When writing an antagonist, you need to consider the purpose of a confrontational force in your story. Your hero is being challenged by someone or something for a reason. Is it for the purpose of creating an incredible adventure? Or is it to develop your character? Or is the antagonist the real subject of your story?
Finding this answer is the first key to writing a good antagonist. Now, let’s discuss that!
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Before we get into the article, I would like to explain the lateness of the post. I was sick the previous week, a lot of things had to be put on hold for that reason. Even writing became a struggle, a mental blocking ensuring I could only write a few words. I still plan on continuing this series now I’m back on my feet, or on my keyboard, I should say.
I hope you enjoy!
Finding Their Purpose
The purpose of most antagonists is simply to provide a physical manifestation of evil. A force of cruelty, one that needs to be defeated or punished by the protagonist. Of course, there is always a measure of duality between the antagonist and the protagonist, as they are both equal and opposite forces, representing both sides of the moral spectrum.
Sometimes this can even be taken to a poetic level, where they both represent extremes of their respective moralities, and as such, can both be considered negative versions. For example, a rebel that goes to the extremes to break the law and sow chaos. Then there is the law-abiding protagonist, whose devout belief in the law can cause them to make more than questionable actions. As a result, both are complete opposites, but both are undesirable.
However, whether they are taken to this extreme or not, such equal and opposite forces make for interesting clashes.
Of course, moving away from the norm, we might have softer, less obvious antagonists. Characters develop the protagonist, but their entire existence isn’t based on that alone. These are character’s in their own right, with their own goals; this antagonist might even have the same goal as the protagonist, for that reason they are simply another character, rather than the typical dark and terrifying forces.
These antagonists are meant to serve more as an alternate path the protagonist may go down. Which in essence, brings us to the core of the antagonist; to contrast the protagonist.
Conflict requires contrasting ideas, sometimes contrasting people. One needs to only look at their story and examine the role of their antagonist. What do they add to the story? How do they affect the plot and characters? Depending on your story, the purpose should be easy to spot and keep in mind.
Of course, although it is a little late to say so, I am discussing antagonists that appear as entities, be it monsters, spirits or the average citizen, rather than an antagonist that isn’t sentient, such as a disease or society. These are more sensitive topics, and while they might be considered antagonists to many writers, I consider them more themes for a novel. Such as surviving the great depression, or a war, or a disease, or loss of something important.
While powerful and dealing with human emotions and issues, these cannot really be discussed, but their effect can. However, that is not for today’s article!
A Good Antagonist Personality
As I always say, the amount of time one spends on planning the antagonist should be equal to the protagonist, if not, more so.
If your antagonist is a person, with their own style and personality, they can become a great asset to your story if you spend a decent amount of time developing them. Often, it is the antagonist who comes off as more interesting and fun to read than the protagonist, as the antagonist usually isn’t restricted by social convention or even laws.
That means their personality is often eccentric, extreme. It is the lack of these limits, mental or societal, that allows many writers to explore the extraordinary aspects of human nature.
Of course, your antagonist need not be so humorous, or cruel, or shocking. Sometimes, a good antagonist doesn’t stand out, they simply fulfil the role they are made to play. However, no matter what their role, personality is important. Having the right personality not only adds to their character but their memorability as well.
The saying, “A story is only as good as it’s a villain’, comes to mind.
The last thing you want is to create an antagonist that appears more like a side character. They are an important piece, so even if they remain hidden, their effect on the story should be clear and when they are finally revealed, given a moment to show who they are, display themselves to the other characters and the reader, they should shine as the spotlight is on them.
It even helps to make the antagonist enjoyable to write, as well as to read. To truly dwell in what they are and present them well. I recommend you get interested and involved when writing and developing them.
A Master Plan
The antagonist isn’t incompetent.
From a petty thief to a world-dominating supervillain, the antagonist has something over the protagonist. The antagonist might be faster, stronger or smarter. An antagonist is a person that is doing a good job of avoiding the repercussions of their actions, at least throughout most of the story. That means they must be doing something right, cause luck can only carry them so far.
It is typical in most fiction for the antagonist to employ the ‘master plan’ tactic.
It is a tactic where all the events and reactions of a story are planned out and expected by the antagonist. There are some unforeseen obstacles, usually the protagonist, but otherwise, the antagonist is simply following a list of actions they have coordinated. It is a great tactic to employ because any antagonist can make use of it. The antagonist need not be a genius to make a master plan, then need only enough time.
That means, if your antagonist is a mediocre criminal in prison for ten years, that is plenty of time for them to not only plan their escape but their revenge as well. However, that is only one example of an advantage an antagonist might have.
The Elusive Antagonist
Sometimes, a plan isn’t needed. The antagonist will avoid capture or punishment through elusiveness, thanks to their cunning, their instinct.
Whether it comes from experience or simply sheer will, the antagonist will not face the music if they can help it. Usually, this is a trait found in the criminal antagonist, in crazed characters, killers or thieves. These often make for the most terrifying antagonist as a character that will do anything to get what they want will often do the most shocking things that many wouldn’t have the willpower to do.
Whether it is jumping out a window of a building to escape their pursuer or betray someone close to them, this antagonist will grasp at straws and more than often get lucky.
A Fitting End
That covers some fundamentals of creating an antagonist, but now we need to address the ending.
Typically, the antagonist will get what’s coming to them. The antagonist will fail, often catastrophically. The reason this happens is that that is what readers want. Whether it is unrealistic or not, the reader wants to see the hero succeed, they want to see the villain fail. With that in mind, here are some common antagonist endings.
In the first ending, the antagonist is killed, destroyed or vanquished. Never to be seen again. It’s simple, it’s satisfying and the world seems so much brighter without them.
In the second ending, the antagonist escapes, or there is a hint they may have survived. Typically, a writer will do this to have the character return in a sequel. The antagonist is either likeable enough to return as a semi-protagonist or to get their revenge. Either way, they will be reused in some capacity.
In the third ending, the antagonist is captured. Now, the result can be the same as the first or second ending, it really depends on if there is a sequel. Many readers find this ending unsatisfying because it has become the norm for the antagonist to be killed off. However, in a more realistic book, this can be just as satisfying as the first.
Fourth and most rarely, the conversion ending. The antagonist has been struggling with their morality for a long time. The protagonist succeeds in converting the antagonist into a good guy and the ending is more heartfelt.
To take a phrase from a popular video game; “What is better- to be born good, or to overcome your evil nature through great effort?”
A Fitting End...to this Article
And that brings us to the end of this article.
First, I would like to thank my readers for their patience. I’m grateful that I only missed one article because I always enjoy reading the discussions and hearing what you think. On that note, please let me know what you believe are the best aspects of antagonists. What do you try to keep in mind when writing the villain?
Second, when I write my stories, there is an aspect I always try to include in minor villains, if not the main villain. I want to make my antagonist’s understandable. Now, in some cases, this won’t be possible, but generally, I try to make them have a clear reason that the reader can empathize with.
Doing so, the antagonist in their own mind believes they are in the right. Of course, their actions may say otherwise, which emphasises their role. Perhaps this is something you will consider for your antagonist as well!
Thank you for reading and as always,
Good day, goodnight and happy writing!