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Anatomy of an antagonist: Writing the ideal villain for your fiction

How to craft the villain your hero deserves.

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I don’t want to upset anyone, but until the moment when Kylo Ren (spoiler alert) does a complete character 180 in The Last Jedi, I was pretty bored with the movie. It wasn’t just the fact that he’d thrown Snoke, the large villain-y-type guy in the chair, into the vacuum of space, deciding to save Rey instead of heeding the calls of The Dark Side that perked me up; it was the fact that finally a character had exhibited actual change. But soon all that character development went right out the window (or into that same vacuum of space) and I was bored again.

Kylo Ren had been our antagonist for nearly two full-length movies. We’d seen him struggle, we’d seen him make other people struggle. And, yes, he did some bad things, but it wasn’t until that near-180 that he got interesting – only to have him turn that 180 into a 360 and become uninteresting again.

Characters are the backbone of any story, and no one is more important to a story than its main characters. Yes, the protagonist comes first, but a well-developed antagonist can help drive a narrative in many complex and compelling directions.

When crafting a story, it’s important to look at the dimensions of the antagonist, or the “bad guy,” just as it’s important to communicate the many facets of your protagonist. We’ve generally started to move away from the “mustache-twirling bad guy” in both genre and literary fiction, characters like the Smurfs’ Gargamel and all the Evil Queens who want to do bad only because being bad feels so good. Yet not every story calls for a redeemable or redeemed antagonist. No matter which type of antagonist you choose, it’s important to fully understand both the character and their function in your story so that they ultimately drive the plot just like your protagonist.

The four main types of antagonists

1. The one you love to hate

Otherwise known as “the mustache-twirling bad guy.” These characters just get in your hero’s way. Your hero wants to save the world while this antagonist wants to destroy it. Your hero wants to marry the prince, this antagonist wants him all to herself – not because the villainess loves him, but because she wants to win, she wants his money, she likes his powerful position, etc.

Another aspect of this type of antagonist is that they often don’t have a good reason for getting in the protagonist’s way. Let’s say Protagonist and Antagonist are both up for a job. Protagonist wants the job because they love what they do or they need the money or they’re really good at said job. Antagonist is usually independently wealthy, bored with the job, and just wants to win for bragging rights. Typically, this antagonist hates the protagonist – and not always for a good reason.

The Emperor from Star Wars is definitely a “Love to Hate” type of antagonist. We learn from episodes one through three that there’s more of a method to his madness, but even then, it kinda seems he just likes destroying things for money and power. In literary fiction, there are examples of these Love to Haters as well. Take Jason from The Sound and the Fury. His first line to us is “Once a bitch always a bitch,” when referring to a sympathetic character. Then, a few scenes later, when a very young child really wants to go to the fair but can’t afford the ticket, Jason takes a ticket to said fair out of his wallet, watches the child’s eyes light up, and then burns the ticket right in front of him – and laughs.

These kinds of antagonists cause a reader to focus their anger. They allow a reader to root harder for the protagonist because so much is at stake. And most of what is at stake is defeating this bully. But the problem might arise where a reader wonders if your protagonist is really that good, or is the alternative just so bad that they have to root for the hero? These kinds of antagonists can help drive a plot, but always be wary of making antagonists too bad for no reason or they can start to look like a caricature.

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2. The sympathetic antagonist

This model has become much more popular in recent years. Part of this might be because when you really sit and listen to a character, when you hear their whole story, it’s hard to hate them. Few people burn tickets to the fair while defeated large-eyed children watch. Most characters have desires just like a protagonist, and when those desires conflict with others, or if those desires are in some way detrimental to the person or (more often) others, an ordinary character becomes a villain.

So what makes an antagonist sympathetic?

Backstory is one way to garner sympathy for a character, even if they’re doing terrible things. Take Frankenstein’s monster, for example: We all know that the monster eventually goes on a killing rampage to try to destroy the life of his creator, Victor Frankenstein, but when we eventually learn about all the pain and ridicule the monster suffers during his short life, the reader begins to understand the monster better.

Desperately wanting something for a good reason (or at least a good enough reason) is another way to make an antagonist sympathetic. Catwoman, in Tim Burton’s retelling, wants to take down the mob that destroyed her. Sure, she hurts a lot of people in her wake, but at least she has (kind of) a good reason for what she’s doing. While a “Love to Hater” wants the job just to win a power grab, a sympathetic antagonist may want the job to prove something to his parents, who never truly believed in him. Maybe he doesn’t do nice things to get that job, but at least he has more complex reasons.

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Being conflicted also helps with the sympathy factor. Let’s go back to that Kylo Ren scene with Snoke and the vacuum of space. He is obviously conflicted about his role in the Dark Side. He might have acted badly, but he makes at least some effort to change.

 

3. It’s complicated

There’s a middle ground between an antagonist we feel deep sympathy for and one we just hate. Some antagonists are just in the way. We might decide to root against them, but there’s nothing essentially villainous about what they’re doing. Think of Boris in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, our protagonist Theo’s childhood friend who (spoiler alert) gets involved in crime and steals things from the protagonist. Still, there’s something charming about Boris that makes you want to forgive him (even though he’s an adult and should know better), because at the end of the day, he does come through for Theo.

 

4. An antagonist larger than one person

Antagonists do not have to be a single person. They might be a group of people, like the three ultrapopular alpha females in Mean Girls. An antagonist could be a society or larger structure, like a company, government, or a religion. Antagonists come in all shapes and sizes, so don’t feel you need to stick to one lone “bad guy.”

 

What your antagonist needs

A good antagonist is a lot like a good protagonist. They need to have a compelling backstory. Just as you build the world and the life of your hero, the same should be done for your antihero.

Antagonists should be really good at something. If they weren’t exceptional in some way, how or why would they be able to compete with your protagonist? Maybe they’re brilliant, or they’re incredibly strong or fast or…something. We need a reason to trust that your antagonist is powerful enough to go up against your protagonist at their best.

Flaws. Lots of flaws. Flaws are what make any good protagonist interesting. Romeo was impetuous, Anna Karenina was a bit vain, Scarlett O’Hara was selfish. Your antagonist should have imperfections as well. And unlike a protagonist, your antagonist’s flaws need not necessarily redeem them.

 

Think about creating an adversary your main character deserves: Anyone big enough, cool enough, smart enough, strong enough, to go toe-to-toe with your protagonist should be a well fleshed-out, fascinating, and, in many cases, complicated character. Just as we spend time crafting all the many facets of our hero (and other vital characters to our story), it’s important to remember the bad guy. Make your protagonist earn your readers’ affection and give them someone worthy to fight. But the overarching rule of antagonists (which is admittedly sometimes broken to great results but should still be followed most of the time) is to try not to let your antagonist’s story or personality overshadow your protagonist. At the end of the day, your complicated, flawed, complex antagonist should help your even more complicated, flawed, complex protagonist shine.

—Jessica Stilling is a novelist and short story writer. Her second novel, The Beekeeper’s Daughter, was published in September 2019. She lives and teaches in New York City.

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