Wednesday, July 31, 2013

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?

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  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.

  22. I'm working on finding my antagonist's motivation, which is tricky, because I'm straddling a divide: should she be a person who got dumped with magic power but lost her friends in the bargain and is determined to make the best of it, or did she scheme against 'friends' and plot their destruction and steal their power. Sympathetic or decidedly not? I know she's a huge opponent to my MC, and wrecks a good amount of havoc on her personal life in the name of the master plan, but until I can figure out her attitude towards people and magic, I can't figure her out. Do you make an antagonist so close to the protagonist that you're scared she'll end up like the antagonist, or do you make them complete opposites? I can certainly appreciate a cruel antagonist with no redeeming qualities (Umbridge and the stepmother in Ever After come to mind), but sometimes characterization can fall flat if you don't write antagonists well. Ultimately, I can't finish my plot until I find out why my antagonist is who she is, what that means towards the civil war she's engineering, and how my protagonist can become stronger from getting hurt by antagonist and defeat her.

    1. Every antagonist is different for me, and I try to write them as their own people. Sometimes they're mirrors of my protagonist, other times not.

      Sounds like you're in a rough spot, and I hope you get through it soon :( It seems to me, that it might tie back to what you want the story to be about on a thematic level. Sounds like the plot is there and fairly solid (you seem to know what these events are and how they happen), but the reasons why are still iffy.

      You might try looking at the protagonist's character arc and seeing if there are any clues there to help you. Maybe the antag is the mirror and her arc is similar. Or maybe she's the opposite and her role is to show the darker side of what you protag needs to learn.

      You can also just decide--is she a sympathetic character with reasonable goals and motivations, or is she just plain evil? What is it YOU want from her?

      One last thing you might try, is to pretend she's the protag and run her through the same development as you did your protag. Maybe that'll shake loose some history or ideas.

      Hope this helps!

  23. I stumbled on this site while looking for inspiration to kick start my stalled story...and boy, did I get it! I'm going to map out my antagonist(s) using your ideas above and see what I come up with. The antagonist so far has been my worst enemy :)

  24. Hi Janice
    I have written a book for children. Plot is specialist police squad chase arch criminal. As my antagonist only appears at the final showdown how can I beef him up without it feeling that I have stuck in a chapter just for that purpose.

    1. Try letting other people mention him as the story unfolds. Even if they don't know who he is or his name, they know something or someone is causing trouble for them. You can show the results of his actions without actually showing him.

      The more the characters know, the more you can have him "there" without him being there. If that works with the plot of course. Don't stuff in information if it doesn't feel natural :) But if they're chasing an arch criminal, they know they're after somebody, and that can be enough.

  25. Many thanks for reply and help

  26. Great post. It is so important to make the antagonist just as real as the protagonist. Thanks for the great tips.

  27. My favorite antagonist is Light from the manga Death Note. He actually starts as the MC, and remains the first POV most of the time, but as the story goes on, he goes from a innocent young man genuinely striving for justice and a better world, to a cold hearted serial killer. The investigator going after him then becomes the good guy, but still you root for Light because you "knew" him before he became a villain, and he always baffles you with his genius brains (same thing happening in Breaking Bad for instance).
    To make it even worse, at some point in the story, Light loses all his memories regarding the crimes he committed, and is back to being a genuine kind and justice-driven boy again. It breaks your heart because your feelings towards the character are very conflicting. That's what makes a great villain for me =)

  28. I have spent over an hour writing a mini essay, but I'll just ignore that and simply say: Ahmann Jardir from Peter V Bretts 'Demon Cycle' series.
    At first he his culture is perceived as savage by 'green landers' when Jardir leads a horde of Krasians out of the desert to capture their lands and enforce his culture. I genuinely felt the green landers fear at such a terrifying culture approaching.
    But then throughout the series are interspersed these detailed descriptions of Jardirs boyhood. They include how he was taken from his family at a young age, as all boys are, to train in Sharaq to kill. It details every beating he took as one of the weakest of a pair including an obese boy, and how he was forced to become strong to protect himself after having his arm broken and later being savagely raped.
    As an adult, having become one of the highest ranked warriors, he is manipulated by his wife, a very powerful class of woman who use demon magic and are the true controllers of every person in the city. At a fairly young age, he confides in his wife how he questions what she wants him to do as part of the great and terrible destiny she has foreseen for him. Jardir is not a truly evil man, but he is honed and manipulated into being something that he sometimes wishes he wasn't.
    It gets to the point I begin to question whether he actually is the antagonist when I start to see how some of the things he does could actually be the monumental step everyone needs to actually make an impact against the innumerable demons.
    I could honestly go on for pages about Jardir and the plot, it's taken place over Harry Potter as my favorite series.

  29. Sounds like a great series. I'll have to check that one out.

  30. My favourite villain is the Heath Ledger's Joker. He is plain evil and what I love about him there are no real reasons of why he did those horrible things. So I wish I can write an antagonist inspired by him.

    1. Such a great villain. If we think of our villains as people first, with goals, hopes, and dreams all their own, it's easier to write that type of character.

  31. I should try that. It might help me out.

  32. I compared this list with your 10 traits of a great protagonist, and it got me thinking: what if #1 was the same for both? i.e., The antagonist has a problem he wants/needs to solve (probably before the beginning of the book), and his strategy is what gets the protagonist in trouble and sets up their antagonism?
    I'm prepping a thriller for NaNo, which forces me to plot a lot from the antagonist's POV (since the protagonists are one or several steps behind the villain for much of the story), and looking at it like that was really helpful for me.

    1. You could totally use them for both, especially if your antagonist is a POV character in the book.

      You might even look at the 10 traits of a protagonist list and apply both to both of your characters--protagonist and antagonist--and see how they interfere with each other's plans.

      Here's the link:

  33. I read the Warriors series and some of the antagonists are so dull. Why are they evil? Because they can be. The author of those books, Erin Hunter, needs to read this amazing list! (I am attempting to adapt this list to my books, but they are targeted at a younger audience who probably won't appreciate or even notice the carefully crafted antagonist.) (;