As discussed earlier in our article, Conflict is the most basic paradigm of writing compelling stories. It won’t be wrong to say that the soul of any story is conflict. Your hero has a set of dreams which he wants to pursue, but something is standing in his way. Maybe a debt or self-doubt or just plain old fear of the unknown.
Whatever the source of obstruction may be, the conflict in your narrative is what will drive the plot forward—and push your hero out of his comfort zone, where he will grow into a better person. In most popular stories, this conflict is not internal, but external in the form of another person, often called a Villain or an Antagonist in technical terms.
Today we are going to discuss how to write a compelling Antagonist that makes your story rich and worthy. Let’s explore.
Why Your Story Needs a Great Villain
The antagonist is the most important character in your story, aside from your hero. An antagonist—or “villain,” is conflict personified, and demonstrates a Character vs. Character Conflict. A villain is whoever stands between your hero and his goal in the story. The antagonist opposes your protagonist at every turn: If he has to climb a mountain, the antagonist starts an avalanche to bury him. If he needs to escape crushing debt, the antagonist robs him out. If he’s scared or unsure or weak, the antagonist fuels his fears, twisting his doubts for his own sinister motives.
Strong hero-villain combinations form the basis of many of history’s all-time greatest narratives like
- Luke Sky-walker and Darth Vader.
- Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty.
- Batman and the Joker.
When Antagonist-Protagonist are Equally matched and are always willing to cut other’s throats, then this dynamic conflict elevates the stories, they appear in—not only through physical conflicts but through intellectual debate and warring ideologies as well.
How to write Compelling Antagonists?
While too many mainstream films might reflect villains that are dastardly, mustache-twirling, damsel-kidnapping fiends but that’s what lazy film making is. Casting a person who looks threatening, is a lousy approach to craft an antagonist.
If you want to create a truly memorable antagonist, the character should rise above mere stereotype and be just as human and compelling as your protagonist.
This could be a bit difficult, especially if the villain is particularly immoral, fewer virtues— then how do you create empathy for a truly wicked character? And make the audience like him, as much as they like the Hero? Well, we have some great examples in the league, where Joker holds the first place, he is an antagonist and yet most beloved.
But, If you follow some precise points while 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 Secrets of Writing a Compelling Antagonist
1. Treat your Antagonist like Human Being
A cliché approach to describe a great villain is to call him “a character you love to hate,” so let’s flip the notion —your antagonist should be somebody you hate to love as well. Audiences should be able to relate to your Big Bad Evil Guy in some way, no matter how big, bad, or evil he is. He should not be an unrealistic, cackling, beard-stroking Black Hat-type villain which is 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 altered their traits toward darkness.
Ambition can be a humanizing trait for an antagonist. Everybody has goals, and the willpower to accomplish them by any means necessary can be compelling and even admirable, even in a villainous character. In another story, such an 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 novel. The child-eating antagonist IT is an unstoppable force of terror and mayhem, but once IT realizes the child characters in the story are capable of hurting it, King gives the character a POV chapter to express its growing fear that it could actually be beaten.
In whichever way you humanize your antagonist, always remember that you aren’t just molding a villain, but you’re building a character. Treat your antagonist like a human being—and your readers will follow his plight.
Must Read – When we say “human” then in no way are we suggesting that your antagonists must be human. Many compelling antagonists have been aliens, or supernatural creatures, or even wild animals. But even these supernatural characters, abide a natural human flaw or instinct in them that make them realistic.
2. Make him a “Hero in his Own Mind“
Resist the popular temptation of writing villains with “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, he should never be truly evil—or at least, not in his own mind.
Here’s a little secret for you Lawful Good types: every great antagonist is the protagonist of his own story.
In his mind, he’s the hero. He’s doing the right thing, doing what needs to be done. His goals are righteous, his means justified—or at least, a necessary evil. And those so-called heroes trying to thwart him are his antagonists, his personal villains that must be defeated at all costs.
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 IT who is just hungry, and the children of Derry, Maine, are merely prey—troublesome, intelligent prey, yes, but prey nonetheless.
If you wish to tell your story from multiple viewpoints, consider giving your antagonist a POV too. Describe the events of the narrative from his perspective, particularly the actions of the protagonist. Not only will this help humanize your villain, but it might give you unique insights into his character in the process.
3. Describe Antagonist’s Ambition
Your antagonist needs a plan—a plan that once set in motion will force your heroes to act in order to prevent catastrophe. His 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.
Not only these antagonists have specific, actionable goals, but their ambition is what brings them into conflict with the heroes of their respective stories. To summarize, ambition is what makes them antagonists at all.
4. Make him Menace
Unless you’re writing an out-and-out comedy, your antagonist should never be just a joke. Cartoon baddies like Plankton from SpongeBob SquarePants or Brutus from Popeye, who aren’t particularly strong villains because they never stand a gumdrop’s chance of victory. Their role is to kick start the plot of each episode in some way—kidnap a princess or something like that—then get roundly trounced by the Heroes with very little effort or fanfare.
In order for viewers to take him seriously, you’ve got to establish your antagonist as a genuine threat. Maybe you will let them win or show their power over your hero. Have him rout or scatter your heroes on occasion, or even accomplish some small part of his master plan despite their best efforts. Don’t hamstring your villains. If there’s fighting to be done in the film, 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 him cunning enough to oppose your leads with clever schemes and manipulation alone.
Make sure your viewers know just what will happen if your antagonist succeeds—and prove that he’s fully capable of getting exactly what he wants unless your protagonist stops him. Because not only does a competent antagonist force the other characters in the story into action, but the single-handedly 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 viewers.
5. Elevate his Presence
It’s usually no fun if your story’s antagonist spends the whole film lounging on a throne of skulls in his evil lair. Sometimes it could be the case that the villain might not show himself until much later in the story, his presence should be felt everywhere the hero goes. If your hero is pursuing the villain, have him 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 moves, the aftermath of your antagonist’s actions should always be on display in some fashion, constantly goading the hero to continue his quest to take him down. Antagonists should have an effect on the Hero’s world—and how big or small this effect 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.
Consider the desolation of the Pride Lands in The Lion King after Scar rises to power. Keeping aside 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.
Go Craft Your Antagonist!
While there are many ways to create an admirable antagonist, these five steps will help you construct a villain your readers will love to hate.
With these points in consideration, re-visit your favorite antagonists and breakdown what it is about them that you love. You might be able to highlight these five trends, but it would be better if you explore much more deeper secrets to implement into them.
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— feel free to experiment yours, and do tell us if you find some other secret formula to weave magic into your Antagonist?
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