We talk a lot about writing protagonists here at Protagonist Crafts, but today we need to talk about how to write a good antagonist.
An antagonist isn’t necessarily an evil person who does bad stuff “just because”. There should be characters in your story who support your protagonist and who oppose you protagonist, and an antagonist is simply a character who opposes them. It can even be said that in a romance, the two lovers are each other’s antagonists!
So let’s find out how you can write an antagonist who is motivated, relevant and believable, whether they’re a villain or not.
Your antagonist vs protagonist
Like I said earlier, your antagonist’s job is to oppose your protagonist, though there can still be other opponents in the story who aren’t THE antagonist. These two characters – the protagonist and the antagonist – should be two major opposing forces like two fists coming at each other. Compared to them, the other opponents would be more like throwing pebbles at someone.
Your antagonist shouldn’t just be doing random stuff that happens to be inconvenient to your protagonist – they should be actively opposing them. In some cases, the antagonist might not know about your protagonist at first, but their respective goals should still clash sooner rather than later. This can happen two ways: either the protagonist feels wronged by the antagonist or the antagonist feels wronged by the protagonist.
Even if your protagonist only wants to do things the right way and make the world a better place, what your antagonist is doing should eventually become personal to your protagonist. The whole battle against the antagonist, whether it’s an actual battle or something more metaphorical, needs to be related to your theme, the thing that your story is actually about.
To put it differently, they’re not trying to win just for the sake of winning. There’s always a “I’m doing this because...”
Treat your antagonist and protagonist equally
You should be giving your antagonist as much attention as you’re giving to your protagonist when you’re creating them. They should be a full, complex character and not just a caricature of a bad guy. Of course, you can write an antagonist who seems like a stereotypical villain at first, but you should still have reasons for why they act the way they do besides “I just like being a bad, bad man”. There’s no reason to be boring.
The questions in my Protagonist Workbook can also be used to create an antagonist, so if you need some extra help with creating characters that aren’t completely flat, do check it out.
What does your antagonist want
Your antagonist should want the same thing as your protagonist – just in their own way. It might not seem true at first, but when you dig deeper, it totally make sense.
For example, if your protagonist is a detective and your antagonist is a murderer, it might seem like they’re both after wildly different things. But actually, they both want their own version of truth and they want people to live by their morals. If one character wants peace and the other wants war, what they both want is world order in their own ways.
Of course, sometimes the protagonist and the antagonist literally want the same thing, like access to a magical item or to be the president of the United States. If this is the case, your antagonist might want to use their victory “for evil” or they might just be someone who your protagonist dislikes for some reason. There are a lot of opportunities here.
Imagine your whole story from your antagonist’s point of view
Some stories can actually show the antagonist’s point of view, but here’s an exercise that you should do even if you stick to your protagonist’s point of view: write a timeline of the events from your antagonist’s point of view. This would be done best when you’re still outlining your novel, but you can also do it after you’ve written your first draft.
This exercise helps you do two things. First, you figure out whether everything makes sense from the antagonist’s point of view. Second, you make sure that the antagonist isn’t just waiting around for your protagonist. There are always things happening “off stage” and you should know what’s happening even if you don’t show it to your readers.
When you’re doing this, you should also be able to justify your antagonist’s actions. You don’t have to agree with them or neither do your readers, but you should be able to say “yup, that totally makes sense” when you review the antagonist’s actions.
What makes a frightening villain?
Horror movies are full of characters who do really messed up things, but “more messed up” doesn’t necessarily translate to “more frightening”. A big part of creating truly scary characters is the sense that this could happen to anyone.
Being able to justify their terrible actions is what makes an antagonist both believable and scary. They can be guided by their own morals or by someone else’s rules. With any luck, you might not ever meet a serial killer, but you definitely will meet people in your life who treat you badly because they think you deserve it and people who cause you harm by blindly following the rules.
Hiding in plain sight is also scary, because in most stories, your villains don’t live in dilapitated castles. When the murderer was the police officer’s spouse all along… that’s really scary. Of course, if you’re going to have a plot twist like that, you’d better set it up the right way.
How your antagonist can rattle your protagonist
One way to really ruffle your protagonist’s feathers is to make your antagonist so similar to them that it freaks them out. Perhaps they’ve got a similar background or maybe they’ve done similar decisions in the past. They could even be from the same family.
Whatever your protagonist is struggling with internally, your antagonist should be able to poke at those flaws and issues and make your protagonist really hurt. If those things are something that your antagonist is fully embracing or simply not hiding, it could be doubly painful for your protagonist. Let the protagonist and your readers feel the shame of having their flaws exposed.
Use real people as inspiration
If you’re struggling to create an antagonist that makes your readers feel fear, or much of anything, try using real people as an inspiration. Yes, that most likely means people you hate. Ever had a manipulative ex, a boss who abused their power or a neighbour who made your life hell? Most people have experience with someone like that, so you can use your experience to your advantage when creating your antagonist.
Obviously the antagonist shouldn’t be exactly like the person that inspires them. You could even just use a small part of them, like a single action they took or a bad habit they had. They also don’t need to be the same kind of people – your serial killer antagonist could be inspired by your boss at the nursing home or your bully classmate could inspire the templar who hunts wayward mages.
Will your antagonist change their mind?
You don’t have to be writing an enemies-to-lovers story to have your antagonist change their mind and switch sides. You don’t have to do this, but it can be a nice moment in your story and a chance to wow your readers.
If your antagonist’s actions are based on misconceptions, your protagonist could try to show them how things really are or maybe it simply becomes evident over the course of the story. For example, maybe your antagonist thinks all unicorns are stupid and useless and that’s why they don’t hesitate to use them as fuel in their factory. (You’re welcome for this wonderful made-up example.) But because of the bond between your protagonist and their faithful unicorn, the antagonist realises they’ve been wrong and they let the protagonist destroy the factory after all.
Another option is that your antagonist becomes to care for your protagonist and they change their plan just to protect them. They could be romantically involved or they could just become friends, or your antagonist could simply begin to admire your protagonist for purely professional reasons.
Naturally, you don’t have to do anything like this. You could even make it seem that the antagonist is going to change their mind right before they decide to go along with their evil plans after all. You could even have them realise that they’re wrong, but they’ve gone too far and they’re too proud to give in. Whichever route you choose, just make sure it makes sense. It shouldn’t be predictable but it should be totally logical in hindsight.
Don’t make these mistakes if your antagonist switches sides
If your protagonist is a total goody two-shoes and your antagonist simply can’t help but be influenced by them, your story is probably lacking a lot of nuance and realism. It’s also not very interesting and you risk sounding like a pamphlet against drugs or satanism rather than a novel! If your antagonist ends up going “hmm, perhaps you have a point all along” we need to see this process happen on the page before the decision is consciously made.
Actually, any character change is a process that can be explained by the events of the story. The same goes for your protagonist. This is why character development is so closely tied to story structure and plot. It’s your job as the writer to make it make sense.
Another thing you might want to avoid is having your protagonist forgive the antagonist without there ever being consequences to their actions that they’ve done previously. It’s an easy mistake to make if you’re not really thinking about it, but your readers will notice if you try to sweep something under the rug. Switching sides doesn’t automatically undo everything bad that might have been done.
Make sure YOU have chosen your side
A few years ago I saw a movie called The Border, and if you don’t yet know what’s it about, don’t go look it up if you’re not prepared to read about child sexual abuse. I hated that movie. I’m not going to say you can’t write books or make movies where really bad things happen, but my main issue with this particular movie (besides the ableism in the gross usage of the changeling myth) was that it didn’t seem to take any sort of a stand agains the antagonist.
If you’re writing a story where truly bad things happen, make sure your readers know which side you’re actually on. I can’t tell you what you should think, but if it’s your opinion that A is good and B is bad, then don’t accidentally end up writing a story that is actually a celebration of B. Even if the bad guys win, make sure you’re somehow criticising their actions and not condoning them however you decide to do that within your story.
Can there be grey areas? Can both sides be right? Sure, but whatever you do, do it intentionally. Again, I’m not telling you what to think or what kind of opinions to have – I just want you to be sure you’re making the point you’re meaning to make. You could always ask for feedback before you share your story with a wider audience
Avoid these things when writing an antagonist
When you’re writing “bad people”, there are a few things that we should collectively be steering away from. These are gross stereotypes and frankly just lazy writing.
Villains with limb differences, facial disfigurements and other disabilities suggest that these things are either bad by themselves or only happen to bad people. You might be all “it’s not that deep bro” but how many heroes do they have with similar characteristics? How many stories are there that say mental illness and disability are normal and not scary?
Just don’t be lazy. If you decide to write something like that because you don’t think it means anything, you’re being doubly lazy, because you’re just dipping into a catalogue of existing characters and picking something from there instead of creating something of your own. Even if you don’t care how your writing affects real people or what it says about your personal attitudes, you should in the very least care about not being a bad writer.
How to start crafting your antagonist
As you already know, you shouldn’t choose your antagonist at random. Just like your protagonist needs to be tailor-made to your plot, your antagonist needs to be tailor-made to your protagonist and their goals.
What is standing in the way of your protagonist and what they want to achieve? If it’s an antagonist force or something intangible (like laws), can you choose a person to represent it so you can make it personal? Or if you don’t yet know what’s standing in their way, what is the opposite of what they want? How can that become a person?
When you look at your protagonist’s wants and needs, there’s always space for someone who’s in the way. That space if your chance to grow your antagonist.
When you’ve got a rough idea of what your antagonist stands for, you can hash out all the other details. Does your protagonist already know them? What kind of an existing relationship do they have? What do they have in common? Choose strengths and flaws for your antagonist, too.
When you begin plotting your story, remember that not all of your protagonist’s set-backs should be caused by your antagonist. Some of them should also be because of your protagonist’s flaws and mistakes that they’ve made along the way. Your antagonist can still exploit those things as they see fit!
What else can you do to write your novel?
Your antagonist is just a part of writing your story, but how can you get started if you don’t know which steps you need to take to turn your story idea into a novel? Fortunately for you, I created the Start Your Novel 5-day course to show you the easy way to get started with your writing. Join today – this time next week you could already be working on your first draft.