Such a Jerk: Writing a Good Antagonist

This week, I’ve been doing a lot of wrestling. Wrestling with a person named Koichi Sato. This jerk is supposed to be the villain of Countersink but even though the book is already finished, he thinks it’s okay to stay flat and disengaging.

We’ve been having words about this. Meaning, me rehashing his background, his current personality and design, and what he’s actually trying to accomplish. And it got me thinking.

What makes a good antagonist? How do you avoid creating a flat character with no motive that is nothing but a foil for your protagonist (*cough*freakinKoichi*cough*)?

Here are a few things that might help.

No one is all bad, just as no one is all good. Give your antagonist some good qualities, and give your protagonist some bad ones.

Villains are people too. Maybe the antagonist is the main character’s classmate, so they end up having the same experiences. Maybe they’re a death cultist but they genuinely love their family. The key here is to humanize them. Even if they’re not human.

Examples of very human villains are: Sir Goldenloin from Nimona, and the antagonists from Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood (or the FMA manga series).

Give your antagonist personal beef. Aka, make it so that antagonist is going after the hero, specifically. Take this one with a grain of salt, pepper, and garlic.

A personally-vindictive enemy makes for an engaging story, but there are plenty of stories out there where the protagonist is just one little person against a huge evil that’s terrorizing the free world. And this huge evil often does not recognize that the hero even exists until the end, where the hero has proven themselves to be too much of a nuisance.

Examples of stories with personal villains are Aladdin, and Harry Potter. Some with villains who are after someone else and the hero just gets in the way are Beauty and the Beast and Mad Max: Fury Road.

Pretend you’re the villain. Ask yourself what you might do in their situation. What is the wrong, but justifiable choice? A villain’s decisions must always be justified to themselves.

Most antagonists don’t start out by saying, “You know, I think I want to destroy the world. Just because I’m evil. Sounds fun.” No, they’re trying to do something good; the road to hell being paved with good intentions, and all that. So give them some good intentions. Some justifications. And make those intentions go awry.

Some villains with good intentions are WCKD from the Maze Runner series, and the military in Ender’s Game.

Everyone is the hero of their own story, including villains. This point goes along with the previous one, in that villains don’t see themselves as villains. They see themselves as the main characters of their own stories. As people. And many of them don’t even realize they’re corrupt.

So spend a little time with them and get to know them. What story are they trying to tell? Why is it so important to them? These are legitimate questions that they have thought about.

They don’t have to be the head of an evil organization, but they might be. Again, this was partly covered by a previous point. But, yes. Especially for sci-fi and fantasy writers, making the bad guy the leader of a shady medical institution is tempting. I’m tempted, and I fall into that temptation more often than I’d like to admit (I’m trying to pull Koichi out of that role, but he’s digging in his heels).

Having a shady medical/scientific organization be the big bad of the story isn’t wrong; most of my favorite stories feature this kind of antagonist. But be careful not to limit yourself to this. An antagonist can be anyone in the hero’s life. You can even make the main character the bad guy (called an anti-hero. Think Walter White from Breaking Bad). 

Examples of great villains who aren’t attached to an evil organization are: Goob from Meet the Robinsons and Hans from Frozen.

They must push the protagonist to the absolute brink, and then some. And push your antagonist to the brink as well! Nothing brings out a hero’s nobility or a villain’s cruelty like extreme stress and dire situations. It’s the same idea as an emergency situation bringing out both the best and the worst in people.

Most stories with classic heroes and villains push each other to the brink. Good examples include the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty, and Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

Avoid cliches. The only character more susceptible to cliches than the hero is the villain. Try to avoid having your antagonist call people idiots (imbeciles, etc), put them in something other than a suit, and it’s okay if they aren’t suave.

Suave, intelligent villains in suits are great fun, but don’t limit yourself to them. Anyone could be a villain, which is why they are so compelling.

Some stories with non-suave villains are Howl’s Moving Castle, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Oliver Twist.

You don’t actually need an antagonist, strictly speaking. There are four main ways to create tension in a story and the overarching plot of a story usually falls into one of the four categories: man vs. man (Harry Potter vs. Voldemort), man vs. nature (Jurassic Park), man vs. society (The Giver), and man vs. himself (internal conflict. Example, Crazy by Han Nolan, and most vampire/werewolf stories).

There are plenty of great stories without a strict antagonist. Such as Lilo and Stitch, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, and Inside Out.

And lastly, feel free to disregard everything I’ve said. These are guidelines, plus things that I have been discovering as I try to strong-arm Koichi into a more effective antagonist and character. But writing is completely personal and you can do whatever you’d like.

Tips are nothing more than tools. If they don’t fit for what you’re trying to do, then don’t use them. Simple as that.

Any other writers having antagonist trouble?

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