“You don’t really understand an antagonist until you understand why he’s a protagonist in his own version of the world.”
Why a Weak Antagonist Can Ruin Your Story
I’ve always loved a good bad guy.
I mean, a goooooood bad guy (or gal). The characters in your favorite books – or movies – who were so insidiously, deliciously villainous that you loved to hate them. Who had you shouting at your book in disgust and anger, but secretly a tiny part of you empathized with a tiny part of them, and that made you hate them even more.
But for every Annie Wilkes (Misery), Kurtz (Heart of Darkness), Hannibal Lecter (the eponymous series by Thomas Harris), Heath Ledger’s Joker (cemented forever into the Halls of Depraved Genius), Erik Killmonger (in Black Panther, and arguably one of the most sympathetic movie villains of recent memory), or Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis Moriarty (my favorite manifestation is by far Andrew Scott’s portrayal in the BBC’s Sherlock series) – for every strong and complex antagonist in classic or contemporary literature and film – there is also at least one flat antagonist automaton whose only motivation is that he must drive the plot forward somehow. While it is every writer’s tendency to want to focus on developing the protagonist – and I am guilty of this, too, time and time again! – a well-rounded antagonist with a relatable backstory can only strengthen your narrative. An antagonist with a driving purpose for his/her actions is far more interesting.
“I am evil because the story dictates I need to be evil!” or “I am doing this or that to your beloved MC because I love power for power’s sake!” are certainly character motivations that lean toward the one-dimensional. On the page, a one-dimensional bad guy is one character whose flawed nature readers will certainly notice (and not a good notice), and can really make or break your story. I tend to treat my antagonists as top priority characters, sometimes giving as much if not more attention to their development than the protagonist.
That’s NOT to say your protagonist should be relegated to the Mary Sue/Marty Stu archetype, who simply reacts to everything the antagonist throws in their faces, to whom everything happens yet overcomes adversity with flying colors… although there are times where that model works. (That’s a blog post for another day!) Long story short: I try to give equal attention to writing flawed MCs as I do to write complicated and interesting antagonists and villains.*
*NOTE: To avoid confusion, since we’re talking about both in this article… antagonists and villains are not necessarily the same. While a villain will almost always fall under the “antagonist” category, an antagonist can be a villain, sure, but does not have to be villainous or evil. An antagonist can be sympathetic, charismatic and even likable.
By giving your antagonists your due diligence – creating backstory, figuring out what motivates them, identifying sources of their internal conflict as well as possible sources of redemption, injecting humor (even dark humor works!) or quirks into their personalities – you end up with a person, instead of just Evil Personified For No Reason. I recommend using the same Character Development tools you used to get to know your protagonist on your antagonist. As mentioned in my previous post on Character Development, my favorite is the NaNoWriMo Character Questionnaire.
Bad guys are quite adaptable, and even the same antagonist can change exponentially between the covers of a single book, let alone in the cataclysmic transition between a book and its film adaptation. Ever get angry about the portrayal of your favorite book characters when they appear on the silver screen?
The list of my favorite literary antagonists of all time includes:
- Long John Silver, Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
- Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, Maguire’s Wicked (this one is controversial, because she is the villain in Baum’s Wizard of Oz, but in his prequel-of-sorts, Maguire gives us a fully-realized complicated person whose choices and motivations set her on a course we are all familiar with).
- Moriarty (again! forever!), Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.
- Hot take: Mr. Rochester, Bronte’s Jane Eyre. (Yes he is a villian. Fight me!)
- The Goblin King, Jae-Jones’ Wintersong/Shadowsong duology (please read these! Pleeeeease!).
- Any villains or antagonists I missed who deserve to get their due? Let me know in the comments!
A few final notes:
Antagonists don’t necessarily have to be single characters. Here’s an article that outlines four types of antagonists.
Looking for more sage writing advice regarding antagonists, villainy and evil? Author Chuck Wendig wrote an article about how to do it. Trust me, this guy knows what he’s talking about, and articulates the many facets of writing antagonists far better than I ever could.