy, not justice. Javert does not comprehend Valjean's new worldview.

What does your main character do that puzzles your antagonist? Disturbs his/her worldview? 

Javert: But you hate me.
Valjean: I don't hate you. I don't feel anything.

As Christian writers, forgiveness is a main theme in many of our novels. Our salvation itself is based on Christ's forgiveness of our sins. And we are called to forgive those he has placed in our path.

In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace. (Ephesians 1:7, NASB)

Then Peter came and said to Him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. (Matthew 18:21-22, NASB)

Javert cannot comprehend the mercy of Valjean. Valjean has a chance to kill Javert, but doesn't take it. Valjean doesn't hate Javert, he pities him.

How can your main character show grace and mercy to your antagonist?

Do you have a favorite antagonist in a book or movie? What villain do you love to hate...and why? 

What techniques do you use to create a strong antagonist in your own work?

 Julia enjoys writing women's fiction whenever she can find a chair free of smushed peanut butter sandwiches and lego blocks. She is a wife and homeschooling mama of two littles. She also a reviewer for Library Journal, Christian Library Journal, and Title Trakk.


Jeanne T said...

Julia, AMAZING post. I love how you broke down the things to consider with a protag and an antag. Such great thoughts. I, too, loved Geoffrey Rush as Javert. He did a masterful job.

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts here today. I am coming back to this post.

One other antagonist I liked was Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. You could see how she became who she was, and they showed a human side of her. It made me dislike her, but pity her at the same time.

Great job today, Julia!

Julia M. Reffner said...


YES!! Wasn't Meryl wonderful in that movie, so complex, especially at the ending. You did end up feeling a bit of pity towards her.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

This is wonderful, Julia!! Love those points you've taken so cleverly from Javert's character.

Here's a random bit of trivia for you - Geoffrey Rush is my Dad's cousin. I've never actually met him, mind you, but I don't let that detract from my claim to fame! Ha ha!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

And I totally agree about Meryl! Such a great example, Jeanne. That one moment of vulnerability where the protagonist discovers her sitting alone with raw eyes and no makeup on her face - that will always stand in my memory. Very powerful, and so clever that an author can lead us to dislike someone and yet feel pity for them at the same time.

Julia M. Reffner said...


Wow, you have a lot of creative genes in your family :) How neat :)

And oh, yes, that scene in The Devil Wears Prada...SO powerful...

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

What a great post, Julia. So well thought out!

I love an antagonist who has redeemable qualities. Devil Wears Prada is a good one. Nellie on Little house on the Prairie. (ha!)

Julia M. Reffner said...


Woah, didn't even think of Nellie. You really start to like her toward the end of the series.

Thanks, Sherrinda.