Wednesday, July 31

10 Traits of a Strong Antagonist

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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


  1. Ilona Andrews writes some fantastic antagonists. In one book, the antagonist comes to kill the MC, but she first sits down to tea and critiques the MC's life.

    The difficulty in writing well-rounded antagonists is that you're limited by your POV. If your POV has a personality too unobservant or disinclined to notice the cracks in how the antagonist presents themselves, and not all stories give the protagonists opportunity to even see those cracks.

    (That's part of the fun I'm having with one series I'm writing, wherein each book is from different character's POV. Each protagonist sees something different.

    For example, they all know character A.

    Narrator #1 sees a kind authority figure.
    Narrator #2 sees a scary (but fair) authority figure.
    Narrator #3 sees a selfish authority figure.
    Narrator #4 a lonely man worth knowing, who's trapped by people less scrupulous than he is.
    Narrator #5 sees a guilt-ridden ally.

    Of those five narrators, #4 has the clearest view of what is vs. what she thinks, followed by #5. Narrator #2 tries, but she thinks she knows more than she does. Narrator #1 would like to understand, but she lacks the knowledge and experience to properly interpret a lot of things, and she knows it. Narrator #3 doesn't give a care.

    Ergo, of those 5, once they're all written, readers will likely best appreciate the antagonist(s) of narrator #4, because she'll be able to give a thorough rounded view of the antagonist(s). The others actually can't have very rounded antagonists.

    Not sure if that makes sense to anyone else. :)

  2. Just the reminder that I needed! Thank you! When reading over this post, I thought about Nellie Olsen, one of the main antagonists from Little House on the Prairie. (My sister and I adore that series...) I catch myself loving her and rooting for her more than I do for the people she tortures. I think out of all the LHoP characters, the Olsens are the most fleshed out, most hilarious, and the most believable. (Sometimes).

  3. Hopefully I've hit all of these with Nathan Shepherd's nemesis, who will be introduced in Silent Oath.

  4. The Phantom of the Opera is probably my favorite. I actually cried at the end of the movie, even though he's an evil murderer who doesn't deserve the girl. (But he sings so beautifully! He can't be bad!!)

    The last time I tried to make my antagonist more interesting, I wound up liking him more than the hero :P I'm going to bookmark this and use it for my current WIP. Thanks yet again, Janice!

  5. I also needed this too, since I'm telling my story from the point of view of my antagonist and I want him to be fully realized. One of my favorite antagonists is Alia Atreides in Frank Herbert's Dune series. I see her as a tragic figure who became lost to power.

  6. I LOVE writing antagonists! Almost a third of my story is told from the antagonist's POV, and those are the parts that I enjoy writing the most.

    My main trouble now is how to bring up my protagonist to that level - right now he seems a bit of a wimp in comparison.

    I hope some day you do a post on how to salvage the protagonist if you've fallen in love with the antagonist. *Sigh*

  7. This is one of the areas I need to strengthen. Thanks for the advice!

  8. You're right, Janice. Without a worthy antagonist, the MC's journey might be a little bit too easy. I generally like antagonists who have some sort of depth to them, yet in writing this, the most memorable antagonists are Roald Dahl's utterly evil characters. Yes, they certainly have clear motives, and take every opportunity to thwart our hero and make his/her life a misery. But Dahl breaks rule #7 (about giving them redeeming features) yet the antagonists rock. I guess that ties in with ayoung child's view of a black and white world. The greedy giants, the evil witches, the sadistic principal..all foul, all compelling. They are so over-the-top that the reader is left wondering how the MC could possibly defeat them. But they do. Magnificently.

    For all other writers who are not Dahl, it's probably best to stick with more fleshed out antagonists, IMO.

  9. My main antagonist doesn't arrive on the scene right away and part of the plot is discovering who wishes my MC harm and WHY = antagonist.

    There are many antagonists against the MC besides the main one. Sometimes I think I just need to pick one evil guy from beginning to end. Any suggestions for this kind of antagonist?

  10. The main antagonist of my trilogy doesn't appear properly until the second book. I think delaying an antagonist's introduction can have a strong impact if handled well.

  11. Carradee, I don't think the difficulty is in writing them, per se, but showing to the readers without a POV. Most books you see very little of the antagonist so it's much harder to get who they are across.

    I do like multiple POVs for the reason you described. It's only by seeing through multiple eyes that you get the full picture.

    Caylaand, good example! Nellie is a great antagonist.

    Paul, -fingers crossed- Honestly though, I don't think you need all of them every time, but it is good to develop a solid antagonist when you can. I'm sure you did great!

    Rachel, aw, sweet! I cried at the end of Frankenstein. Too funny about your antagonist. That's happened to me, too. Makes me wonder if maybe we should be writing anti-heroes, hehe.

    LinWash, good timing, then. Alia is wonderful. Those are my favorite kinds of antagonists.

    Swati, hmmm...I did the same kind of 10 traits post the protagonist a few weeks ago. It's an interesting idea though, so I'll see what I can do :)

    Julie, most welcome!

    Jo, best bet is to do what feels right for the antagonist you're developing. Not every trait will be appropriate for every bad guy. The important thing is to treat the antagonist like any other important character in the book and develop them the same.

    Rubianna, the main antagonist in my series doesn't show up until the end of book two. It's okay if it takes time to learn who they are.

    There's also nothing wrong with having other characters preventing your protagonist from succeeding. There are always going to be other people causing trouble. If one evil guy works for your story then certainly do that, but don't feel you have to do one if that's not working for you.

    Paul, agreed. The main antagonist might have underlings that have to be dealt with long before the hero gets to them.

  12. Ever read "The Prisoner of Zenda"? The main bad guy's henchman, Rupert of Hentzau,was more memorable and more fun than the baddie trying to take the throne. (He was also trying to steal the baddie's girl, which was a fun complication.)

    Antiheroes are definitely a can-do. I worry sometimes because all my favorite heroes are jerks. I'm a Christian; qualities like love and gentleness should be more appealing. But hey, redemption stories have to start somewhere!

  13. You just made me realize what I did NOT like about The Help: there was never a personal antagonist, and the society was portrayed so broadly and so much like a cartoon world, that it never clicked - and neither did the characters.

    I write my third character, my antagonist, to keep her just on the edge of 'so unlikeable you throw the book against the wall' rather than spend time in her pov.

    Which I'm writing today - your list and examples came at the perfect time.

  14. Rachel, I have not, but I've had a few folks recommend it to me. LOL so true about the redemption stories. I think flawed characters are more interesting, too. They're more unpredictable and apt to surprise you.

    Liebjabberlings, ooo sounds like some nasty antags there :) Fun! Glad the list found you at the right time ;)

  15. The funny thing is, everything on this list can (and probably should) apply to the protagonist. The villain is the hero of his or her own story. :)

    Some of the most interesting antagonists have been those that have the exact same goals as the protagonist, but different methods of accomplishing them that clash with the protagonist's agenda or beliefs. It blurs that line between hero and villain, because whenever I read those stories I want to yell, "Think of how much you could do if you just worked together!"

  16. Laura, true, especially if you have a darker protagonist or an anti hero. I love those kinds of antagonists, too. A good bad guy is a thing of beauty. I've been known to root for them and not the hero, lol.

  17. This is probably way too late for you to see, but I was interested in how you deal with a governmental nemesis? In my current WIP I'm dealing with contending governmental forces trying to ruin my MC's life, and his hold over his land - it's not personal, as such, he's just in the way.

    Do I try to force it and make it personal? Introduce a character that make it more personal?

    1. I get notified of all comments, so I do see them :) It won't be personal for the people trying to take his land, but the MC will take it very personally. So that's a great Person vs Society type of conflict. It matters to him. That's the personal connection you want. It's doesn't have to be personal to the antagonist, but it always has to be personal to the protagonist.

      I'd imagine there are one or two people the MC deals with on a regular basis that represent the gov, so you'd have a face for your antagonist. Or he might have to deal with countless "faceless" bureaucrats that symbolize how the gov doesn't care and he's just a random piece of land to them. It all depends on what you want to do and how you want the gov to appear.

  18. The Grapes Of Wrath has no one antagonist but also has no shortage of hardships. Steinbeck dissects why this is and how it came about stating that the bank was to blame but that the bank is no longer a man but a beast. The beast is so unapproachable that there is no one to blame. How frustrating to have no one to hold accountable for something so unnatural.

  19. This was very helpful, the questions alone can give focus and keep you on track.

  20. These were really good tips. One issue I've also noticed with antagonists is that often their actions are not proportional to their goals. If they are trying to take over the world, then it makes sense to have an incredibly complex plot involving an army of henchmen and breaking every law in the book, but if their goals are more modest, then so chances are their plan would be too.

  21. "Don’t make your antagonist dumb, trying the same things and falling for the same old traps over and over."

    ...Now, I'm sorry, but I just had to mention this... I'm pretty sure I got mad at an antagonist for NOT trying the same thing again xD. I don't really remeber, but it was probably in some cartoon... I just got really annoyed because the plan was actually good and the heroes just got lucky that one time, but the antagonist totally disregarded the idea, turning into a waste of time and resources, and it made him look stupid. I would have loved that idea to come back in some way and bite the heroes in the butt. (falling for the same trap could be a running gag, or the result of some character trait, and if the heroes know 'X will totally fall for Y' and do it it would kind of make them seem more villanous than the poor guy falling for their trick. And now I just have to say...Oh, Jack Spicer, you're the most lovable 'evil genius' ever. Even if you do kind of fail.)

    ...Ah, I'm afraid I don't side with heroes much. Some movies I saw where the hero/es (obviously) won at the end made me go "Oh, come on! But- But that dude was DAMN RIGHT! How could they?! Bunch of pathetic heroes driven by cardboard justice! Die!"

    1. That still falls under the "don't be dumb" idea, just on the other side. Because yes, if the antagonist almost wins and then doesn't refine what is obviously a good plan, they look just as foolish. Don't let your bad guys be dumb, however that plays out in your story.

      And anything can work if done right, so no rule or guideline applies to all stories.

      I tend to root for the villains myself :) I just love a good bad guy.