How to Create Memorable Antagonists

I like writing antagonists because antagonists get away with things protagonists often can’t. I like reading stories with antagonists so fleshed out I can bite their bellies. Accordingly, here are six tips for creating better roadblocks for your heroes. There’s nothing more satisfying than a battle well won, and nothing more thought-provoking than whether it should have been fought in the first place.

1. Antagonist = irritant

An antagonist is a character who antagonizes. To antagonize means to act in opposition (to the protagonist). However, to antagonize also means to annoy or irritate. A good antagonist is a character who not only opposes the hero but also annoys and irritates both the protagonist and the reader by being just a little bit right in her views.

If you’ve ever encountered someone whose opinion is opposed to yours, whether it’s about love, abortion or the chances of the San Antonio Spurs of once again making the NBA Finals, yet who makes such an infuriatingly good case for her position that all you can do is plug yours ears and scream, “But you’re wrong, wrong, wrong!”, you’ve met a great antagonist.

2. Antagonist = protagonist in the extreme

Write your antagonist as a character who either thinks too coldly about things (the general who without remorse drops a nuclear device on his enemies, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians, to avoid the deaths of his own troops; or the Quaker who refuses to take up arms, even to protect his own family) or who always lets emotions cloud his better judgement (the old English lady who keeps giving away to strangers the money her crippled daughter works so hard to earn, sending them both spiralling into poverty). One’s too cold, the other’s too hot. It’s not that any of these characters are evil. Indeed, their motivations and ideologies may be commendable, but they’ve pushed their beliefs beyond what most people would say is a common sense point of no return.

And fanatics, whether they’re reactionaries or bleeding hearts, make good antagonists because at their cores they merely want what they believe is good. “I want a little order and stability” and “I want to help a few people out” are two goals any hero would be proud to have. It’s only when those goals become “I want everyone to wear black pants and have green skin, and I want to be their leader” and “I want to give your money to everyone, and I’ll decide who gets how much” that the hero pauses and thinks, “Really, now?”

3. Antagonist = Devil’s advocate

As Wikipedia tells it, “a devil’s advocate is someone who, given a certain argument, takes a position he or she does not necessarily agree with, for the sake of debate.” Now imagine your plot as an argument and your hero as the rightful side of it. Now imagine the other side, the possible counter-argument, and dress it up in a head and clothes and call it your antagonist. In a sense, the antagonist becomes the holes in the rightful argument, personified.

You might even amend your argument to make those holes more apparent.

For example, if you live on the planet Kwarl, where the majority Nods and minority Zeds exist in perfect harmony, your equality-loving hero doesn’t have much of a problem coming up against your Nod villain, who wants to round up all the Zeds and use them as slave labourers. There isn’t much but hatred to the villain’s point. However, let’s make the Zeds into violent sons of bitches who enjoy a bit of the old ultra-violence in the form of murder, rape and plunder. Now equality’s not so easy any more, and your Nod villain, the one who wants to subjugate the Zeds: well, maybe he does kind of have a point…

4. Antagonist = you

Most writers like to be their protagonists because most protagonists are heroes and, deep down, who doesn’t want to be ride in righteously to save the day? Probably no one, but don’t be like most writers. Don’t be your protagonist. Be your antagonist instead. Heroes and villains are forged by context anyway. If you’re writing a novel in Canada and hold the views of most Canadians and your novel is about a gay police detective on the trail of a skinhead gang of gay bashers, the hero and villains of your story are pretty clear. Then again, they’re also pretty clear if you’re writing the same novel in Uganda while holding the views of the majority of people in that country.

In other words, If you’re writing a story and you can’t empathize with your antagonist, it doesn’t mean that your antagonist is an evil dude. It simply means he’s a shallow character.

5. Antagonist = justification; but if not justification, at least explanation…

Literature and film have created some truly vile antagonists over the years. Maybe you’re writing one, too. Maybe, despite your best efforts, your antagonist simply doesn’t have an objectively reasonable justification for his actions. For example, he murders innocent people and he’s not doing it for a noble reason gone wrong and he’s not doing it for a reason we might otherwise accept, like making money. You have at least two options.

You can create a subjectively reasonable justification, i.e. your antagonist is misinformed or has a distorted sense of reality that, in his mind and based on his inaccurate but sincere understanding of the world, justifies his actions.

If that doesn’t work, you can forget about justification altogether and concentrate instead on explanation. Because if there’s no objective or subjective argument to be made for what your antagonist is about, all you’re left with is making sure your reader at least knows why your antagonist is pure evil.

This is the beloved technique of history students the world over, who, faced with an exam question like, “Who was responsible for starting the First World War?” set about explaining in great detail the situation leading up to the war without actually providing an answer. Fiction readers, like exam markers, tend to be kind-hearted enough to appreciate the effort. We won’t give you an A for that effort, but we’ll give you a pass. Just make sure you do well on the other questions.

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5 thoughts on “How to Create Memorable Antagonists

    • Thanks, Rick. I agree. If you cheer for the hero but somewhat like, or at least understand, the villain, then when the hero triumphs, you get to feel two emotions: happiness at victory but also a little bitterness at defeat.

    • Thank you for the comment. The novel that was on my mind while writing the article was Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American”, although Greene’s “The Power and the Glory” is another good example. The TV shows “Breaking Bad” and “The Shield” also have excellent and memorable antagonists, especially because their protagonists aren’t clear heroes, therefore making their antagonists less-than-villains and sometimes downright heroic themselves.

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