Writing an antagonist is both incredibly fun, as well as incredibly nerve-wracking. You can push the boundaries of what is normal behaviour, but strive to remain in the realm of reality. An antagonist is only as intimidating as they are believable, so how can we keep this delicate balancing act going?
Here are my top 10 tips for writing a great antagonist!
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For this week’s article, I took another article of mine and revamped it. Now, this was one of my more favourite articles, as it dealt with a special part of fiction for me; the antagonist. The villain, in most examples of my writing, is more important than the protagonist. Of course, that sounds a little funny.
However, having read protagonists all my life, I have a better understanding of them and how to write them. It is the antagonist that is a lot more difficult to master, at least for me. Luckily, I learned from a lot of writers out there and developed some of my techniques.
Tip 1: Give Them Attention
The level of attention you pay the antagonist is often overlooked. Most writers are more interested in their protagonists, developing them and creating many enjoyable scenes with them. Fortunately, the reader often is more interested in the protagonist as well, but that does not excuse the lack of attention given to the antagonist.
Your villain needs to feel present in your novel. The reader needs to know why the protagonist is against them and why the antagonist is against the protagonist. There needs to be a clash of morality, of motives, of personalities. You spend a large amount of time rounding out your protagonist, but have you done the same for the villain?
Lack of attention can lead to Side-Character Syndrome, a phrase I developed where an author puts little thought into a character, making the character seem like a side character instead of the main character as intended. Your protagonist will come off as forced and your antagonist as much of a mystery as they were in the beginning. Thus, the main character who doesn’t feel present will also feel unimportant.
You can solve this problem by putting the same amount of planning into the antagonist as you did the protagonist. Develop their personality, create their background story, give them strengths and flaws. The antagonist need not receive as much of the spotlight in your novel as the protagonist, but they need more thought behind them to come off as ‘amazing’.
Tip 2: Make Their Moments Memorable
Speaking of the spotlight, when your antagonist has a scene to play their part, make it memorable. Use it effectively, to display the antagonist on a bright and shining podium. The antagonist won’t get as many scenes as the protagonist in most stories, so when they have an opportunity, be sure to show them off.
You can do this in many ways.
It can be a scene where the antagonist demonstrates their power, where they fool the protagonist or where they disturb the reader with their evil. In these moments, the reader needs to have the express desire to see the protagonist punch back, literally or figuratively. Any emotion you evoke with these scenes is a win, not just the desire for swift justice.
We can all recall amazing scenes in movies, such as the first conversation with Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. A scene where the antagonist, or one of the antagonists, in this case, is introduced. An introduction that can be terrifying, intimidating or even unassuming so the protagonist can be caught off-guard later on. It won’t only be their introduction that terrifies the reader, but also their appearances and actions throughout the novel.
It is in these moments the antagonist is most alive and present in your novel. With enough scenes, the character stands out and the reader can even enjoy reading their scenes as much as they enjoy the protagonist's scenes. That is your goal for an amazing and memorable antagonist.
A character that is on the same level as the protagonist.
Tip 3: Make Their Goal Understandable
The antagonist needs a goal. Something they wish to attain through all their efforts. A goal that is understandable, if not reasonable, such as world domination. Such goals are extraordinary but understandable. The antagonist desires power in this case.
Now, if your villain is not some super villain from a comic book, perhaps a smaller goal or desire would work better. The villain might wish to harm someone, just for kicks. Or, they might want to attain a fantastic measure of wealth without earning it. It could be madness, it could be revenge, it could be a profound lack of morality that guides them, but they have a goal.
For whatever reason, the antagonist’s desire is immoral, illegal or both. Yet, not so far-fetched that it’s unbelievable. If anything, the reader or protagonist needs to understand their goal, what pushed them to go after it. Yet, the goal must be unreasonable, a terrible reaction to whatever happened to the antagonist. Of course, that plays quite nicely with the revenge motive, as revenge is often painted as being a negative thing.
Returning to the point, you want it to be understandable so the reader can somewhat relate or emphasise the emotions or reasoning of the antagonist.
Having that measure of relatability for the antagonist, even if it is only a small measure, is enough to add a mountain of depth and interest in the antagonist. It makes them appear more human, more grounded. All of these are amazing qualities to give a character, antagonist or not.
Tip 4: Give Them Drive and Purpose
We have talked about the antagonist’s goal, but now we need to talk about their drive and purpose. We need to establish what is pushing them to reach the goal and what their purpose is in the novel as a whole.
First, their drive. The antagonist has a goal, much like the protagonist, but they need a reason behind it. Something that pushes them to succeed, something to punish them if they fail. There needs to be stakes in addition to the rewards they seek. It only takes a moment to analyse the goal and the one working towards it to answer these questions.
What made the antagonist desire such a goal?
A wonderful question for building a bigger backstory. Perhaps also hinting at something deeper, more profound about the villain. Such development goes a long way towards making the antagonist unique and interesting for the reader.
In addition to that point, the antagonist’s goal can be a noble one, but their actions in achieving such a goal are more than questionable. Such as world peace through the destruction of all life on earth. That is a means that does not justify an end. However, the antagonist will commonly place their goal above the actions they take, which in most cases will lead them down the dark path of being a villain.
Finally, keep their purpose in mind. The antagonist needs to conflict with the protagonist. For more basic antagonists this can be a simple argument between the two, or for more adventure novel antagonists, this can be the occasional physical combat. Whichever best suits your plan for your novel.
When writing these stories, you need to decide which comes first in your thinking. Are you creating an antagonist for the story or the protagonist? Is the antagonist fulfilling a purpose in the story or the development of your protagonist?
To be even more precise; is the antagonist something you thought about, planned and set up for the antagonist’s sake in the story, or are they simply there to justify the protagonist, by being the major obstacle that the protagonist overcomes?
It is very easy to confuse the antagonist with your intentions for the story, but by establishing a purpose, you will get a better idea of the role your antagonist plays.
Tip 5: Give Them Emotions
If your villain is a robot or a person who experienced an accident that leaves them no longer feeling emotion, you can ignore this tip.
Yet, I’m sure for the majority of you, your villain is prone to the occasional outburst or heartfelt monologue outlining their evil desires. Most likely your antagonist is a human and with that in mind they will have human attachments, they will be swayed by the actions of those close to them and the actions of their enemies.
Your villain might have family, friends and loved ones. People the antagonist wants to protect, just like the protagonist. Your antagonist can go through bouts of grief, anger, and happiness. In this case, the villain might act accordingly. A disturbed one, in particular, might make hasty decisions that benefit the protagonist or take terrible steps to hurt the protagonist in some way, giving them more reason to stop the antagonist.
You no doubt see where I am going with this point. You can use the emotions of the antagonist to not only add depth to the villain, make them more relatable, but also use these emotions to work with the plot. If you forget the antagonist has emotions and they simply follow the plot, they are no better than a robot. In which case, your antagonist will come off hollow and uninteresting, if they are not a robot anyway.
I have found this tip to be one of the most important, as emotions are the core of every character. Their reactions are best based on their emotional attachment or lack thereof. A character is more human with emotion, making them more relatable when they have an emotional connection with something.
It will also make their immoral acts all the more terrifying, as you can see the conflict between their human side and their dark side. Whereas, a robot, you don’t expect to have a moral code. Thus, their immoral acts are not as shocking, thus the antagonist isn’t as intimidating.
Tip 6: Give Them Personality and Power
Your antagonist has two advantages in the story; one over the reader and the other over the protagonist.
The first advantage is personality.
The personality of the antagonist can be that of cruelty, like most typical villains. The villain can be a harsh person, bent on fulfilling their dark desires and crushing anyone in their way. Or, your villain can be more human, with a twisted side. A sarcastic personality, or an amusing personality and many more, can make them a bit more interesting than a simple manifestation of pure evil.
You can spend a lot of time picturing your many characters, giving them backgrounds and putting in all this effort for the villain as well, but if the antagonist lacks a personality fitting their actions and desires, it falls flat. Another vital feature of a villain you will need to go over, but wholly, a fun one. Some personalities amuse the reader, which is another plus.
A final point when it comes to personality; every character should have a personality. One that encapsulates who they are, what they are about. Personality can match their style, thus heavily influence their actions or the execution of those actions.
The second advantage, the antagonist’s strengths.
It would be a miss not to give your antagonist any strengths. Something that gives them an edge over the protagonist, at least so far until their eventual fall. It could be an incredible intellect or physical strength. It could be their elusiveness, their ability to hide in plain sight. Anything that has them besting the protagonist and making steps towards their goal.
Without such a strength, your antagonist will come off as an average person trying to be bigger than they are. Depending on your story, an average person might be exactly what you want. However, if your antagonist is one with a complex plan or a fantastic goal, they will need an edge.
A strength that helps make their goal achievable, as well as a strength that makes them a worthy counter to the protagonist. It can be physical strength, it can be incredible intelligence, cunning or even a fat bank account to hire mercenaries and other lesser baddies to do the work for them.
No doubt you already have a strength in mind, but if you don’t, look at your story and your protagonist and see which ones work.
Tip 7: The Antagonist Needs a Fatal Flaw
Everyone has strengths, abilities or knowledge that help them. Yet, everyone has a crippling flaw that either holds them back or worse still, jeopardizes their plans.
The flaw, of course, depends on the antagonist. Usually, it is the polar opposite of their strength. You could have an intelligent villain, but in a fight, they crumple like paper. It is this flaw that the protagonist uses to their advantage, that much is clear, but what isn’t clear is what flaw best suits your antagonist.
What tips them over the edge?
Does your antagonist fail to protect someone they care about? Does your antagonist get outsmarted thanks to their hubris? Does your antagonist finally get beaten at their strength, because the protagonist practised more?
The last thing your reader wants to read is your well-thought-out antagonist being bested through sheer luck. Find a flaw or create one and use it to create a brilliant show-down.
With that said, a flaw is more than a plot point.
It is another detail that makes your antagonist believable. Everyone has a flaw, as I said earlier. Your antagonist, like all characters, is grounded by their limits. A fault, a fear, anything that makes them realize they aren’t immortal, that they aren’t all-powerful. It’s a fact that most antagonists try to ignore and protagonists fail to realise.
When it isn’t kept in mind, the antagonist thinks they are unbeatable and the protagonist has no clue how to beat them. Another reason to give your antagonist a fatal flaw.
Tip 8: Consider Character Development
Character development is one of my favourite subjects to discuss with my students. It’s a wonderful feeling to brainstorm and break down characters, to find reasons for their beliefs, their values and their personality. There are many ways a character can change throughout the story, the lessons they learn when they fail or succeed.
Of course, the antagonist is not to be excluded.
The antagonist must go through the same scrutiny. The events of the novel should affect the antagonist, changing them in small ways. Teaching them what works and what doesn’t. If they feel a certain way, they need a real reason to back that feeling up.
Often, this means creating multiple scenes and dialogues that lead the antagonist in the right direction. These moments make the antagonist analyse, learn and adapt to the situation they are in. After all, no antagonists will put themselves at risk unless there is a reason to do so. It could be that they believe they know best, that they have nobody to turn to or they are simply reckless.
Yet, whatever may happen throughout the novel, it should change them. By the end of the novel, whether your antagonist wins, loses or escapes, they are different. It could be that they develop a new negative or positive trait. The antagonist might even feel regret.
Whatever the development may be, it is something that makes the character deeper and more interesting. It lets the reader know that this character isn’t so simple, that they have a mind of their own.
I can’t help but emphasise how important this process is. It might not always be necessary, but it certainly takes a character to a new level. I highly recommend it and encourage every writer to have fun with the process.
Tip 9: Use ‘Luck’ and ‘Skill’
Many factors cause events to happen in a novel. Besides the obvious, which is that the plot is directly controlled by you, the writer, it can also be affected by ‘forces’ in the fictional world.
Fate/destiny are often used in a story context, as they can be directly compared to the ‘prophecy’ trope. A trope that is popular in high fantasy as it adds to the fantasy nature of the story when a hero and a villain are meant to conflict.
However, when it comes to something as specific as writing the antagonist, I want to draw attention to the conflict specifically and underline the two ‘forces’ that play a part in any conflict.
The first are skills the characters have.
The skills of the protagonist and antagonist are being compared. In dialogue, one might be better at speaking than the other or put forward many good points that make the other hesitate or question their own beliefs. After dialogue comes a more physical conflict, where the better fighter or strategist is then discovered.
The second ‘force’ is luck.
Unfortunately, this is a ‘force’ that is often ignored or avoided but can add to the realism of any story and believably put the protagonist or antagonist on a higher level of power. Of course, this isn’t as satisfying as the characters overcoming the other through genuine effort and skill, which is why it isn’t used so often.
However, luck plays a part in everything. It could be one character blunders in some way, giving their opponent the edge. When you throw in chaos creating factors, such as an explosion that disorientates the combatants, luck decides which one is on their feet first, or who is closer to a weapon.
When writing your antagonist, I recommend keeping both these forces in mind. Skill is one thing you will use often, but it is also predictable. Luck will help make things unpredictable and thus, exciting.
Sometimes, the antagonist has the edge.
Tip 10: Look to the Future
The final tip is short and simple.
Think about where your protagonist will be in the future. Do you believe it best to have them killed off in the end? Should they be captured, or escape, or even win?
There are many ways a story can conclude for the antagonist and it can be in that one novel or the next. If you are interested in creating a series, one should decide whether the antagonist will live to see the next book or make an exit for a new antagonist to take their place.
Perhaps you write an antagonist that you are proud of, that you feel would be better if they appeared in more than one novel. That is why it is a good idea to take a moment to look to the far future and decide the fate of your antagonist.
Those are my top ten tips for writing an antagonist!
As I said before, the antagonist is incredibly important to me when I am writing a novel. I hope that after this article that you feel the same way about the antagonist. I see them as an opportunity to make a character that stands out, that shakes things up. One can even make the antagonist the life of the story!
Thank you for reading this article, I hope you enjoyed!
Good day, goodnight and happy writing!