I love villains. And anti-heroes. I even love natural disasters that don't care one way or the other about the hero. Maybe it's my dark side taking over, or maybe I just love how a well-crafted antagonist is written. The better the antagonist, the better the story for me, and the harder I root for hero (okay, sometimes against, but only in disaster movies).
A strong antagonist makes a strong protagonist, which makes a strong story. Strong stories make for happy readers. It's a win/win for everyone involved. Except maybe the antagonist, who probably gets defeated, but that's kind of her job.
There are also plenty of things that make a great antagonist, but the ones who stay in our heads (and hearts) and there one who are more than just cardboard cutouts of "evil" people. They're worthy of the hero, colorful in their own right, and might even make us like them.
Elements of a Strong Antagonist
1. A strong antagonist is trying to accomplish something.The antagonist has a plan, an evil plan in most cases. She’s acting because something is driving her to act and she wants to accomplish something in particular. In plot-driven novels, this is often the event that triggers the protagonist to act. The big bad thing that will occur if someone doesn’t step up and do something. In character-driven novels, this might be represented by the person who is trying to stop the protagonist from hurting herself in some way. Or be the one encouraging her to do so.
2. A strong antagonist is acting on personal desires.Even if the villain is a mercenary hired to kill the hero, she’s still motivated by something. Greed, an enjoyment of violence, a personal demon. The antagonist doesn’t just wake up one morning and decides to be evil for the heck of it. She wants something and has determined her plan is the best course of action to get it.
(More on writing from the antagonist's point of view here)
3. A strong antagonist is highly motivated to act.Strong and understandable motivations will make your antagonist feel like a real person and make the story that much better. The more plausible you make these motivation, the richer your villain, and the easier it will be to plot later. For character-driven novels, this motivation might be similar to the one that’s driving the protagonist to personal destruction.
4. A strong antagonist is trying to avoid something.The antagonist has things at stake at well, just like the protagonist. Failure should mean more than just not succeeding in the plan. There will be consequences if she doesn’t succeed, nasty ones. She might be the cautionary tale if the protagonist took a darker path or gave in to temptation.
(More on what to do when your antagonist isn't a villain here)
5. A strong antagonist is trying to gain something.No one goes to as much trouble as a good antagonist does without a prize in the end. If she wants to take over the world, why? What about that action makes her happy? Being evil for the sake of evil risks having a cardboard villain that isn’t scary or interesting.
6. A strong antagonist is willing to adapt.Don’t make your antagonist dumb, trying the same things and falling for the same old traps over and over. A strong villain adapts her plan and learns from what the protagonist is doing. She forces the protagonist to grow and change by always being one step ahead. For a character-driven novel, this might be represented by how the protagonist rationalizes with herself and others to continue on her destructive path.
(More on what to do if your antagonist isn't a person here)
7. A strong antagonist is compelling in some way.To keep her from being a two-dimensional cliché, give your antagonist good traits as well as bad. Things that make her interesting and even give her a little redemption. This will help make her unpredictable if once in a while she acts not like a villain, but as a complex and understandable person. She doesn’t always do the bad thing.
8. A strong antagonist is flawed in relatable ways.Human weakness is something every reader can relate to. If your antagonist has flaws that tap into the human side of her (even if she’s not human) then she becomes more real and readers can see her side of the story.
(More on one of the best antagonists ever and how he can make your villains better here)
9. A strong antagonist is hiding things.The antagonist has secrets. She fears people finding out certain things, usually because she’s up to no good. Sometimes those secrets expose weaknesses or flaws she doesn’t want anyone else to see, but sometimes they’re the vulnerable parts of her.
10. A strong antagonist is in the path of the protagonist’s goal.An antagonist who never crosses path with the protagonist isn’t much of an obstacle. She needs to cause the protagonist hardship and trouble over the course of the novel, even if she’s not doing it deliberately. Her plan and actions can cause trouble even if she’s not yet aware the protagonist is fighting her. But at some point, these two will come face to face and only one will win.
Fleshing out your antagonist doesn’t mean you have to add her point of view in the novel (though if you do have the antagonist as a point of view character, you’ll want to develop her as much as you do for your protagonist). It’s more about creating a well-rounded and believable character that will enrich your novel overall.
Who are some of your favorite antagonists?
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a monthly contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound