Writing Antagonists: (Aka, Your Villains and Bad Guys)
The antagonist is often either one of the most fun things to write, or the most dreaded. But either way, they are a key element of the story, and that cannot be ignored. So, let’s talk about how to make a really great antagonist.
You may have in the past met a writer or teacher or whomever who insists on using the words “protagonist and antagonist” over words like “hero and villain.” Personally, I am not so stingy about it, I feel that I know what you mean anyway so it doesn’t really matter- what there is a legitimate reason as to why you should at least try to think of your villain as your antagonist instead.
And that reason is connotation. Well, denotation too, really- villain and antagonist aren’t completely the same thing, but I’m bringing it down to connotation.
Simply said, when you think of the word “villain”, you’ll think something like “that’s the bad guy in the story.” And when you think of the “antagonist”, you probably think “that’s a fancy word for villain, aka the bad guy in the story.”
But antagonist isn’t just a fancy word. It’s a fancy concept. It means “the guy that opposes the good guy.” That can be on any argument or view. When writing your antagonist is to remember that nothing is black/white, good/bad thinking, and that includes your antagonist.
Let’s map out the steps to making a complex villain- aka, an antagonist.
First, remember that your antagonist (usually) is a person, just like your protagonist. It might help to develop them outside of their intentions first, and put a person to the upcoming reputation.
Chances are, your antagonist didn’t just rise up out of the ground ready to kill. They came from somewhere. Your readers don’t even have to know everything about your antag’s backstory, but you do, if you want to really understand them. It often holds the key reason as to why your antagonist is where they are. The drive behind anger, revenge, change, or pleasing someone else can come from the events in their background.
Why do they hold the beliefs they hold? Were they raised that way? Were they taught by some mentor figure? Were they cover from a reality they couldn’t bear? Are they trying to please someone, or get revenge on someone who displeased them? The answer should be in their background.
Remember, every villain is a hero in their own mind. They believe that what they are doing is necessary, even if they recognize that it is unpleasant. What are they fighting for? Why does it matter to them so much, that they are willing to overlook all the harm they do?
“The Greater Good”: This is one of the more common and understandable villain motives. They believe that what they are doing now is paving the way to a better future. But keep in mind that what your antag views as a “better future” may be very, very different than the average opinion. Maybe a “better future” for them is a genocidal purge or the world ending in flames. Who knows.
That’s not the only type of motive. Be creative. Work with the information you established in your character’s background to find the most reasonable motive.
This is going to be related to your background and motive in an interesting way. Think of your antagonist as a character who has already completed their Character Arc and reached a negative end. Look at the points of change on the character arc- the ones that push your character farther down their path. What are those events? Those are the tipping points that prompted your character towards becoming they way they are now- those key moments where your character had a choice, and they chose to become bitter, hateful, vengeful, cold, or other negative things.
These could be the deaths of loved ones, the promptings of a mentor, or a moment of injustice that made them realize that the world isn’t always kind.
This is the part where you develop them outside of their intentions. How do they behave?
It’s tempting to just say that your villain is a villain because they torture and kill people. But those are not the only things that make a villain a scary or serious threat. Some characters might jump to violence easier than others. Some might be more into psychological torment. Some might actually seem really charming or persuasive, which is frightening in it’s own way- they might actually be tricky enough to confuse you into making bad decisions on your own. Think about your character’s background again. What makes the most sense for them as a person?
This is how your antagonist comes across to others. Keep in mind that your reader and your other characters don’t know your antagonist like you do. How does this person present to the world?
-Are they open to discussion/negotiation?
-Are they open about their intentions?
-How quick are they to violence?
-What are their methods of war?
-When you meet them, are they charismatic, quiet, charming, vulgar? Do they have a sense of humor, or are they stoic?
-Do they seem to enjoy what they are doing, or do they express regrets even as they do it?
What are they willing to do to achieve their goals? Do they have weaknesses in their personal lives?
1. Do they have noble ends behind their controversial means?
2. Is there a line even they won’t cross?
3. Do they have someone/something that they care about?
4. Do they prefer to do the killing/torturing etc themselves or do they just give the order?
Remember that if your antagonist does have any of these moral weaknesses, they are not going to want to show it. One has to keep up intimidating appearances, after all.
Speaking of appearances…
This part is here to tell you what not to do. There are certain appearances that are getting really old with villains.
1. Dressing in all black. Why do they even do that? It’s time to stop associating black with “bad” and white with “good”. It just isn’t like that, so stop making villains all dark and stuff.
2. Scars. I think scars are pretty cool, don’t get me wrong. But if there is no relevant reason for it to be there, don’t talk about it all the time. That goes for all characters, not just villains. Like the color black, scars are not just a villain thing. Everyone has them. Don’t associate them with “bad.”
3. Sexy. I get the idea that making a villain attractive makes them harder to hate, but that can be kind of a cop out of actual complexity. Again, if there is no legitimate reason to make your villain sexy, then don’t. It’s not necessary.
4. Ugly. I hesitate to call any traits inherently ugly, but if you’re striving to make your character unpleasant looking just because they’re bad, then once again, you are associating feature=evil, which is not creative at best and seriously socially harmful at worst.
Basically, your villains should be just as diverse as anyone else. You don’t need stereotypes to make them scary. Sometimes it’s scarier than anything else to just have an average person. It sort of adds to the idea that anyone could be a villain. And that’s pretty frightening.
- Complicate your villains. They’re not just Evil McEvilpants.
That’s it for now, but like anything else in writing, antagonists have a lot of possibility and exceptions. But that was your basic rundown on the things to consider when making a complicated antagonist.