Good Antagonists vs. Bad Antagonists

James Moriarty, Scar, Professor Umbridge, Hannibal.

What do they all have in common?

We love to hate them!

There’s a reason for that. All four villains are carefully crafted antagonists who are original and deep. So today, I’m going to discuss writing a well-rounded and thought out antagonist versus a thrown together, generic one. Antagonists are just as vital to the story as the protagonist, and it’s important to put as much thought into them as you would every other detail of the story.

The first major thing to consider is the conflict, because this will shape your antagonist and his/her motives.

There are technically, four kinds of conflict. I like to consider five, though.

  • Man vs. Nature
  • Man vs. Self
  • Man vs. Man
  • Man vs. Society
  • Man vs. Technology

If you don’t know about the conflicts, check out my earlier post.

Now, since we’re looking at writing a humanoid (or at least characters with thought and emotion), who are separate from the protagonist, we can get rid of Nature, Society, Self and Technology.  In this post, I’m going to just cover some basics for Man vs. Man.

Here is a great resource for the 16 archetypes of villains. You may want to look through the list and see if your character hits any of these types. Also, check out the Mary Sue test. It’s great for testing both your protagonist and antagonist. You don’t want to make a flat protagonist, so why make a flat antagonist?

Now when writing your antagonist, there are six points to consider.

Originality

This is important. You want your antagonist to stand out as much as your protagonist. So if you’re going to put in a lot of consideration to your hero, why not do the same for your villain? It’s not necessarily about making him/her loveable, but about making him/her his/her own individual person.

Character Profile

Every character should have one. This is the best way for you to learn about your character. Draft a profile with all of the villain’s information and keep it on hand. You can find a profile template here.

Motive

What is your character’s motive? Any good antagonist has a reason for being bad. They aren’t just bad because they woke up and decided to be a dick that morning. Throughout history, every villain that has existed has had a reason. We may not always agree with their reasons, or we may find their reasons silly, but it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the motive for driving your antagonist is important to your antagonist, so seriously consider the “what” and “why” of their actions.

Means

How is your villain going to succeed in their plan? We can’t all be rich super villains with a Lex Luther size fortune. Actually, most of us won’t have that kind of financial backing. And that’s okay. Sometimes the scariest villains are the ones who have nothing. Maybe your villain has a position of power, is a bully, or a rival love interest. But it’s important to know their financial and material limits. If they aren’t ridiculously rich, then they probably won’t have a back stock of nuclear warheads.

Limits

Speaking of limits, everyone has a limit. Okay, maybe not everyone, but most people do. So, most likely, your villain will. What is their limit? Will they kill the pregnant woman, but they can’t stand to hurt a puppy? Limits don’t take away from your villain’s fear-factor. It makes them human and relatable, and that’s what you want. A good villain is someone who we sympathize with. They make us rethink their plight and do a double take.

Consider The Evil Queen from Once Upon a Time. She’s the Evil Queen, but a huge portion of the fan base loves her. Why? Because she’s relatable and we sympathize with her. She not only has a great motive, but she also has limits that we understand. This makes her a great antagonist.

Likability

You don’t need this. Wait, what? But isn’t that what this entire thing is about? No. This is about making a well-rounded antagonist. We don’t have to like your character. They’re a villain, so generally speaking, we probably won’t. What you want us to do is to understand the antagonist and to even see things from their side. It doesn’t mean we have to like what we see, or even change our opinion of them, but it does mean we become more invested into the story.

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