Not many people like antagonists. They’re supposed to annoy the protagonists; to foil the plans of the heroes and create conflict. They are supposed to be a villain for our heroes to defeat.
They create the conflict in our stories because they stand in the way of what we most want: money, power, for good to triumph over evil. But they can get dull when all they do is cackle and twirl their mustaches as they hatch their evil plans.
As fun as those villains are, they’re not the ones we’re going to remember after putting that book down. It’s the dynamic antagonists that make us argue about whether they had a point in all their wrongdoing.
So let’s look into what an antagonist is and how to go about creating a great one.
What are Antagonists?
We can’t begin dissecting things until we know what antagonist is, so here’s our definition:
Antagonist: a character or group of characters that stand in the way of the protagonist.
Antagonists aren’t necessarily evil, like their villainous counterparts, and they don’t even need to be human. Your antagonist could be an animal, internal conflict, a natural disaster, etc. It doesn’t matter what is causing problems as long as it gives your protagonist grief.
And it’s this grief-giving attitude that gives us a reason to root for our hero. Even better? Your antagonist could also be a foil of your main character, creating more depth. So let’s look at the different types of antagonists you can use in your story.
The 4 Types of Antagonists
While you do need to have some sort of conflict in your story, it doesn’t have to come at a crazy supervillain’s hands. Before you start creating a mustache-swirling villain, think twice and consider choosing one of three other types of antagonists.
But true to form, we’re going to look at all four types.
The Evil Villain
Whenever we hear the word antagonist or villain, this is what our mind conjures up. These are your dark lords, witches, usurpers, criminal masterminds, bullies, ancient evil, etc. They want to cause harm, chaos, further their own goals and get revenge.
The Evil Villain is frequently found in fantasy, science fiction, and action-adventure novels, but they can appear in other genres. This where we see the use of foils as the evil villain usually pits a battle against the protagonist to see if good really can conquer evil.
This antagonist is considered to be played out in some circles, but there’s a reason why it’s still used today.
And that reason is fear. This villain loves to find out what we fear the most and take advantage of that fear, which makes it satisfying when the hero defeats the villain and that fear.
Here are some examples for The Evil Villain:
- Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
- The White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
- Sauron in The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Everyday Antagonist
The everyday antagonist shows up in more character-driven stories, like in romances or contemporary novels. They don’t go out of their way to cause trouble, but they do anyway. Their goals simply just don’t match that of the protagonists.
This type of antagonist can create conflict in numerous ways, including having the same goal as your story’s protagonist (only one can succeed), discouraging the main character from pursuing a goal, creating emotional or physical roadblocks, etc.
Here are some examples of everyday antagonists:
- Allie’s mother in The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks
- Severus Snape or Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
- Jaime Lannister or Sandor Clegane in A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin
The unreasonable are not single characters that stand in the way of our protagonist. They are a group of people, a larger entity (government, organization, or social system), or an inanimate being. These guys aren’t always evil, but they do cause a lot of conflict.
In the group dynamic, they want to harm or oppress your protagonist in their quest for power, wealth, revenge, or success. There’s no way to reason with them because you can either rarely get to the person behind the trouble or refuse to listen.
And if they aren’t listening to your protagonist’s plea for them to stop, they may not be human. Natural disasters, aliens, etc. can’t be reasoned with and will do what they want to do, making your main character think outside the box for a solution or find a way to ride out the storm.
The Unreasonable can be found in action-heavy fantasy, science fiction, thriller, and adventure stories, such as the examples below:
- The Capitol in The Hunger Games by Susanne Collins
- The Republic of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
- The tornado in the movie Twister.
- The aliens in the Aliens movie franchise.
The Internal Struggle
Sometimes, your protagonist is their own worst enemy. This is seen in many character-driven stories such as romances and contemporary novels. This is also prevalent in many tragedies, such as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Your protagonist must confront a doubt, fear, flaw, or regret to overcome their struggles and find happiness.
Some authors choose to personify or objectify their protagonist’s struggle with self. For example, in The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Dorian’s vanity is represented by his portrait. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Victor’s grief and loneliness manifest themselves in his monster.
Here are some examples for you:
- Elizabeth and Darcy grapple with their pride and prejudice in, you guessed it, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- Briony’s guilt in Atonement by Ian McEwan
- Landon’s pride in A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks.
How to Write Horrible Antagonists
Dear Author: We antagonists, villains, bad guys, femme fatales—call us what you will—don’t get no respect. We’re overlooked, underdeveloped and squeezed into a space that would cramp your average gerbil. When we get short shrift, your books aren’t nearly as good as they could be. They lack tension and depth. They’re forgettable. Not that I’m one for pointing fingers, but I’ve got to tell you, it’s your fault.
Who was given pages and pages of backstory in your last novel? That’s right—the protagonist. Whose motives and character arc were fully fleshed out? Right again—the so-called “good” guy’s. Who did you “interview” and construct a character bible for? Yeah, him again. Well, I don’t mind getting second billing, but I have to point out that if you gave readers a chance to truly know and understand me, your books would be a lot more memorable and engaging. We might even get a movie deal, like my idol, Hannibal Lecter.
Sincerely, Eva N. CarnateLaura DiSilverio from Writer’s Digest
Here’s a truth not universally-acknowledged by writers across the world: we discriminate against our antagonists. We spend an absurd amount of time developing our protagonists, but barely give our antagonists a second look.
It’s a shame. It’s also why we need to spend more time on them. Our protagonist is only as fantastic as their antagonist.
Don’t believe me? Check out this infographic by StudioBinder:
As we can see in the infographic, the antagonist pushes the protagonist to his or her limits/ They make them grow and question their actions. And that’s interesting.
So let’s look into this a bit more. Let’s look at some techniques we can use to craft better antagonists.
Antagonists are people too.
And that means that they have good and bad traits, flaws, family, loved ones, motives for their actions, and a backstory. When you’re working on your protagonist’s character development, make sure that you carve out some time to flesh out your bad guy. They have flaws, family, loved ones, good and bad traits.
It’ll give your audience a chance to get to know them and find out what makes them tick. For example, in the new Scooby-Doo movie, Scoob!, the filmmakers took the time to give the villain, Dick Dastardly, a back story as to why he needed to kidnap Scooby. It made him relatable and interesting.
Make them appealing to your audience.
Villains are more compelling if we can relate or emphasize with them. By giving them a redeemable quality or a reason for their behavior, you make them more human. You want your reader to have some sympathy for the plight of the villain.
An example of this would be Magneto from X-Men. He wants to save the mutants from persecution and death, but the only way he can do this is by eradicating the non-mutant population. It’s the only solution he can think of for peace.
You understand and even sympathize with what Magneto wants to do to a point. However, we can all agree that genocide is a horrible way to deal with problems between races. On top of this, Magneto’s strategy seems markedly wrong compared to Xavier’s method of trying to bring about understanding and peace between mutants and non-mutants.
The only instance when we should have downright evil characters without redeeming qualities would be in a slasher-thriller type of story. Even then, it would be interesting to see that type of character rounded out.
They have a reason to act.
Just like a protagonist, antagonists need to have a reason for their actions. They won’t do something for the sake of doing something. So give them goals, ambitions, and reasons for why they want to take over the world or keep your character stuck in a bad situation.
Let’s look at Loki in The Avengers. Loki’s primary goal in life is to be king. He wants to prove to Odin that he is a worthy son and a good ruler. And if he gets to be better than Thor at something, even better.
But that didn’t go well for him in Thor’s solo movie before The Avengers movie was released. Loki decides that he needs to get back at Thor for humiliating him in front of Odin and ruining his chances of becoming king, and he knows the perfect way to piss off his brother: attack Earth and claim it for his own. And it’s that need to rule and get revenge on Thor that drives his actions throughout the movie.
As the Writing Cooperative puts it:
An antagonist that is not only aware of the reason for their actions, but can justify them, is a dangerously delicious character.
Make an antagonist worthy of your protagonist.
As you’ve established in your plot and character development planning, your protagonist is the only one who is capable of solving the problem at hand. Your protagonist will come up against some challenges that put their ideas, skills, morals, and goals into question, which means that your antagonist needs to be a force to reckon with.
When developing your antagonist, make sure that you make them as unique as or more extraordinary than your protagonist. Your villain should be as cunning, smart, and skilled as your protagonist.
Make us doubt whether the hero has what it takes to beat them. Or make the villain adaptable. The Incredibles did an excellent job with this idea. The villain managed to build a robot that learned how to defeat its opponents over time. It learned, grew, and adapted to achieve it’sits ultimate goal: kill the superhero.
They’re all in.
One of the reasons we love our heroes is because they are all in on the adventure ahead of them. They’re willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done, and your villain should be like this as well.
In the final face-off, the hero must lay everything on the line. If they lose, they lose everything. While we hate to watch them fail, we also hate to watch someone fall so hard they can never get back up. It hurts us because it could be us.
If you create a villain who’s defeat will lead to their destruction, your readers will find themselves secretly rooting for them. And if you have trouble doing this, put yourself into the shoes of your villain. From their perspective, they’re the hero. What they are doing is the best thing for everyone involved.
Give your antagonists time on the page.
There is nothing worse than an antagonist who only shows up at the last minute. They should be there every step of the battle, popping up to cause trouble just when we thought that things were going smoothly.
J.R.R. Tolkien does this well in The Hobbit. Bilbo gets through his altercation with the trolls, but then we run into the goblins. Thankfully, Bilbo gets away from them, but Gollum shows up in his dark, safe corner. Bilbo barely gets away from Gollum and the goblins to only run into issues with the Dark Wolves, spiders, etc. He faces a lot of attacks from corners of the dark realm.
As much as Smaug was the “big evil” that Bilbo and company had to face, the threat of Smaug and the other dark creatures were always present. They reminded Bilbo that there were greater evils ahead.
Antagonists are just as crucial to your story as the protagonist. They stand in the way of what your main character desires most of all, helping push your tale to the climax.
And if you haven’t been giving your antagonists some much need love, you should! The results are worth the extra time spent on yet another character. You’ll have another round and dynamic force, drawing your readers deeper into your story and its themes.
Who’s your favorite antagonist?
Stay safe, everyone.
Until next time.
I love that quote from Writer’s Digest. I tried to make my main antagonist very evil. My heroine can’t have a great triumph unless she’s facing a great evil, right?
I didn’t give him much backstory , but I hinted at it through the perspective of his enslaved wizardly servant. (I am trying to get the word count down, after all). And I didn’t want to give away all the knowledge on what Fawnlum is facing here in the first book of the trilogy.
But I made him evil. As an undead lich, he has long-reaching goals. And his evil magic is very powerful. I tried to point out his evil by the things he did.
I tried to make the guy that we want to see the heroine defeat 😉.
I know, right? I love it too.
Exactly! She needs someone formidable to go against, but it doesn’t always have to come in the form of something purely evil. He just needs to be able to challenge Fawnlem’s weak points, which can be family, her sense of loyalty, etc.
That’s not to say that a purely evil antagonist is a bad thing. They have their own merit. 🙂
It’s good that you’ve given your readers a bit of backstory, even if it does come from a secondary character. Most servants are a great way to show the depravity of their masters.
If you’re doing that, you’re good to go! 🙂
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