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What to do with your Antagonist
Your antagonist (or villain) has one job in your story, and that is to mess things up for protagonist (hero). But, that doesn’t mean they don’t need a story of their own.
To write well, all of your characters need to be rounded, complex and believable. Whether they’re the hero, the villain, the love interest, or the hero’s landlady, they all need a past, a present, and a future.
Your plot, in its simplest terms, is your protagonist on their journey to achieving their goal. Your antagonist is there to stop them, as many times as they can, and in as many ways as they can. But they also need a goal of their own, a reason they do what they do:
- Either your protagonist and antagonist have the same goal: the same love interest, or the same object they’re searching for, or to win the same award.
- Or they have opposing goals: maybe the hero wants to stop a supermarket being built, but the villain wants to build it.
By giving your antagonist a subplot of their own, a backstory, a goal, and by showing their character developing and changing, just as the hero does, you will create someone who is believable and relateable to your reader.
Always remember that everyone has good and bad character traits, and your antagonist shouldn’t just be a stereotype villain with a white cat and a moustache he likes to stroke. In fact, they may not even be a bad person, it’s just that their goal is in opposition to your hero’s.
This Is a Towel: Antagonists
Anonymous asked: Hey, do you have any tips for writing/developing a good antagonist? I’m having some trouble with the villain in my story and would appreciate you pointing me towards some advice! Thanks in advance~
Consider yourself pointed in the right direction!
- The Antagonist’s Epiphany
- Ambiguous Antagonists
- Character Virtues and Vices
- Likeable Villains from fuckyeahcharacterdevelopment
- Your Writing Is Not Wrong
- Villains from thewritershelpers
- Writing Believable Characters from theroadpavedwithwords
- How to Create a Credible Villain In Fiction from roleplayerstips
- How to Create a Good Character from roleplayerstips
- Creating Fictional Characters
- Character Development: P.O.V and Background from writersfriend
- 25 Things You Should Know About Character (AKA, “Anatomy of a Character”) from terribleminds
If you want to build your antagonistic character by our method, the Character Virtues and Vices page in our Writer’s Toolbox has a page called Choosing Virtues and Vices that outlines the steps for how to make characters, including villains.
Thank you for your question!
Antagonist v. Villain
what’s the difference between a villain and an antagonist?
From our friend Dictionary.com:
- a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted towickedness or crime; scoundrel.
- a character in a play, novel, or the like, who constitutes animportant evil agency in the plot.
- a person who is opposed to, struggles against, or competeswith another; opponent; adversary.
- the adversary of the hero or protagonist of a drama or otherliterary work: Iago is the antagonist of Othello.
So a villain is an antagonist but an antagonist isn’t always a villain. For example, in Paradise Lost, Satan is the protagonist of the book, when at the time of its publishing, I’m pretty sure the interpretation of Satan had switched from trickster agent of God to straight villain. ’Antagonist’ and ’Protagonist’ changes based on whose story is being told, while ‘villain’ is a moral judgement. Additionally, if we’re talking about the three Western sources of conflict within a story (self, man, nature), the antagonist of the story in addition to being a person could be fate, or a blizzard, or even the protagonist himself.
Hope that explains it!
Villains with No Motive or a Motive of Evil
Anonymous asked: I think you can give a villain a motive and still have them be truly evil. Some good evil motives would be greed or thirst for power.
Yes. However, I think there is something doubly terrifying in villains who have no motive, who, like the Joker in The Dark Knight, just want to watch the world burn. We can’t understand them because we have reasons and excuses and rationalizations for our actions. We can give you a Because for every Why.
But to ask, “Why?” and have a villain look you in the eye and reply, “Why? There is no why!“ —that is truly heinous, truly terrifying, and wholly unknowable.
Villains who know they’re evil and relish it are also frightening. They need no motive, or else their motive is simply to do and be evil and that is all. Take Aaron from Titus Andronicus for example, an exceptional villain worthy of the word and probably my favorite villain of all time.
Aaron has a few quotes that drive home the “I’m evil and I know it” character arc. Here are my favorites:
“…I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly;
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.” (x)
“If one good deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very soul.” (x)
How can you confront a villainy like this? How can you reason with it? How can you sympathize with it?
Hopefully you cannot sympathize. And there is no reasoning with evil—not pure evil like that. You can only kill it, hang it and shoot it full of holes and bury it in the desert to die of thirst or be eaten by some hungry beast. Villains like Aaron are poison; they are remorseless, incapable of reason. Unknowable.
Villains who have no motive or whose only motive is evil are so jarring and scary because they are unfathomable. We cannot grasp their motives, maybe because they have none, maybe because their motives are a skosh beyond the understanding of sane human beings.
The unknown is a major root of fear. Nearly all of our nightmares, everything we point to as a source of fear in our lives, can be traced back to the unknown. As Albus Dumbledore so wisely puts it in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, “It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more.” He’s right. There is nothing scary about death and darkness; it is what comes after death, what we cannot see in the darkness—those are the things that truly scare us.
We cannot know the emptiness and loneliness of evil, the vacuum of it, the nothingness it champions. We cannot know the Why, and the Why is what sustains us. To see a villain thrive without the Why, even in disdain if the Why, is terrifying.
So yes, a villain can be very nasty and hateful and murderous and still have a motive—greed, pride, lust, etc.—but the really evil villains are the ones with no motive or the simple motive of evil, who know they’re evil and don’t care. The unknown and unknowable; the known but unfathomable. The Other taken to the furthest degree. The inhuman. Evil.
This type of villain isn’t easy. There is no shortcut here, and no justification like, “Well, he’s just evil,” will work when it comes to this villain. It takes an enormous amount of skill and effort to write villains without motives or with a motive of evil, and there is a real possibility that it will still come off as flat.
But if you succeed, if you write that type of villain well, and you’ll have written the horror and the nightmare at the core of every one of us. Those are the villains that stick with you, who haunt you, who let all of your Whys echo unanswered in the dark.
The Antagonist's Epiphany
grumpylittlepiscean asked: Is it a good idea to have the villain himself have like a breakdown due to him seeing faults in his own ideals? Let’s say he wanted equality but realized he just created a tyrannical rule.
Yes! That is a great idea!
It can be difficult to pull off an “opening of the eyes” scene where the antagonist realizes his or her own villainy, but when done well it is an extremely powerful scene to read (and write).
There are three major ways to open your antagonist’s eyes, though of course there are more that are done less regularly in fiction:
- Major Event. There’s a moment in The Avengers when Thor tells Loki to look around at the destruction he’s caused. In that moment, the camera zooms in on Loki’s face, and we begin to see in him the realization of how much his selfish actions have harmed others (then that subtle look of regret is quickly replaced by a psychotic malice and a wicked grin, but you get the idea). A major event like full-scale destructive war or world-ending explosions can strike the antagonist profoundly. This major event can wake them up, so to speak. Just make sure you escalate their thirst for power up to this point and convince the reader that the antagonist is capable of realizing his or her faults.
- Minor Event. Something very small, like a dead flower lying trampled in the muddy path an army had trodden in a once-lush landscape, or seeing a personal item that belonged to a murdered friend may spark a realization in the antagonist. These can sometimes be even more powerful than major events because humans tend to zero in on the details when we are stressed. Again, make sure that your reader sees that the antagonist is not a sociopath; make sure they know your antagonist has the ability to see that he or she has gone too far.
- Lost Love/Hope. This occurs when another character who the antagonist loves is killed, pronounces their disgust for the antagonist, or otherwise distances himself or herself from the antagonist. The emotional turmoil of lost love may just be enough to force the antagonist to snap out of it. Lost hope may occur when it is clear the antagonist will lose whatever battle he or she is fighting, and the antagonist sees clearly for the first time where he or she has erred. One more time: Be completely sure that the reader knows that your antagonist is capable of realizing his or her faults, and that a breakdown is a believable thing for that antagonist to do after this realization.
When the antagonist has his or her realization and breakdown, there are two very effective ways to pull it off.
- Give the antagonist a former friend, close friend, love interest, or relative to talk to at the moment of his or her realization (usually a protagonist or otherwise morally-contrastive character to the antagonist). Dialogue is usually preferable to exposition, and in a moment of turmoil like the one you wish to write, having another character there with whom the antagonist shares a deep emotional connection is almost always better than having only a minion or random guy on the street with whom to discuss soul-wrenching epiphanies.
- Put the antagonist in time-out. Take a break from describing the horrors of battle or whatever is going on that the antagonist has done to have his or her realization and pull a tight focus on the character. The antagonist is completely alone with his or her thoughts and must work through their realization in utter solitude. This gives you plenty of time to rip out the reader’s heart and char-grill it (if you like), focusing only on the antagonist’s inner struggle and manipulating how the reader perceives it.
Again, build the antagonist’s humanity into the plot. Make it obvious to the reader over the course of the story that such a revelation is possible in your antagonist. Study emotional breakdowns and decide what sort of crackup best suits your antagonist. How and when and why will he or she finally see the error of his or her ways? Build to it. If you spring the idea of revelation and breakdown on your readers, they’ll find it tough to swallow.
Be thoughtful. Take time to understand your antagonist fully, and write him or her with empathy. We all make mistakes, right? It’s just that sometimes in fiction, our antagonist’s mistakes tend to be things like blowing planets up or other colorful ways of getting people killed.
Thank you for your question!