Writing a Better Antagonist
In honor of Halloween (I know I’m late, but at least I’m close) I decided to discuss the characters we all love to hate… or is that hate to love? Either works. I’m talking about the antagonist of a story. Now not every antagonist is a villain, but… every villain is an antagonist. The bad guy in your story doesn’t need to be bad just for the sake of being bad. That’s a villain, and sometimes a villain can become a caricature. We don’t want that. Unless of course you’re writing a comedy and then all bets are off. Make him a Snidely Whiplash if you’re going for over the top humor. What I’m here to discuss is how to create a memorable antagonist. One your audience will either hate to love or… well, you get the idea.
Every story needs conflict. Without conflict your hero is free to do whatever s/he wants without resistance. What fun is that? Everyone loves to see a hero suffer… at least for a little bit. We need to see him struggle, grow, and overcome. If the hero goes about his life attaining whatever he desires without having to struggle to get it, no one cares. We need conflict. The conflict comes from your antagonist. The antagonist can take on any form. Remember the literary conflict we learned in high school: Man vs Man, Man vs Society, Man vs Nature, and Man vs Self? On the right side of that versus symbol is your antagonist.
So what makes a great antagonist? First and foremost he should be the hero in his own mind. Your antagonist should believe that his goals are noble; that what he is doing is for the greater good. In fact, he should believe that your hero is his antagonist. I know, mind-blowing, right? Every great antagonist is the hero of his own story. It’s all about perspective. So make your antagonist as deep as your protagonist. Make him as multi-dimensional as your hero.
Get inside your antagonist’s head. Learn what makes him tick. What happened in his life that he feels warranted in stealing hundreds of millions of dollars while terrorizing the good employees of Nakatomi Plaza during their Christmas party? Why does he feel the need to strap a bomb to city bus that will explode if the bus drops below 60 miles per hour? What happened in his life for him to feel that this is for a greater good? Get under his skin. Wear him as a suit. Know what makes him tick and figure out a way to bring the audience along for that ride. Let them see him as a person. Make him relatable. Make them understand him. “Oooohhh, he’s a bad guy, but now I know why he’s doing it! I can relate!” Let us understand his world.
Don’t make him over the top evil with ridiculous powers that our hero could never possibly overcome. The audience won’t buy it. Make him just as strong and just as vulnerable as your protagonist. Make his flaws opposite of the hero’s. If your hero is brilliant, don’t make the bad guy dumb, but show the audience that he’s outmatched in that area. Then show how the antagonist is better than your hero. If your hero’s weakness is self-doubt, make your villain confident. The struggle should be conducted like a well-choreographed dance.
These are just a few things that will help you build a better antagonist. The important take-away from this is to make him as multi-dimensional as your hero. Spend as much time on his backstory as your hero’s, not in the actual story per se, but at least know him as well as you know your hero. Create a backstory that explains who he is. You don’t’ have to use it in your story, but at least it will help you create a character this believable and relatable. Those are qualities you want in all of your characters, not just your hero. The stronger your antagonist, the stronger your conflict. The stronger your conflict, the stronger your story. Make your story stronger by creating well-developed characters. Until next week, happy writing.