Antagonists. They’re usually not likeable. In fact, in most novels they’re hated by both characters and readers. But antagonists play a central part in fiction. Without them, there’d be no story.
An antagonist is the person who opposes the protagonist, the hero of the story. They’re the villain. The anti-hero. The bad guy.
The antagonist provides conflict.
More importantly, antagonists are the characters that keep people reading. If an antagonist isn’t well written or clear, then the stakes – the tension – isn’t defined.
You might say, “Well, wait a second. I care about what happens to the hero, not the villain.”
Great! However, if there was no threat to the hero, then how would you feel? You care about the protagonist because he is being threatened in some way, and thus has obstacles he must overcome to survive.
So, how do you go about writing a phenomenal antagonist?
For starters, remember that antagonists are real people. They’ve got a backstory, desires, ambitions, etc. They’re not just plot devices. In other words, character drives plot. The antagonist influences the actions and events within a story based on what he wants, and what he wants is the opposite of what the protagonist wants.
Another way to look at antagonists is to see the world through their eyes. To the outside observer, the antagonist is the bad guy, but to the antagonist he’s the good guy, while the protagonist is the antagonist. Crazy, right?
By looking at the world through the antagonist’s viewpoint, you can better grasp the antagonist as a person. The antagonist will become more of a rounded character, instead of a flat character used solely to move the plot along.
What’s fantastic about round characters is that they often fall into the gray zone located between the black and white poles you see in comic books and cartoons, or really any superhero movie.
The gray zone is a lot more interesting than black and white.
Think about some of your favorite antagonists. Darth Vader? Hannibal Lecter? Voldemort? Iago? Long John Silver? Norman Bates? Count Dracula? Annie Wilkes? Humbert Humbert? Nurse Ratched? Others?
Why do they stand out above the rest?
If nothing else, it’s because they make you feel strong emotions. You probably love hating them, or you hate that you love them. Maybe it’s a bit of both. (There are some novels I finished solely because I loved the antagonist, and though I couldn’t stand that I was more interested in the antagonist than the protagonist – guilty conscience for rooting for the bad guy – I was conflicted about seeing the antagonist lose in the end. I didn’t want to see the antagonist go because I wanted more.)
The antagonist doesn’t have to be a character. An idea, like racism, a natural disaster, like a hurricane or disease, an organization, like the NSA or some private bioengineering firm, can all act as antagonists. Think about slavery. That is a huge antagonist.
Bottom line: spend time on developing your antagonist. They’re vital to the story, and when something is a critical component, it can make or break a novel.
Got any antagonists you found yourself rooting for?
(Photo courtesy of Cynthia.)