How to write Compelling Antagonists
The Immoral Antagonist
This is easily the most popular form of antagonist. The bad guy is one readers will have no trouble hating. He is usually set in clear contrast against the good-guy hero. The lines are drawn in varying shades of black and white, and readers have no problem choosing whom to root for.
1. The Hypocrite
The hypocrite is an antagonist who feigns goodness. He may be guilty of all sorts of treachery and evil, but on the surface he’s all honey and sunshine. He puts a righteous face on his misdeeds (perhaps even accusing the protagonist of hypocrisy to disguise his own), but the reader knows the truth: this guy is not just bad, he’s a fake. And we hate him all the more for it.
2. The Psycho
A mainstay of horror stories, this guy is just evil all the way through. He has no excuses, no thread of goodness leading him back to redemption. He’s just bad. And crazy on top of it. Serial killers, genocidal world leaders, and sadists fit the bill to a T. Not only do readers hate psycho bad guys—they’re scared to death of them.
3. The Regular Person Forced to Do Bad Things for an Illegitimate Reason
Most antagonists—in life as well as fiction—aren’t moustache-twirling, maniacally laughing whackos. Most of them are just regular Joes who have let their weaknesses get the better of them. Lust, greed, and hatred can drive even ordinary people to do extraordinary evil.
The Moral Antagonist
In the moral antagonist we find a more complicated—and often more compelling—character, since he presents more parallels than contrasts with the protagonist. This is a person who is doing the right thing—as he sees it—and usually for the right reasons, but who has nonetheless been forced to do battle with your hero, thanks to the requirements of your story’s overall conflict.
1. The Good Guy on the Opposing Side
Not all stories are going to offer an epic battle between good and evil. Sometimes the conflict will allow good people with opposing views to appear on both sides of the battle lines. Lawyers fighting each other for causes in which they each believe passionately, football teams competing for a championship, two love interests trying to win the same girl—none of them have to be inherently bad. Stories of this nature can provide all kinds of interesting possibilities for exploring the grey areas of life, relationships, and morality.
2. The Crusader
The crusader can be an insanely scary bad guy in his own right. This is someone who fiercely believes he is doing the right thing, and indeed he may well be fighting for a good cause. He may be someone who believes he has to choose between the lesser of two evils in his decisions. Or he may be someone driven to fanaticism—and thus dangerous decisions—by his passion for his cause. In fact, he may be just plain out right, while the protagonist is the one who’s wrong.
3. The Regular Person Forced to Do Bad Things for a Legitimate Reason
Sometimes even essentially good people end up doing bad things because they feel they have no choice. A character who robs a bank to pay for his wife’s operation or to save himself from the Mafia’s threats may be a hero in his own right—or he may be a compelling and relatable antagonist to the detective protagonist who has to go after him.