Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing antagonists. A great antagonist can be incredibly compelling, but a weak one can often ruin the story. Antagonists (and specifically villains) are some of the most complex characters that writers have to tackle. Often, they must be just as complex as the protagonist but in significantly less space. So how can writers tackle antagonists? What is it that makes a great antagonist, and how can you keep them as complex and compelling as the rest of the cast?
Here are my tips for writing a great antagonist:
- Think of them as characters first
When writing antagonists, I find that it often helps not to think of them as villains, but as characters. I try to develop them in the same way that I develop other characters, giving them their own set of goals and motives and a deep, fully-fleshed characterization. Think about your antagonist’s character traits. You can probably think of several that all relate to “evil”—manipulative, vengeful, cold-hearted, ruthless, controlling, etc.—but who are they aside from that? What makes them unique as a person? What or who do they care about? What are they afraid of? What do they like to do?
- Understand their motivations
Similarly, I think it’s important to fully understand what drives an antagonist to do what they do. Villains who are evil simply for the sake of being evil probably aren’t going to be as compelling to your readers. People often don’t realize that they’re doing the wrong thing, or they think their actions are perfectly justifiable. What is it about their worldview that influences their way of thinking and shapes their decisions? Why are they making these choices—and why do they think they’re right to do so?
- Make them formidable
The conflict with your antagonist will drive the entire story, which means that you don’t want an antagonist to be defeated too easily. You also don’t want an obvious solution to that conflict that is simply delayed for most of the book. It’s frustrating as a reader to wonder “Why doesn’t the protagonist just do X?” Note that formidable doesn’t necessarily mean powerful, but it does mean that your protagonist should struggle to end the conflict.
- Avoid clichés
This something I see frequently with antagonists—the ideological, “evil for the sake of evil” villain who fits a number of clichés—an evil-sounding name, terrifying eyes, an evil laugh or smile, a long monologue, a lair, a “cold” or “chilling” voice/demeanor, etc. etc. Some of these characteristics might work in a fully-developed character, but too many of these may have audiences rolling their eyes rather than trembling in fear.
- Consider antagonists, not villains
While some stories do benefit from having a traditional villain, keep in mind that your antagonist doesn’t necessarily have to be a villain. What’s the difference? A villain and a protagonist are on opposite sides of a moral divide. But an antagonist is just someone whose goals conflict with those of the protagonist. Which means that antagonists don’t necessarily have to be evil; they just have to be in opposition to the protagonist. If you find yourself writing a lot of cliché villains, consider making your antagonist someone who isn’t a villain at all.
What do you think? What tips do you have for writing antagonists? Who are some of your favorite antagonists or villains? Let me know in the comments!
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