How To Write Good Antagonists

How To Write Good Antagonists

Piggybacking off of last week’s post, we’re going to start studying antagonists this week. I cannot count the number of times I’ve run into authors struggling with their antagonist, and so often we wind up with two-dimensional bad guys for our main characters to struggle against. The reality is that you should design your antagonists to be exactly as robust as your main characters using the principles we looked at last week: flaws, strengths, and desires. These ideas work a little differently for the antagonists than they do protagonists, however, so let’s dig into that a little and see what the differences are.

The reality is that you should design your antagonists to be exactly as robust as your main characters using the principles we looked at last week: flaws, strengths, and desires.

E. Prybylski

First off, let’s throw out there that not every antagonist needs to be evil. They aren’t all mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplashes. Certainly some can be, but not everyone who stands against your characters needs to be “evil.” In fact, some stories are better off without Snidely Whiplash. I write this recognizing that some stories have antagonists that aren’t even people—they may be the environment or animals or even the main character themselves. However, for the purposes of this blog, I want to focus on antagonists who possess at least humanoid traits, even if they aren’t human. I can certainly talk another week about the way you might use other forces to work against your characters, but this week I prefer to zero in.

So, if we’re treating these antagonists as full characters in their own right, start by developing them as though they were the protagonist of your book. What I mean is: shift the perspective of your story to be from their point of view. This technique will get you into their head in a new and different way and provide you avenues to both work against the main characters and provide you some insight into places where the story may fall apart.

So, if our antagonists are their own characters—with all the depth and density that implies—how do we use them to our best advantage, and how do they differ from the protagonists?

As far as antagonists go, there are a few different types of antagonist:

  • Villain
  • Hench-people
  • Sympathetic
  • Conflicting Interests
  • Nature or External

I nod to the fact that nature or other forces (a disease, a hurricane, a landslide, etc.) belong in that list, but again, we aren’t covering those today.

The Villain

The villain is a straight-up evil character. This being Emperor Palpatine or Sauron. While they should be treated with the depth of any other character, they often aren’t. Most of the time in media their actual motivations are hidden (and I’m not talking about digging deep into the lore here; I know both characters had motivations revealed in other sources). But readers might never know their motivations—a villain is typically just a person or entity (like an army or faction) who is portrayed as evil for whatever reason, and that’s just it. They usually aren’t sympathetic (more on that later), either.

This kind of antagonist is often used for epics or high fantasy (or sci-fi) settings where the villain and their actions are felt by the main characters, but they rarely come onto the scene directly. These are your evil overlord characters, typically (or the spiders in the shadows influencing leaders). They aren’t on screen often, and typically don’t show up early on in the story. In fact, by the time they step on the scene directly (if they ever do), the main characters are typically a good ways into their quest to stop them. These villains often appear to have absolutely no limits on what they will do to achieve their goals.

Characters who exemplify this are: Sauron (LotR), Palpatine (Star Wars), Firelord Ozai (AtlA), Horde Prime (She-Ra), Grigori Rasputin (Hellboy)

Henchpeople

These characters are working for someone else. They may be of varying strengths and danger, but they aren’t the mastermind of the story. They’re worth mentioning, however, since they’re definitely antagonists who will come into play. These henchpeople may be any of the other types, but their key defining feature is that they are not in charge. They are following someone else’s orders, and the fact that they are not autonomous changes how they’re viewed to some degree, but they’re still antagonists in their own right.

Generally speaking in media, these characters are not viewed as their own faction, though there can be entire books surrounding them. Depending on their role in the story, they may have more or less depth or screen time. And there’s always the chance that you set one one as the main antagonist of a book only to reveal they have a boss in the end to foreshadow further story.

Notable henchpeople include: Saruman (LotR), Darth Vader (Star Wars), Hendricks (Dresden Files), Kroenen (Hellboy), Lock, Stock, and Barrel (Nightmare Before Christmas), Soundwave (Transformers)

Sympathetic

Sympathetic antagonists are enemies like Thanos. Their motivations can be broadly understood, and they may even have a fair amount of time on screen. Think Wilson Fisk from the Netflix Daredevil series. In the first season, he’s set up to be someone who will be ruthless in pursuit of his goals, but you can get in his head. He even falls in love—and it’s real love, not feigned. You kind of want to root for him a little, and when he goes down, it hurts.

That isn’t to say these characters aren’t “bad guys.” But to quote the fantastic movie Wreck-It Ralph, “You are badguy, but does not mean you are bad guy.” These characters are typically still of seriously questionable morals, but they often aren’t the same flavor of evil as the villain character. Heck, a sympathetic antagonist might even join the main characters as a protagonist at some point in the novel. These characters usually have more depth than a “villain” whose real job is to just direct challenges toward the main characters, and they definitely spend more time front and center.

Other characters who exemplify this role are: Zuko (AtLA), Catra (She-Ra), Gentleman John Marcone (Dresden Files), Wilson Fisk (Daredevil), General Hummel (The Rock)

Conflicting Goals

These characters aren’t inherently bad in any way. In fact, they may be great people and even friendly to the protagonist. However, they are definitely getting between the protagonist and their goals. This might be a rival love interest or a character who merely has goals that clash with the main characters’. However, these characters aren’t going to fit the mustache-twirling trope either. In fact, they’re individuals the readers might well root for.

This kind of antagonist may well be someone who gets revealed to be an ally at the end, or maybe they decide to shift lanes and join the main characters’ quest in later iterations.

Examples of this kind of antagonist are: Captain Hector Barbossa (PotC), Jacob (Twilight), Amenidiel (Lucifer), Moash (Way of Kings [recommended by a friend])

Now, all of these various flavors of antagonist can be used in any book, so there’s no divvying them up amongst genres. They’re all useful and all valid. And they can all fit many types of story. And, as I said at the beginning, these characters should be as fleshed as necessary. If you’re using a villain, you may not need to tell the reader all the details, but you as the writer should know.

Another thing that will set your antagonists apart is that they should be willing to go further to succeed at their goals than the protagonists.

E. Prybylski

Another thing that will set your antagonists apart is that they should be willing to go further to succeed at their goals than the protagonists. That isn’t to say your protagonists should be wilting flowers, but to give an example of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you have Tony Stark versus Thanos. They both see the end of life as they know it and want to take actions to mitigate the damage. However, Thanos is willing to take the steps beyond what Tony Stark is—which is what makes him the “bad guy.”

This willingness to go further than the protagonist is in order to get what they want (stab someone for a Klondike Bar) is one of the things that defines them. Arguably so, evil is willing to go to further extremes than good in order to ensure their victory. While good may take extraordinary steps, those decisions are often destructive for the characters (think about Aang trying to decide to kill Firelord Ozai, for example).

Even the conflicting goals antagonist should take it a step further. That step too far is the crux of the matter. Barbossa kidnapped Elizabeth Swann where the other main characters aren’t willing to engage in quite such dramatic behavior. With the possible exception of Captain Jack Sparrow, but he’s. . .his own thing entirely. Amenidiel is constantly willing to take steps Lucifer isn’t in order to accomplish his ends. He is a good guy, but he makes some questionable choices in the face of trying to do the right thing—which is what sets him apart from Lucifer in the show.

Ultimately, creating a good antagonist is about making a good character whose goals are conflicting with the main character, whether those goals are evil, good, or otherwise. They need to be complete characters, which means we are able to follow their logic, their intents, and their plans. Even if they’re ultimately overthrown in the end.

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