How To Develop an Antagonist

How often do we hear actors say they prefer playing villains to playing "good guys?"  There's a reason for that:  Antagonists - your basic bad guys - can be fun in their badness. They can be driven, violent, angry, crazy, slick, sexy, silly, or over-the-top. They can also be fun to write. More than just fun, they're also important. A good story is made all the better when a solid antagonist gets in the protagonist's way. Here are some of the many ways you can develop a good antagonist.

  1. Put her goal in direct conflict with your protagonist's goal. Any character is defined, mainly, by what she wants. Your antagonist is no exception. She needs to have a goal. The trick is, that goal must come into direct conflict with what your protagonist wants - otherwise, the antagonist has no real reason to antagonize. If the Wicked Witch didn't want those ruby slippers, why would she really care about Dorothy? Sure, there was that whole "killed my sister" thing, but the Witch seemed to get over that. It was really about getting those slippers. And of course, the slippers were the key to Dorothy getting back home. Two goals in direct conflict create the perfect storm of conflict.
    Take another example: Hannibal Lechter, one of the great all-time antagonists. He helps Clarice, sure, ultimately, but his real goal is to mess with her in their protracted conversations.  Clarice's goal is to get the information he has as quickly as possible so she can save the woman who's been kidnapped. See how these goals conflict? Your antagonist needs a similar goal that puts her in between the protagonist and the protagonist's main "want."
  2. Give her a motivation. Sometimes, we know specifically what antagonists want and why they want it. They want power because they're power-hungry. They want money because they're greedy. They want revenge because they're obsessed with being wronged. Other times, there's more behind it such as some small childhood incident, some hidden connection to something else, and it's not revealed until the end of the story in the final showdown. Whether it's overt or covert, stated or implied, a big deal or barely mentioned in the story, your antagonist should have a motivation, too.  She should not be blockading the protagonist just because it serves your story. Often, the more interesting the motivation, the more interesting your antagonist.
    The truth is, your antagonist doesn't consider herself bad. In her mind, she's doing the right thing. If you give us some glimpse into her logic and value system, or at least hint that there's something behind what she's doing - however twisted these motives may be - she will be much more compelling. We may not ever "sympathize" with her, but we will find her more interesting.
  3. Figure out how she fights and keep her fighting. Once you know what the antagonist is fighting for, and why she's fighting for it, you must also develop her fighting technique. How does this woman deal with conflict? How does she pursue goals? Flying monkeys or lawsuits? Poppies or well-planned deceit? To have a fully developed antagonist, you need to work out how she fights her battles.
    You also have to keep her in the fight. An antagonist who sits back and doesn't create trouble for your hero is of little use to you. She has to be in there, mixing it up, pursuing her own goal as the story goes on. Your protagonist might face several levels of conflict - but chances are her final showdown will be with your antagonist. That means, once you take your antagonist out of the game, the conflict is over. And once the conflict is over - so is your story - the protagonist will reach his goal. So don't deactivate your bad guy until your story is really ready to hit that climactic moment and be done.
  4. Give her a fighting chance. As you plot how to keep your antagonist in the fight, make sure she is developing into a real competitor. No one wants to see a version of Star Wars where Darth Vader has no real power and keeps lobbing Luke and Han softballs. We want to see a villain who is up to the task of fighting the hero. We want those moments where the antagonist has the upper hand. We want to be impressed by her machinations. We want to wonder, right up until the end, whether she will actually win the battle. (And in many stories, the antagonist actually does win!)
  5. Beware of Twirling Moustache Syndrome. By this, I mean avoid constructing protagonists that resemble those silent movie villains who tie girls to railroad tracks and then twist their moustaches evilly. They're clichéd and one-dimensional, and stories are better with villains who are better constructed than that. Give your antagonist more than one dimension, whether it's a dark humor, razor-sharp smarts, kindness towards a person or two she cares about, or maybe some traits related to that aforementioned motivation. Make her more than just the person in the black hat.

Many movies, plays, novels, and short stories are memorable because they involve antagonists who did their job, making life miserable for the hero with their ingenious techniques and traits. A good bad guy can surely make a story great.


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