How to Write an Antagonist that Matters
What makes a good antagonist? A protagonist is only as interesting as the antagonist he or she faces. It's not enough to just have a character who opposes the protagonist and causes problems for him/her on occasion, but rather it needs to be someone with qualities that make them memorable and engaging. This article will discuss how to create an antagonist who has these qualities to enhance your story and make it engaging.
What is the role of the antagonist?
In fiction, the antagonist's primary function is to generate conflict for the protagonist to overcome. In many narratives, this opponent has aims and objectives that are opposed to those of the main characters. This provides an opportunity for greater drama as well as tension because it creates obstacles for your main ch to face along their journey towards achieving their goal or objective.
Think of the antagonist as the embodiment of the obstacles the main character has to face in the story. The antagonist is not necessarily an opponent or enemy but can be a character that challenges the protagonist in some way.
Is the antagonist the bad guy?
The antagonist of your story doesn't necessarily have to be a "bad guy" or even a person at all. Some stories have antagonists that are actually disembodied forces like a natural disaster or a post-apocalyptic event.
You can even make the protagonist themselves be the antagonist of the story using the protagonist's inner demons or self-destructive behavior as the obstacle.
How to create an antagonist
When you boil it down, the antagonist of the story is the obstacle that forces the protagonist to grow or change.
To find the right opponent, start with your hero’s specific goal; whoever wants to keep him from getting it is an opponent.
- John Truby, The Anatomy of Story
An antagonist who is a genuine adversary does not only want to impose obstacles in the hero's path so that he may not achieve their objective but also has the same goal as the protagonist.
So the first thing you do to writing your antagonist is to find your hero's goal. It's only through competing for the same objective that the hero and antagonist are compelled to confront one another time and again throughout the narrative. If they don't have the same objective, the hero and the villain can both obtain their objectives without going toe to toe with each other. And poof! No story.
It might look like they aren't competing for the same goal at first, but you have to dive into what they are really fighting for. In other words, find the deepest level of desire that they both have–the very essence of what their goal is.
For example: In the story, Fight Club, it may look like at first glance that Tyler Durden's goal is to blow up credit card companies and cause anarchy while the Narrator's goal is trying to stop him, but what they are both really competing for is control of the Narrator's mind and life.
What makes an antagonist great?
They Have Their Own Agenda
A great villain has independent wants, needs, and motivations which drive them forward throughout the story without necessarily needing any interaction with your protagonist at all.
Don't just create an antagonist solely to use as a plot device.
As mentioned earlier in this article, you should create your antagonist based in opposition to what your hero's goal is. But this doesn't mean they are meant solely to serve the plot.
A real antagonist should have strong motives to warrant their opposition towards your protagonists and you must also consider how they will respond when confronted by them. Because of this, it's important for antagonists to be fully developed characters with clear goals and desires rather than being one-dimensional bad guys who are simply just there to cause trouble.
The best Antagonists aren't simply evil
Some antagonists might not think of themselves as evil at all, but instead, the protagonist is doing something that directly opposes them and/or others around them in a way that will ultimately cause harm to those people if left unchecked. This antagonist feels it's necessary for this harm to be stopped as soon as possible, regardless of the consequences. In this case, it might not necessarily even feel like they're an antagonist to the protagonist at all since their goals align with those of the main character's for a majority of the story before it reaches its climax and turns into a battle between them.
Making the character relatable is the key to writing an antagonist. Everyone has felt the antagonist's anguish in some form, allowing us to put ourselves in their position when we read or watch about what they're going through.
A well-written antagonist is also never truly all bad but has reasons for doing wrong things even if those reasons aren't justified by our views of right and wrong.
In fact, sometimes antagonists can do really evil things because it's ultimately good for the protagonist! That sounds weird but consider in Star Wars how Darth Vader wanted Luke Skywalker dead at first because he was trying to protect him from the emperor who would have turned his son into another Sith Lord like himself...if you can get your readers on board with this kind of logic then you know you've created a good antagonist!
Make a connection between your antagonist and your protagonist
A great way to depth with your antagonist and the story is to create a connection between them and the protagonist. This gives the antagonist a deeper purpose in the story and makes it more personal for the protagonist to defeat or overcome the antagonist.
Having a connection between the villain and hero allows them to have conversations about things other than how bad the villain is thus making this relationship deeper into something almost human instead of two action figures fighting on opposite sides of stage waiting for you–the author–to tell them when to strike next!
Defeating someone isn't enough to make a compelling antagonist. The antagonist should be someone that the main character knows and has to deal with on an emotional level, not just physically or mentally. This creates more tension in your story as you get into deeper questions for your hero like:
- When is it okay for one person to kill another?
- How far would I go to protect my family?
- What if I've been wrong about everything?
As you can see, these questions are more complex and will create a deeper story for your antagonist to be a part of.
One of my favorite examples of the antagonist having a connection with the protagonist is with Harry Potter and the main antagonist of the series, Lord Voldemort. These two characters share similar backstories (orphans with a troubled past and half-blood wizarding heritage) and share a deep sense of belonging to the wizarding world and Hogwarts. Not to mention the physical connection they have with Harry being a Horcrux of Voldermort's thus the two of them can see into each other's mind–but you don't have to go that literal.
Make your antagonist's backstory believable
Like all other characters in your story, your villain needs to have a believable backstory.
The story of many antagonists begins in a place of helplessness. Whether it be a difficult childhood, loss of family, or life-altering accidents that changed them into the villain they are today–give your antagonist an interesting past with struggles and faults to make readers feel sympathetic towards their character.
By giving them a realistic backstory, your antagonist's flaws will appear to be more genuine and make the character more relatable and less one-dimensional.
Not only does this add depth to your antagonist but also gives you more motivation for their actions throughout the story which makes them even more terrifying because they will do anything necessary to get what they want!
Show how superior your antagonist is to other characters in terms of power.
Why is Darth Vader considered one of the greatest villains in all of storytelling? Because he is one of the most powerful in more ways than one. Your antagonist should always be superior to your protagonist in terms of power, whether that's physical or mental strength, intellect, wealth, etc.
By making them stronger than everyone else makes them feel unstoppable and creates a sense of dread for readers because there is no way they will ever be able to outsmart this villain!
Think of different ways an antagonist can show strength against other characters. It doesn't have to be brute strength, but can be who much control over the other characters they have.
For example, In Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi, during the climactic battle between Luke and his father, Darth Vader (*gasp* I was surprised too!), Luke is emotionally controlled by Vader when Vader discovers that Luke has a sister and threatens to turn her to the darkside. This sends Luke into a rage, but it shows that even though Vader can use brute force to be an obstacle to the protagonist, he can also be an obstacle by constantly raising the stakes for them.
Great antagonists are the backbone of any good story. They create tension, provide perspective, and make readers empathize with them even when they’re doing bad things.
Give them depth by showing their motivations or desires instead of just telling us what they want. Give them agency by giving them thoughts and feelings so we can understand where they're coming from even if those thoughts conflict with our own moral compass. Show why this character thinks what he does is right even if it's not and we'll be able to form opinions about him and his antagonist.
What’s next? Now that you know what makes a great antagonist, it's time to create your own!