Antagonists are one of the most important parts of stories and can often make or break the enjoyment of a story. Sometimes, no matter how well written your protagonist is, if the antagonist is poorly developed or presented then the story comes across as flat.
This post is one of a series of two posts. This week, I will be talking about the role of antagonists in stories generally and what makes them work. Next week, I will look at what makes a really good villain, which is somewhat different thing. The second part will have a particular focus on fantasy/thriller/adventure type stories, though should be applicable to other genres.
It is important to note that not every story requires an antagonist, so don’t feel like you need to shoehorn one in just for the sake of it. All stories need are goals and obstacles to create conflict. An antagonist is an effective way of creating that conflict, but isn’t the only way.
Here’s some ideas to think about when writing an antagonist:
I will start with the most obvious. Please give your antagonist interesting motivations. People often talk about antagonists having non-realistic motivations, but more importantly you should not give your antagonist boring motivations. Give them a compelling reason to be doing what they are doing. Here is a list of boring motivations:
I want to destroy the world because I am angry.
I want to destroy the world because I am evil.
I want to kill people because I like it.
I hate the protagonist because they are so good and I am so evil.
Good and evil are boring concepts. They are overplayed. If you want an interesting antagonist, stop thinking of them as the villain in the story and start thinking of them as the hero of their own story.
This is key. Your antagonist should truly believe that whatever they are doing is justified. Not necessarily that they are doing the right thing, because right and wrong is not as cut and dry as that, but definitely that they are justified in doing the actions they are doing. They can arrive to this through relatively messed up logic, but they need to have that logic.
If you can make it so that your antagonist sees themselves as the hero and even sees your protagonist as the villain, then you have some interesting motivations going on.
Examples of compelling antagonists who believe themselves to be the hero include Magneto from the X-Men canon, John Doe from the movie Se7en, Ozymandias from Watchmen and many others. These characters are for more interesting because their motivations appear real. After all - nobody really sees themselves as the villain. They all think that their path is the best one.
More than just heroes, the antagonists should be the protagonists of their own stories. This means they need to be agents of their own character development arc.
You need to plan out a character arc and a goal for your antagonist just like you do for your protagonist, even if we only catch glimpses of it throughout the story. They should not be static. They should not simply be waiting for your protagonist to show up and defeat them.
Think about Lord Voldemort, who is a very memorable villain. He has a very clear character arc across the seven books and is, from the very beginning, working to regain his lost power. He has detailed, actionable plans and as we grasp glimpses of this through Harry’s eyes during the story we grow to understand what he wants and why. This is very successful.
Make sure your antagonist, just like your protagonist, is active and making active choices to further them towards their goals.
Foils: Two Types of Antagonist
Great antagonists are also foils for the protagonist. A foil is a term to describe a character who contrasts with another character in order to bring out certain traits of theirs. A good foil character usually falls into one of two camps:
1. Diametrically Opposed
One of the best ways of creating protagonist / antagonist conflicts is by giving them very different worldviews.
The reason the Joker is such a compelling antagonist for Batman is that he holds a diametrically opposed worldview. Batman believes in justice, doing good and the sanctity of life. Joker believes in chaos and sees life as ultimately futile and absurd. This opposition creates for a powerful protagonist / antagonist dynamic.
His opposing viewpoint contrasts with Batman’s and causes him to question the value of his beliefs. The Joker specifically pushes Batman to re-evaluate these beliefs by setting up situations like the boat gambit in The Dark Knight. In this situation, he forces Batman to wonder if the faith he puts in people and in the sanctity of life is really worth it.
It is good character development for the protagonist.
If your antagonist is like this - diametrically opposed in their worldview to the protagonist - get them to put the protagonist in similar situations, where they are forced to reevaluate and question their worldview in order to defeat the antagonist.
2. Reflections of Each Other
Another good way of creating a foil for the main character is by presenting an antagonist that is a little too much of a reflection of them. There should still be differences in how they view the world, of course, or there is no conflict. But, if you offer up enough similarities to cause them to pause and wonder, this can be particularly effective.
Two of my favourite examples both come from hit TV shows - Dexter and Breaking Bad. I’m aware that both these examples involve famous anti-heroes. The protagonists are villains themselves. But this is concept can apply just as well to traditional heroes. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock and Moriarty are another excellent example of a protagonist and antagonist being very similar.
The first example I will use is Gus Fring from Breaking Bad. He stands as one of the strongest antagonists in the show, partly because of his similarities to Walt
Up until meeting Fring, all the other drug dealer / cartel enemies he faced were of a similar nature - power-hungry, mercurial and generally mad (like Tuco from the first season). Walt is often seen desperately wishing to deal drugs more like a sensible business, with sensible people that will just give him money for his product and distribute it.
In comes Gus Fring - exactly what he has always wanted. In many ways, Gus is like a reflection of Walt. Intelligent, business-like, but also ruthless when he needs to be. He offers Walt exactly what he has been wanting - lots of money to make his product safely and have no hand in the distribution or any other activities.
The effectiveness of Gus Fring as a villain is that he demonstrates that what Walt said he wanted is not what he actually wants. He doesn’t want to be in the background. He wants to be Fring. He wants to run the operation. Fring is so effective as a villain because he is so similar to Walter and in many ways he is the representation of everything Walt wants - this is where the conflict is derived from.
A second example is the Trinity Killer from Season 4 of Dexter, arguably the best season of an otherwise hit and miss show (certainly later on).
Dexter is presented with an antagonist who is also a serial killer with a family, just when he is struggling to come to terms with that element of himself. In fact, in the very moment when Dexter is determined to kill Trinity, he sees him go home to his family and stops. This isn’t because of any empathy he feels for them, but because he sees himself in Trinity and is intrigued. He wants to know more.
In this story, the antagonist acts as a foil to the hero. He provides conflict - yes - but also an opportunity to really explore the depths of Dexter’s character by holding a mirror up to it. He can see his own reflection in Trinity and, increasingly, he doesn’t like what he sees there.
In both of these situations, just like with Batman and Joker, the antagonists are effective because they force the protagonist to confront their own personal viewpoints and change the way they think about the world. You should be aiming to have your antagonist do this.
Faces and Facelessness
There has been a tendency in literature lately to make antagonists large faceless conglomerates, whether an evil corporation or a group of deadly assassins or something else. Personally, I think this is a dangerous narrative trap to fall into.
Great antagonist are visible. They have character. The reason faceless groups don’t work well as antagonists is that you can’t give them an arc. You can’t give them depth in the same way.
If anyone has watched the hit Netflix Marvel Show Daredevil, I’m sure they would agree that Wilson Fisk is an infinitely more compelling protagonist than the Hand - a faceless group of ninjas.
The Wachowski Brothers (siblings?) (sisters?) knew this when they made the Matrix. They knew they had an antagonist that by its very nature is faceless, so they gave it a face and a character and even an arc in the character of Agent Smith, who is far more compelling than all the other ‘agents.’
Please be careful of making your antagonists too faceless and characterless. Yes, you may want to be making a social commentary on heartless pharmaceutical companies or late stage capitalism or whatever, but give your antagonist a face and a personality, not just a theme.
Successful antagonists are more than just plot devices, they are the protagonists of their own story. They need as honest a motivation, arc and development as your protagonist does, even if a lot of this is not seen directly but happens in bits and pieces.
Next Thursday will be part 2 of this antagonist discussion, focusing more closely of fantasy/adventure villains and how to write them successfully.
See you next week.
I am a writer, a reader and a teacher. I write about writing. Sometimes I write about other things too.