Today, to finish out the last week before I get to start a super epic blog series I’m really excited for (you’ll find out just what that is next week when the first post of the series goes up), I’m writing about antagonists. I really like antagonists. It should probably be worrisome how much I like antagonists. But when they’re written well they can be some of my favorite characters in a book, at least for their depth. So we’re going to be talking about things you can focus on with the antagonist in your book to make them deep and resonant with your readers. (Hopefully your readers aren’t like me and won’t make them favorite characters, but…)
Also, thanks to Savannah Grace and her video on whether Loki or Thanos is the better villain for inspiration for this post. (She mentions a good number of other helpful traits for antagonists, if you want some more inspiration.)
1. Give Your Antagonist Motivation
No character is going to be compelling or interesting to read about if they don’t have a strong motivation for why they do what they do. This is especially true of the antagonist. If your antagonist is just evil for the sake of being evil, they’re not a strong character. No one is evil just for the sake of being evil unless they’re Satan. Or possibly if they’re really mentally unstable. In that case you might be able to redeem your antagonist with some of the other things on this list, but if your antagonist is a sane person they’re going to need a believable motivation. Not one you can agree with, necessarily, but one that’s believable.
For instance, maybe your evil king wants to conquer a bunch of the countries around him because he feels that his kingdom is too poor to sustain itself and he needs the resources of the other countries. Maybe your jerk abusive character is abusive because he was abused as a kid and he didn’t have a healthy example to follow. (DO NOT use this as an excuse to make a bad boy character who’s a jerk to your protagonist but ends up totally fine in a relationship with her because he has a Tragic BackstoryTM and that makes everything right. Just don’t. Unless you can do it really well and give him redemption aside from his backstory.) Whatever the case, give your character a believable motivation.
2. Make Your Antagonist Intimidating
An antagonist your main character can defeat with a snap of their fingers is not a strong antagonist. An antagonist your main character only loses to once is… probably also not a strong antagonist. Make your antagonist somehow stronger than your protagonist (whether that’s physically stronger, mentally stronger, more knowledgeable, etc.) or else there’s no real threat. There’s no tension if the reader knows the protagonist can defeat the antagonist whenever he wants.
Graceling did this really well with Katsa and King Leck, which is most of why he’s my favorite book antagonist. Readers appreciate it when we can worry about the protagonists and the ending isn’t assured. It makes for a more meaningful story in the end when the protagonist does triumph over the antagonist.
3. Make Them Human
As mentioned in the “motivation” section, chances are your character is not a remorseless robot who exists solely for the purpose of destroying the world. They’re going to have hobbies, people they care about (even if it’s only their sibling or parent or something), things that make them happy, etc. Give them relatable characteristics. Maybe even make them redeemable. Give the readers something that tells them your antagonist is not solely there to be an obstacle for the protagonist; he has feelings and a life and passions just like the protagonist.
4. Give Your Antagonist Boundaries
Even the most evil of antagonists is likely to have a line they don’t cross. Maybe they’re totally fine with killing innocents, but not if they’re defenseless and can’t fend for themselves. Maybe they’re more than willing to steal from people, but they’d never intentionally injure someone. Maybe they’re willing to take justice into their own hands and avenge their families, but they won’t kill anyone not directly standing in their way.
This is another that ties in with your antagonist still being human, just like all your other characters, and there’s still a bit of morality in them.
5. Give Your Antagonist a Backstory
This is another one I touched on in “motivation.” For any person or character, good or bad, their past has shaped who they are now. Backstory is crucial to knowing a character and their current personalities and motivations, and that’s just as important for an antagonist as for a protagonist. (Moral of this post: your antagonist is just as important as any of your other characters, so develop them as such.)
Bonus: Give Your Antagonist History with the Protagonist
This one isn’t required, but it can be a nice bonus. If your antagonist and protagonist knew each other in some capacity before the main plot of your story, it can add fun dynamics to their conflict. Did they go to school together? Were they in the same military division? Their relationship then will color their relationship now and make things extra interesting. Did they hate each other back then, and this only fuels that hatred more? Was one protective of the other and now they don’t want to hurt them even though they’re on opposite sides of a battle? Did they care about each other and neither of them wants to hurt the other?
Again, this one’s not required, but it can be fun to play with.
Are there any crucial parts of antagonist-building that I missed? What are some of your favorite villain tropes? Let me know down in the comments!
Recommended: Four Traits Villains Need to Effectively Oppose Protagonists from Story Embers