Posted in Blog Post Museum

Writing Good… er… Bad… Antagonists

musemThis post is part of a blog museum, archiving old writing from a previous blog.

 

Writers sometimes stumble into the pitfall of spending so much time working on growth and development for their protagonists that they overlook a whole dimension of depth they can add to their story. Developing strong antagonists.

Antagonist… Defined

Notice, first, that I’ve chosen to use the term antagonist. Not villain. Not bad guy. But antagonist. But what exactly IS an antagonist… and why should we care if there is a difference between these terms? Wikipedia defines it here:

The antagonist is against that which the main character or protagonist contends. An antagonist is often a villain, but may be a force of nature, set of circumstances, an animal, or other force that is in conflict with the protagonist.

Basically, this means that the antagonist is anything that opposes the main character of your story. That’s pretty simple, right? But have you ever considered the various subtle extremes of opposition this may include?

Based on the definition above, not every antagonist is the embodiment of absolute moral bankruptcy. They may not all be “bad guys.” In fact, an antagonist can be just as upright and law abiding (or even moreso!) than your protagonist. This could be particularly true if you are writing a story from the point of view of an anti-hero or villain.

The Importance of Antagonist Development

So why should you consider spending time developing your antagonist? Having a well-developed protagonist is far more important… right?

leethaxxorThe truth is, by developing your antagonist, you are actually spending time developing your main characters, too! How do I come by that? Well… if the antagonist’s part in the big picture is to oppose the protagonist, this means that they provide tension that makes your story compelling — who wants to read a story where there’s no opposition at all? Boring much?

Opposition and tension also provide a springboard for your character’s development. Afterall, your protagonist can only grow in the eyes of your reader if they have to overcome situations that force them to become stronger. If you consider it in this light, you’ll see that if you overlook the development of your antagonist, you could lose out on a lot of depth to the struggle that actually is helping you define and develop your main characters!

Will the Real Antagonist Please Stand Up?

So with that in mind, you may be wondering how exactly do you develop your antagonist in a way that it enriches your story and spurs your protagonist onward to greater things? Well, to start with, you should consider what kind of antagonist you want for your story? What? Oh no! This just got more complicated? No… no. Not really. This is the fun part!

Some possible types of antagonists include:

Rival – A character who isn’t exactly evil or bad, persay, but challenges your protagonist on an emotional or physical level. Rivals are usually a relationship that has been developing long-term… sometimes having existed even before your story begins. The great thing about rivals is that they don’t have to be antagonists developed on a larger, global scale (aka. taking over the world) to be effective. They just have to be there to push your character’s buttons and watch the fun unfold.

Anti-hero – A character who uses underhanded means in order to obtain a goal with an objectively positive outcome. Anti-heroes can be an antagonist simply because their methods may go against what your protagonist believes in… even if the outcome is the same as what your character desires. They’re often considered morally ambiguous in that it’s hard to decide how “right” or “wrong” their actions are.

Anti-villain – The opposite of the anti-hero. They believe whole-heartedly that their goals are true and right… but in fact, the outcome of achieving their desires are destructive and immoral. These characters may even seem to commit acts that are good and kind and have a charming and upright disposition towards others. Also portrayed as morally ambiguous.

Tragic Villain – An antagonist who is fighting against the protagonist, usually against their will. Often, these characters are forced into bad positions by powers stronger than themselves or do not have full control of their own actions.

Trickster – An antagonist that is often a mischief maker who often challenges the protagonist in non-violent ways. Can be a humorous character or just an annoying pain in the behind… but generally does not present a real danger or threat to your character.

Dark Lord – An omnipotent, evil character who is bent on world domination. Sometimes portrayed as a faceless or formless (shadowy) dark force that moves through the world.

Evil Twin – An antagonist that is exactly like the protagonist in every way… except that their moral standing is evil.

The Crew – A group of antagonists, who may be minions to a “Boss” or “Archenemy” character, and work together as a unit to thwart the protagonist and friends. The Crew often is considered a solo entity rather than a group of individuals and brands themselves with a catchy name (ie. The Turks). The neat thing about a Crew is that you can develop many different skill types and personality combinations within the unit… and eventually, individual members may develop enough to shoot off as their own entity in the antagonist world.

Archenemy – The antagonist that the protagonist sees as the main enemy or biggest threat. Usually a pretty strong force to be reckoned with, they may or may not be the leader of a Crew. The Archenemy may have the characteristics of any of the above antagonist archetypes and should be a strong focus of development in your story.

fightflightAs with anything in writing, these types are not the only kinds of antagonists out there. Mix, match and blend to fit your world and story.

Getting to Know Your Antagonist

Now that you’ve figured out what kind of antagonist works best in your story, you can use this foundation to develop them as a character. Just like your protagonist, seek to view them as a character with all the complexities of a real person. Things to consider when developing your antagonists are:

Origins — What was their childhood like? Where did they come from? What is their culture of origin? How did they end up as the antagonist?

Motivations — Why are they in conflict with your protagonist? What are their beliefs? If they are truly evil, what makes them that way?

Personality — What are their character quirks? What are their emotional strengths and weaknesses? What are their likes and dislikes?

Abilities & Skills — In what activities or knowledge do they shine? What are they not so good at doing? Do they have hobbies or activities they absolutely loathe doing?

Everything that your protagonist has, your antagonist can develop, too. So look at your main character and start designing your dream antagonist (their nightmare!) for your story today!

Author:

I'm a technical writer by day, gaming gal by night. I have a wide array of gaming interests, though I most often blog about MMOs, RPGs, and Nintendo fanstuffs. Like what you just read? Check out my Webcomic and Fantasy Fiction projects! https://aywren.com/fantasy-fiction-webcomics/

10 thoughts on “Writing Good… er… Bad… Antagonists

  1. My latest written antagonist is cancer. .-.

    *ahem* Off that depressing idea, this is very helpful to me! And it’s making my fingers twitch for want to create a Crew just for the fun of it. And by the way, what category do you think Zeb would go under? Combo of Evil Twin/Tragic Villain?

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  2. A Crew is very fun, indeed! Often, Wayrift antagonists are in crews (Zazo/Kip/Drake..etc.). Syn just likes me to write at least ONE of the bad guys in the group. I guess it makes it more fun for her… but then I go and turn her bad guys to the side of light as I’m always apt to! 😄

    I see Zeb as a Tragic Villain back during his days of being under control of Zemus. I do think that there is some remanant of mind control left in Zeb still, especially in the beginning of Wayrift. But as time goes on, he’s more of an Anti-Hero… then eventually not a bad guy at all. (shhhh!)

    Don’t tell Zeb I told you… but his dream would be to become a Paladin! Tai rags on him about it all the time, too. Zeb would be the first rebel Paladin ever… the Paladin that walks that holy line! *laughs*

    Now I’m probably gonna get in trouble with him for opening that can. *runs away*

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  3. Oh dear. Running sounds to be a good idea, especially since he has at least a foot on me in height. *hides behind Ben*

    Paladin. Wow, that is an interesting concept. Seeing as the only Paladin I have for an example is Mr. Tuna-Fish Sandwich, I just can’t see Zeb as one, all mature-like and such.

    Anyway, I prolly should be running, I mean I just can’t be on Zeb’s list of tolerated peeps thanks to the bathtime Zeb avvie aaand… *will now be using Ben as a human shield against looming dimensional twins*

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  4. Personally, I find it funny that one of Kalle’s antagonists is his own little brother. Not because he’s evil or anything, but just because he can be annoying in that “I’m fifteen years old, I’m irresitible, and I’m invincible” kind of way.

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  5. There are some pretty sweet side effects to writing a good antagonist, too. They’re good at attracting their own fans, and fans of antagonists often have some pretty nifty feedback and suggestions.

    The best antagonist I ever wrote was in a game–fellow by name of Jalil. I’m not sure he fits in any of your categories except maybe archenemy; one could make a case for overlord, but he controlled a rather small area, and many of his advantages were having powerful allies and an even more powerful patron. He was a vicious sort, straining even my ability to characterize with the lengths to which he went to achieve his goals–and despite this, and despite the fact that they were seeing repercussions of his actions long after he was dead, when a part of him came back as a whisper in someone else’s mind, they pulled him to favored character status immediately. It was downright uncanny.

    Ravyn’s last blog post..Impractical Applications, Week 30

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  6. Antagonists are a sticking point to me. I’ve yet to create one that I’ve ever considered truly evil. I guess it’s cause I spend so much time trying to figure them out, and playing with them in my head – once I understand them, I can’t help but sympathise.

    The majority of mine have been a mixture of Rivals/Tragic Heroes/Antivillains. This is mostly because I find it hard to imagine a person doing something evil for the SAKE of being evil. It might be because they believe it’s right (an invading army who are out to wipe out magical ‘oppression’), because they’re desperate (Rhy’s brother nearly killing him in an attempt to find a way to control his demon) or because that’s the way they’ve been brought up to behave (a number of rather unpleasant characters).

    Probably the closest I’ve come to a ‘typical’ antagonist would be two races of creatures. However, these struggle to develop much, because the only way I can picture something so constantly ‘evil’ is as a side effect of a force-of-nature entity. In both cases they are portrayed as ‘demons’ because their way of thinking and understanding the world is innately in conflict with the human view.

    As for the more human ones I have… they tend to develop from a vague idea of an opposition or counterpoint to the protagonist (who is often an antagonist in his own right).

    This, in fact, is something that annoys me sometimes. I can’t seem to help but blur the lines between pro- and antagonist so heavily that sometimes there might as well be no difference. Even more frustrating – I can never tell whether this is a bad or good thing…

    ((I have, once, created an antagonist that actually scared me. This was when I first started writing down the situations/backstories for the characters I dreamed up. He later turned into Rhys’s younger brother, but at the time he was a faceless, motiveless, ungrounded creature simply out to torment and destroy Kay. The unknown is a far scarier thing than I could ever dream up.))

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  7. I’ve written some on this subject as well, (on my blog and tomecity.com) but I’d expand your background points (getting to know your atagonist) to *every* character, small and large.

    Even that small kobold has motivations, and though the reader will probably never know them, they’ll see the results through the actions of the creature as it runs away from the sword wielding hero, or quails before its dark lord master in terror.

    Still, a good article. Nice to see something written well. 🙂

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  8. wow. who knew there were so many? i have a small series myself, but i could never find th time to think of a good archenemy. After reading this, i think i may have some ideas.

    i was thinking about typing up another mini series, and an idea made it’s way into my mind. “can the main character in the story be the bad guy?”
    now, I dont mean it as in, Ben, ex-dark lord as the main character, but rather as in the story revolves around the character WHILE they are evil, and the story goes on talking about the character’s evil plans.
    is that possible? if it is, that would make the “good guy” the antagonist, right?

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