How to Write a Great Antagonist

brainstorming character creation

Antagonists are people, too. Soulless corporations and faceless soldiers play their part when we think of stereotypical “villains,” but the great antagonists are the ones who are just as complex as our heroes. 

It’s probably the first thing that came to mind when you saw the title of this post: that memorable antagonists should be as fully developed as any other main character. And you’d be absolutely right. So what makes creating an antagonist different than creating a protagonist? Is there a difference? 

What makes a good antagonist?

An antagonist is the main character or force that your protagonist has to overcome to achieve their goal. An antagonist may not always be a person: there are plenty of stories where the role of antagonist is played by nature, technology, society, or even the protagonist’s own self.

But in fiction, it’s common to have another character who serves as your protagonist’s chief adversary. As you might expect, this character plays a big role in your hero’s life, so it’s important to make them a realistic character in their own right, rather than just resorting to clichés and stereotypes. Here are five strategies to write an antagonist that’s sure to stand out:

Your antagonist should be driven by something personal

Very few people are evil for evil's sake. There's usually a backstory - something has driven them to become the person you see in the story now: someone whose needs or desires led them to drastic measures…and right into the path of your hero. 

Depending on what type of antagonist you have, keep in mind that they may have made a decision in their past beyond what most of us would consider “acceptable.” It’s worth exploring this idea: How bad would things have to get for me to take a step that would change my life forever? What might I want or need badly enough that I’d do something I couldn’t come back from? Chances are you came up with something a lot more personal than "a promotion at XYZ Corporation."

For example, the main antagonist in Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bonethe Darkling, is not motivated simply by the desire for power. He's seeking freedom for the Grisha (magic users), which stems from his own past trauma. The more personal you go with your antagonist’s motivations, the more compelling their journey will be.

Think about the relationship between your antagonist and protagonist

Just as personal motivations are more powerful than detached ones, personal relationships are more dynamic than distant ones. Familial ties can be goldmines for emotional conflict; there’s a reason why relationships like that of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader are so memorable.

Many authors play with the “enemies to lovers” trope by having a potential love interest serve as the antagonist for a good chunk of the story, such as Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Zafira and Nasir from Hafsah Faizal’s We Hunt the Flame.

But even antagonists who don’t share a close relationship still offer chances for personal connections. Think about the antagonist in Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter. The protagonist, Dexter, finds himself fascinated by the unknown killer’s methods, which leads to a more intimate relationship as the book progresses. These moments add up to create a much more engaging antagonist.

Your antagonist should be adaptable

Part of what makes an antagonist so formidable is the fact that the protagonist can’t just deal with them and move on. This means your antagonist has to be on an equal or higher footing than your protagonist, whether it’s in resources, intelligence, status, or any other area your hero struggles to compete with.

As this gap narrows—as it often does with the book’s progression—your antagonist will need to stay a step ahead if you want them to remain the chief obstacle. This means they have to be able to change their plans as needed. An inflexible antagonist will quickly become predictable, which not only makes them easier to defeat, but also makes them a less interesting character.

A good example is Count Olaf from Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. He constantly adapts his plans to steal the children’s fortune, from staging farce plays to wearing outrageous disguises. It makes it difficult for the protagonists to predict what he’ll do next, as well as making him a fascinating character for the reader.

Your antagonist needs to be active

This is one of those tips that applies to both protagonist and antagonist: Your main characters should drive the story’s action. But one key difference is that the protagonist often begins in the “everyday life” stage, and may not start taking the offensive until after the inciting incident or even the midpoint of the book. 

The antagonist, by contrast, is proactive from the very beginning, and is sometimes even the one to trigger the inciting incident and put your protagonist on the defensive. Readers are drawn to active characters, so an antagonist who’s assertive will be more intriguing. They’ll also keep your protagonist on their toes and add to the tension.

When J.M. Barrie’s titular character, Peter Pan, flies Wendy, John, and Michael into Neverland, a shot from Captain Hook’s cannon is literally the first thing to greet them. Captain Hook continues to actively hunt Peter throughout the novel, making him much more interesting than if he passively waited for Peter to come to him. 

The antagonist doesn’t always have to be a villain

Some of the most satisfying stories are the ones where the characters are so many shades of black, white, and gray that it’s hard to label them as good guys and bad guys. If you show us two soldiers on opposite sides of a war, and each one is equally desperate to save their own family and needs to kill the other one to do so…is either one of them the villain? Not necessarily. But are they each an antagonist when you’re in the opposing one’s point of view? Absolutely.

In Tananarive Due’s My Soul to Keep, we follow two narrators: a writer named Jessica and her husband Dawit. Dawit is an immortal man who secretly plans to make his wife and child immortal as well so they can spend eternity together. As Jessica begins to unravel the truth about him, he starts becoming the antagonist in her life, though he still very much plays a protagonist in his own struggles against loneliness and fear of loss. This complexity of playing both antagonist and protagonist makes a fascinating character that goes above and beyond your customary villain.

Antagonists are vital characters in their own right. After all, what would our stories be without them? It's important to spend time and attention making them as dynamic as any other main character. By following the strategies above, you’ll be well on your way to creating the unique and compelling antagonist that your hero deserves.

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