If you think your hero is the most important part of your book, think again. Your story is only as good as your antagonist—the character standing in the way of your hero and his goals. The antagonist is the story’s engine. He needs to be just as interesting and richly layered as the protagonist.
Good villains and antagonists are cherished by readers. Transform your bad guy from a one-dimensional paper doll into a force to be reckoned with—and remembered. (Think of nurse Ratched, professor Moriarty, Hannibal Lecter, Simon Legree.)
How do authors create deliciously real antagonists that will live forever in their readers’ minds and nightmares?
Antagonists are Not the same as Villains
The terms antagonist, villain, or bad guy technically mean the same thing: a character who acts as an opposing force to the protagonist, hero, or good guy. But each term carries subtle nuances conjuring up a different type of character. A villain is always an antagonist, but an antagonist is not always a villain.
Villains are a stereotype of black or white, good vs. evil, and often manifest as heartless greedy bastards, mindlessly evil sadists, serial killers, or sociopaths who are just plain bad for the sake of being bad.
Antagonists inhabit the moral ambiguities and gray areas of life, where things may or may not be acceptable and an explanation can make the difference in the audience’s perception. The old saying goes that one man’s insurgent is another man’s freedom fighter. Wars are fought between people who think they’re on the right side. Simply put, an antagonist can be any sort of anti-hero or person standing in the way of the protagonist getting what he/she wants. (Consider romantic protagonist Blanche DuBois’s struggles with her brother-in-law in Streetcar Named Desire).
The antagonist always opposes the protagonist. The protagonist wants to free the slaves; the antagonist wants to keep them and the economic power they provide. The protagonist is a rational woman; her antagonist is a religious zealot. They possess needs and wants that exist in defiance of one another.
Make it clear that the bad guy’s goals conflict with the hero’s, and have him pursue them ruthlessly. An antagonist is essential because without him driving the conflict of the story, the hero cannot overcome obstacles and develop as a character. How did their lives intersect and collide? Did the protagonist have something to do with a turning point or crisis in the villain?
The Antagonist Needs to be Your Hero’s Equal
Nothing will make your hero more heroic that pitting him against a worthy adversary. Make you villain at least as smart, strong and capable as your hero. Who wants to watch a football game when the score is 72-0? If you make your antagonist equal in strength or even stronger than your hero, it will make the story very exciting!
As well as being smart, the bad guy needs the “power” to follow through, whether it’s money, superior intelligence, charisma, knowledge of forensics, strength, or connections. The smarter your villain is, the better your hero looks when he wins. When the writer has the villain do something stupid so the hero can defeat him, it not only makes the bad guy look dumb, it makes the hero look weak.
A good plan is to let the antagonist win periodically throughout the story, but not in the end. The hero is always better than the bad guy, but for maximum tension show the antagonist winning the final face-to-face confrontation until the hero pulls out the victory against all odds.
Humanize the Villain
An infusion of humanity is what makes antagonists worthy opponents. The best villains are ones that readers can connect with. Always make sure your baddie has more than one dimension, whether it’s a dark humor, high intelligence or kindness towards a person he cares about. Make the bad guy handsome; make the bad guy powerful—more so than the average man on the street, but not a superman. The more human your antagonist seems the more frightening and captivating their story will be.
Maybe the antagonist has something he fears, or something or someone he loves. Get the reader to identify with the antagonist at least once in the story. For example, the bad guy has another enemy who almost kills him.
Show similarity, humanity, feelings (he is looking for a nursing home for his father, or gets stuck in traffic and misses his favorite show, or loves Kit-Kat bars). No villain is truly 100% evil (unless he’s the Joker). We always hear about the shock from neighbors of serial killers saying “I can’t believe it. He was such a nice guy.”
A wonderful exercise is to write a scene from your antagonist’s mind and outlook, even if his POV is never in your book. Write in his voice—first person—as if he’s talking to you. Let him tell you how he feels, what he wants, what he’s planning. You will engage a close connection that your readers will sense, whether or not this particular writing ever goes into your manuscript.
(Dean Koontz actually switches POV in his thrillers and takes you deep into the mind of his monster by making him a viewpoint character, creating more empathy, or dread, in the reader.)
Most stories are told from the hero’s viewpoint, but this exercise will help you find the complexity within the hero’s opponent. We don’t need sympathy for antagonists necessarily, but we demand empathy. If we cannot understand them, then we will not believe in them.
A Defining Moment
Antagonists think they’re the protagonists. The bad guy will have convinced himself of his own nobility. People who do bad things often justify their own actions as being positive—Hitler thought he was the savior of mankind and that his appalling agenda was justified. Their motives may be basically understandable, but their ultimate goal and their processes are extremely twisted.
You can reveal to the reader that the antagonist is beyond redemption by having the villain drop his good side altogether in some sort of “kick the cat” moment. This defining action shows us why the antagonist is the antagonist—a glimpse that exposes the depths of his trouble-making, his hatred, his perversion of the ethics and social mores of man. This moment is a sign to the hero, and the reader, that the antagonist must be stopped.
The hero of the tale needs the reverse reveal: a sort of “save the cat” moment early on, where we get to rally behind the hero because he does something noble or shows an admirable reaction or belief. He rescued a cat from a tree, metaphorically.
What Motivates your Antagonist?
Writers sometimes have trouble making the middle of their novel exciting. A villain who acts, instead of simply sitting around thinking wicked thoughts, is the best possible cure for a sagging middle-book. Revisit the antagonist’s motives and use them to kick-start the action and stir up the conflict. There is something the villain wants, or something they think must happen, and they have a fanatical belief about what they think is necessary in order to attain this goal.
Good antagonists work from a place of self-interest. Find a good reason your antagonist wants what they want; evil for the sake of being evil isn’t enough in the competitive fiction market. World domination, power and control are age-old motivations; so are greed and revenge. Lust, greed, and hatred can drive even ordinary people to do dastardly deeds. The villain may be afraid of something: the hero, death, failure, the dark. Delusion makes the antagonist even more determined.
A hypocrite is an antagonist who feigns goodness. He is guilty of all sorts of treachery, but on the surface he’s all honey and sunshine. He puts a righteous face on his misdeeds, but the reader knows the truth: this guy is not just bad, he’s a fake. And we hate him all the more for it.
The crusader is someone who fiercely believes he is doing the right thing, and indeed he may well be fighting for a good cause. He is driven to fanaticism—and thus dangerous decisions—by his passion for his cause.
Of course not all stories offer an epic battle between good and evil. Sometimes basically good people end up doing bad things because they feel they have no choice. Often the conflict is about good people with opposing views struggling on different sides of a crisis. The well-meaning antagonist is doing the right thing, and usually for the right reasons, but has nonetheless been forced by the story’s conflict to do battle with your hero.
In such cases, try making the antagonist’s torment more internal or subtle: instead of outright anger, how about resentment? Instead of pure regret, how about guilt?
The Antagonist can have a Story Arc
Antagonists can change, like anyone else. Don’t assume the antagonist needs to be a static, unswerving face of conflict—make this character shift with changing conditions, have his madness deepen, his hatred or pain worsen, his zealotry grow. He changes, grows or sometimes shrinks, same as the protagonist. Villains die, get locked away, tumble off buildings still spitting their animosity, and sometimes they even repent, switch sides, or reveal a secret noble agenda. (Darth Vader)
When the Antagonist isn’t a Person
The antagonist can be an idea (racism), an institution (the CIA), a natural disaster (zombies or killer asteroids). The reader cannot identify with a committee. A reader loves a character to hate, so give them what they want! Give your big-issue antagonist a character’s face and name. Build a character that embodies all aspects of the social issue or force of nature plaguing the hero or threatening the world.
For example, the epitome of racism could be cast as the neighborhood grand wizard poo-bah of the KKK. Enlist opposition from a callous field agent working for the ainstitution. Maybe a beloved cousin joins the opposing army, or a greedy politician thwarts the good scientist who is trying to save the world. Racial bigotry becomes Hilly Holbrook in The Help. Political abuse of power is epitomized in President Snow from The Hunger Games.
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