Writing Good… er… Bad… Antagonists

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?

e 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.

As 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!