How to Craft a Compelling Antagonist

 

We’ve said it before—the soul of any story is conflict.

Your hero has a dream, but something’s standing in her way.

Maybe it’s a mountain. Maybe it’s a debt. Maybe it’s self-doubt or self-loathing or just plain old fear of the unknown. But no matter the source, the conflict in your narrative is what will drive the plot forward—and drive your hero to grow into a better person.

But what if the source of this discord isn’t some abstract concept or inner struggle, but a person?

Why Your Story Needs a Great Villain

Enter the Antagonist—perhaps the most important character in your story, aside from your hero.

An antagonist—or “villain,” if you want to get all vaudevillian on me—is conflict personified.  He’s whoever stands between your hero and her goal in the story.

The antagonist opposes your protagonist at every turn: If she has to climb a mountain, the antagonist starts an avalanche to bury her. If she needs to escape crushing debt, the antagonist robs her blind. If she’s scared or unsure or weak, the antagonist preys on her fears, twisting her doubts for his own sinister purposes.

Strong hero-villain combos form the basis of many of history’s all-time greatest narratives:

Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.

Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert.

Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty.

Batman and the Joker.

Equally matched, always at cross-purposes and forever at each other’s throats, these dynamic duos elevate the stories they appear in—not only through physical conflicts but through intellectual debate and warring philosophies as well.

The 6 Sinister Secrets of Writing a Compelling Antagonist

While Saturday morning cartoons might have taught you that all villains are dastardly, moustache-twirling, damsel-kidnapping fiends, that’s the lazy way to craft an antagonist. No offense to Mr. Snidely Whiplash, but his character is flatter than old soda.

No, if you’re going to craft a truly memorable antagonist, the character should rise above mere stereotype and be just as human and compelling as your lead.

This can be a tricky feat, especially if your baddie is particularly immoral—how do you create empathy for a truly wicked character? But creating a world-class foil for your protagonist doesn’t have to be difficult.

If you follow our 6-step walkthrough to creating memorable and absorbing antagonists, you’ll be well-equipped to create not just an effective bad guy, but a truly compelling and interesting character to boot.

So, without further ado, these are 6 qualities every great antagonist should possess:

1. Humanity

It’s almost cliché to describe a great villain as “a character you love to hate,” so let’s flip the script—your antagonist should be somebody you hate to love as well.

In other words, your readers should be able to relate to your Big Bad Evil Guy in some way, no matter how big, bad, or evil he is. Just like a 100% angelic “Mary Sue” character is unrealistic, a cackling, beard-stroking Black Hat-type villain is equally unrealistic—and even a little boring.

The best antagonists have complex personalities, hidden depths, and moments of sympathy or even kindness… or at the very least have some admirable or “good” qualities to them, even if time or tragedy have twisted these traits toward darkness.

Ambition can be a wonderful humanizing trait for an antagonist. Everybody has goals, and the drive and willpower to accomplish them by any means necessary can be compelling and even admirable, even in a villainous character. In another story, such initiative might make a character like this the hero—it’s only when their goals impede the protagonist’s own ambitions that they become an antagonist… and it’s when they go too far to achieve their ends that they become a true villain.

Fear can also be an effective tool for building sympathy for your antagonist. If a character in your story is stressed or anxious or terrified, that’s something any reader can’t help but identify with. Expressing fear is an admission of weakness, and weakness is a universal human quality.

Consider the example of IT in Stephen King’s seminal horror novel of the same name. For much of the book, the child-eating entity is a near-unstoppable force of terror and mayhem, but once IT realizes the child characters in the story are capable of hurting it, King gives the creature a POV chapter to express its growing fear that it could actually be beaten.

But no matter how you choose to humanize your antagonist, remember this: you’re not just writing a villain, you’re building a character. Treat your antagonist like a human being—and your readers will see them in the same light.

Editor’s Note: When we say “humanity,” in no way are we suggesting that your antagonists must be human. Plenty of compelling antagonists have been aliens, or supernatural creatures, or even wild animals. Just be sure you personify whatever beastie opposes your intrepid hero enough that your reader can sympathize with it.

2. A Hero in Their Own Minds

Resist the temptation to write snarling, cat-stroking baddies. No gloating, no ACME-brand Doomsday Devices, no “Evil Schemes” written on parchment in blood.

Nobody purposefully becomes this sort of villain: no matter how wicked or cruel or downright mean your antagonist might reveal herself to be, she should never be truly evil—or at least, not in her own mind.

Here’s a little secret for you Lawful Good types: every great antagonist is the protagonist of her own story.

In her mind, she’s the hero. She’s doing the right thing, doing what needs to be done. Her goals are righteous, her means justified—or at least, a necessary evil. And those so-called heroes trying to thwart her are her antagonists, her personal villains that must be defeated at all costs.

Galbatorix of The Inheritance Cycle conquered a kingdom and slaughtered nearly every magic-wielding Dragon Rider in the land, but only because he thought nobody could be trusted with magic’s terrible power except for himself. Javert tirelessly pursues parole-breaker Jean Valjean in Les Miserables out of misplaced righteousness and slavish devotion to the law. Many incarnations of the Joker see humanity’s attempts to be civilized as a bad joke, and try to introduce a stubborn Gotham City to their own anarchic viewpoint whenever possible.

And in the case of Stephen King’s cosmic predator? IT’s just hungry, and the children of Derry, Maine, are merely prey—troublesome, intelligent prey, yes, but prey nonetheless.

If you’ve decided to tell your story from multiple viewpoints, consider giving your antagonist a POV chapter or two. Describe the events of the narrative from her perspective, particularly the actions of the protagonist. Not only will this help humanize your villain, but it might give you unique insights into her character in the process.

3. Ambition

We’ve touched on this briefly already, but this point’s important enough to make twice:

Your antagonist isn’t the final boss in a video game. It’s not enough to have him sit in a huge spiky castle, idly being evil while he waits for the heroes to come thwart him. That’s not a character, that’s a MacGuffin—and it’s boring as grass to boot.

Your antagonist needs a plan—a plan that, once set in motion, will force your heroes to act in order to prevent catastrophe. Your villain’s ambition should be a powerful force in the narrative, and his actions in service of this ambition should impede your hero in her own quest.

Darth Vader isn’t just a tall, asthmatic, telekinetic fellow in black armor: he’s a brutal enforcer trying to crush the Rebel Alliance while convincing his son Luke to surrender to his cause.

Shere Khan isn’t just a hungry tiger: he’s pragmatic and wants to destroy Mowgli because he fears Man—specifically, Man’s intelligence and ability to create fire.

And Anton Chigurh isn’t just a creepy guy with a quarter and a cattle-gun: he’s driven to track and kill down his quarry, Moss, not because he’s paid to do so but because he believes he’s fulfilling some cosmic duty.

Not only do each of these antagonists have specific, actionable goals, but their ambition is what brings them into conflict with the heroes of their respective stories.

In short, ambition is what makes them antagonists at all.

4. Menace

Unless you’re writing an out-and-out comedy, your antagonist should never be just a joke.

Cartoonish baddies like Plankton from SpongeBob SquarePants or The Ice King from Adventure Time aren’t particularly strong villains because they never stand a gumdrop’s chance of victory. Their role is to kickstart the plot of each episode in some way—kidnap a princess or two or try to steal the Krabby Patty Formula for the bajillionth time—then get roundly trounced by the Heroes with very little effort or fanfare.

And while bumbling baddies of this ilk are all well and good for an episodic animated series, you’re writing a novel, which demands a considerably higher caliber of antagonist.

In order for readers to take her seriously, you’ve got to establish your antagonist as a genuine threat.

That means you need to let the bad guy win sometimes. Have her rout or scatter your heroes on occasion, or even accomplish some small part of her master plan despite their best efforts.

Don’t hamstring your villains. If there’s fighting to be done in your book, give your antagonist enough physical power or skill to go toe-to-toe with your strongest heroes. Or, if your antagonist is physically weak, make her cunning enough to oppose your leads with clever schemes and manipulation alone.

Make sure your readers know just what will happen if your antagonist succeeds—and prove that she’s fully capable of getting exactly what she wants unless your protagonist stops her. Because not only does a competent antagonist force the other characters in the story into action, but she singlehandedly raises the stakes of the entire narrative simply by existing.

Remember: the more your heroes must struggle to overcome your villain, the more satisfying their ultimate victory will be for your readers.

5. Presence

Like we said before—it’s usually no fun if your story’s antagonist spends the whole book lounging on a throne of skulls in his evil lair. But even if your villain doesn’t show himself until much later in the story, his presence should be felt everywhere the hero goes.

Maybe your antagonist has an army or a powerful right-hand man that’s always hot on your protagonist’s heels. Or if your hero is pursuing the villain, have her always arrive just late enough to miss him—and see the swath of misery and chaos he’s left in his wake.

Wherever your protagonist turns, the aftermath of your antagonist’s actions should always be on display in some fashion, constantly goading the hero to continue her quest to take him down.

Your antagonists should have an effect on the world around them—and how big or small this effect is depends on the scale of your villain, and on the kind of story you’re trying to tell. If your antagonist is a middle-school bully, the best he can probably do is to spread rumors about your protagonist throughout the entire grade. But if your villain is a demon-worshiping sorcerer, the effect he’ll have on your fictional world will probably involve less rhyming insults and more widespread panic and bloodshed… and demon-summoning, of course.

Consider the desolation of the Pride Lands in The Lion King after Scar rises to power, or the dilapidated state of Allerdale Hall in Crimson Peak resulting from Tom and Lucille’s various sins of the flesh. No matter the scope of your antagonist’s abilities, his very existence should always shape the world around him in some way—and this manifestation should mirror your antagonist’s flaws or inner darkness.

 

But if hundreds of years of literature, theater, and cinema have taught us anything, it’s that there’s more than one way of crafting a compelling antagonist. Have you ever written a villain you thought was particularly interesting or effective—or do you have a tip or trick to add to our list? If so, spill your secrets in the comments section below. We promise we won’t blab.

And if you’re looking for more hardcore fiction writing advice, here’s another dose of the strong stuff right here:

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As a Senior Editor at TCK Publishing, Jacob Mohr relishes the opportunity to work closely with the authors of tomorrow, creating new stories and exciting possibilities—and making the world a little more awesome, one book at a time. When he’s not editing someone else’s writing, Jacob can usually be found reading Stephen King, riding rollercoasters, or crafting his own stories.