We can’t have a strong story without a strong antagonist.
They are the glue that holds the story together. Without them there would be no conflict, no reason for the protagonist’s involvement.
In essence, there would be no story.
But to really bring our antagonist to life, we need to make them more than just a representative of ultimate evil.
Nobody is evil, or even on the opposing side, all the time. We’re all a mixture of good and bad.
There is no such thing as black and white, no matter how we might like to paint the world sometimes.
Everybody has reasons for the way they are. We just have to dig a little deeper to find it for some people. But it is always there.
The same is true for fictional characters.
No matter which side they represent, they should always have a mix of good and bad traits, as well as their own inner turmoil.
There are four traits of a strong antagonist:
They’re Always One Step Ahead of the Protagonist
One of the things readers love about villains is their uncanny ability to stop the protagonist in their tracks.
They always seem to be able to counteract whatever the protagonist might try.
They can adapt to circumstances and learn from their opponent in the heat of the moment.
The best villains are always a little smarter than the hero, planning for every outcome and always having another trick up their sleeve to further their plans, while knocking the hero around in the process.
This opposition brings our story’s conflict to life as the hero is forced to consider possibilities they would never have before to win.
Cost and Consequences Mean Nothing to Them
The antagonist doesn’t care who they hurt or what they must do as long as they win in the end.
They see theirs as the only way to accomplish their goals and refuse to consider any other path.
They will do anything to succeed, no matter who or what they damage in the process.
Even if they start out with good intentions, they become so focused on the end goal they lose all sight of right and wrong.
They begin to see the consequences as merely a step that had to be taken.
And with each step, it becomes easier to ignore how much damage they have done along the way.
Whatever their starting intentions, they are willing to do anything to win, no matter the cost.
Their Actions Bring Them in Conflict with the Protagonist
We can’t have a story without our characters coming into conflict, even indirectly.
Give the antagonist goals they would pursue even if the protagonist never existed.
Then give the characters a reason to cross paths somewhere along the way. Even if they’re unaware of their effect on each other until the very end.
One way or another, the antagonist’s plans should disrupt the protagonist’s life and force them to fight back.
They’re Interesting and Unpredictable
We don’t want our characters to be cardboard cutouts.
We want the reader to sympathize with them, even if they’re the villain.
Humans are defined by our pasts. It’s what makes us individuals.
We all have strengths and weaknesses, secrets we keep, good and bad traits.
We can make our antagonists relatable by giving them these same traits and making them as realistic as possible.
Even something small can create a flash of sympathy, helping the reader understand the choices the character has made and drawing them deeper into the story.
In essence, you want to flesh out all your main characters, whether they have a point of view or not.
The better you know your characters, the better their interaction on the page.
And the better your readers get to know them, the more they’re drawn into the story and willing to stick around for more.
What are your thoughts on the antagonist’s role in the story?
FOR FURTHER READING
Renea strives to help writers develop the focus and skills they need to finish their first novel, offering writers practical writing advice they can apply one step at a time.
She is the author of Conquering Writing Pressures: Living a Balanced Writing Life in a Busy World where she helps writers find the courage to accept life will never be perfect. And if we want our dreams to succeed, we must fight to make them a reality.
She currently lives in St. Joseph, Missouri, with her husband Joe, her three children, and her five lovable furballs.
From a young age, Renea was mad for books and reading, and especially loved Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, which she read in the ninth grade.
She is an avid reader, with her main interests residing in history, mythology, and fantasy, along with some romance and science fiction in her earlier years.
When Renea’s not writing, she enjoys genealogy, role-playing games, and dreams of traveling the world. In a past life, she plucked chickens and milked cows.