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Writing An Antagonist

There’s something about antagonists that, I think,  inherently fascinates us as readers. We all get at least a little curious about what leads someone to become “evil,” why it is they do what they do, and so on. And considering we live in a world where right and wrong is all about perspective, well-done antagonists can be especially exciting. I think this is where my love of Shadow & Bone by Leigh Bardugo comes in. The Darkling is one of the greatest villains I’ve ever read. He’s evil; he’s terrifying; he’s complex. And you know what, on top of that, makes him so great? The fact that he feels uniquely human. (Well, okay, this is a fantasy so technically he isn’t human, but you get the point.) Bardugo does this incredible thing where she gives him emotions and fears and goals and even a bit of romantic longing, and this helps the reader to understand and connect with him, because at the heart of it all, she shows that he is still a struggling guy. He is still a normal person, just one that is immeasurably angry and unpredictable. This fact, I’d argue, makes him all the more terrifying to a reader–I mean, how can you be afraid of someone if he doesn’t feel real?–thus adding lots of tension to the story. Plus, making the villain have his* human moments adds a layer of intrigue for the reader. After all, you don’t want to write a villain so pointlessly evil that the reader cringes whenever he enters the scene; you want to write a villain so intriguing and complex and wicked that he makes the reader’s heart pound instantly, but at the same time, they can’t look away.

Recently, I heard someone on Twitter give advice that went something like this (I’m paraphrasing): “you haven’t succeeded in writing an antagonist until the reader knows why he or she [the antagonist] is the hero in his or her own story.” I couldn’t agree with that more. Take it from me, because I’ve made this mistake before; you don’t want your villain to be all evil. You don’t want them to do the bad thing every time for no apparent reason, because that’s boring. Not only that, but unless you give your villain a real character and real motivations, the tension in your story will be significantly lacking. Think about it. If the reader doesn’t understand your antagonist, they won’t be afraid for your main character. They won’t have those moments where they’re reading at 1 a.m. with their heart pounding because the prospect of the main character meeting the villain terrifies and excites them all at once. And you want those moments. Those moments are key to making a good story become great. So you have to make sure your antagonist feels real and layered and exciting. Give him goals. Give him drive. Give him weaknesses. Give him a unique backstory and an interesting personality and possibly even romantic longing. Make sure his dialogue isn’t always centered around being pure evil. (Maybe he’s apologetic at times. Maybe he’s reminiscent. I don’t know. But even the bad guys say more than just endless threats.) Don’t get me wrong; your villain doesn’t have to be a nice guy. He doesn’t even have to have redeeming qualities. But he should feel real. He should feel unique and human. And to get this across, here are three key** aspects you need to make sure are clear, or become clear, in your story:

1) Motivation. What makes him do what he does? What is his endgame? What in his past brought this about, and why does he think doing [X thing] will help? What are the lengths he will go to achieve his goal? 

2) Justification. Why does the villain think what he’s doing is just? Why does he believe the main character deserves it? Why does the villain, like I mentioned above, see himself as the hero in his own story? After all, nobody is all evil. Sometimes people will do bad things because they feel it’s for the right reasons, and you have to convey that in your antagonist. 

3) Fear. Let’s face it: everyone is afraid of something. This means your villain has to be afraid of something, too. He has to have a weakness. He has to have a past he doesn’t want revealed, or a person he doesn’t want harmed, or a world he doesn’t want created, or something. Show what this fear is, or at least hint at it.

*I’m just using “his” because The Darkling is a guy, but you can obviously have villains of all genders.

**Please note that this is all my opinion. You may be able to write an incredible villain without any of this. I have yet to read one, but I’m sure it’s possible. These are mostly just guidelines that can always be broken, and if you disagree with any of it, feel free to bring it up in the comments! I love discussing antagonists, lol.

Good luck, guys! Let me know if you have any questions/you disagree with anything I said. And for those of you waiting for the blog chain–yes, there will be one in January! I’m going to announce it on the 26th. 🙂

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About Michael Waters

I'm Michael, I'm eighteen, and I blog about YA books for Barnes & Noble.

16 comments on “Writing An Antagonist

  1. Susannah Ailene Martin
    December 23, 2013

    I agree with what you said. My favorite villains are the ones who I kind of like. Like Loki (from The Avengers) or Khan (from Into Darkness) or maybe even the Master (from Doctor Who). They all have a good side.

  2. Watzzit Tooyah
    December 23, 2013

    What about Sauron, from The Lord of the Rings? His motivation isn’t really explained, he’s pretty much pure evil with no human connection whatsoever. Yet he’s widely regarded as one of the greatest fictional villains of all time.

    Don’t get me wrong, I actually agree with everything you said. Just wanted to hear your thoughts on this…

    • John Tarlan
      January 1, 2014

      Sauron was technically a demonic being from before the creation of Middle Earth, who rebelled against Illuvatar (the One, Lord of All) with Morgoth. When Morgoth was defeated and cast out of Arda at the end of the First Age, Sauron took his place.

      • erinkenobi2893
        April 8, 2014

        Yeah, that’s his backstory. But his motivations are fairly clear: to retrieve the Ring and rule Middle-Earth. Still, I think I preferred Morgoth as a villain. 😉 Because, well… Silmarils. And a fallen Angel (Valar. Whatever. :-P) He was just all-around cooler and more motivated to me, but Sauron is good for his purposes… and most people find “The Lord of the Rings” more palatable than “The Silmarillion” anyway… *sigh*

  3. Cait
    December 23, 2013

    I love villains. (Okay, that sounded bad.) I like GOOD villains. (Nope, it’s getting worse.) Regardless! I think it’s really important to have a well-written villain. My villains are usually the good guys. No one wakes up in the morning and says, “I’m going to be bad.” (Well, maybe people do. But not in books.) I recently read Chasing The Valley, and the villain sucked, because they basically had “I am the villain for no reason other then to cause havoc” taped to their forehead. It took a big toll on the book, because the climax was emotionally detached.

  4. Clarice
    December 29, 2013

    Completely agree with this. 🙂 I think this is also partly why I never warmed up to Lord Voldemort. He was just so…unreal. Powerful, yes, but ultimately not very interesting (though Tom Riddle is another matter). If he was ever forced to go against someone as complex and human as, say, Cersei Lannister, I’m pretty sure he’d win; but I’d still rather read about her than him,

  5. Pingback: Monday Must-Reads [12/30/13]

  6. bandersontps
    December 31, 2013

    Reblogged this on worldpen.

  7. Pingback: Fiction Writing Tips Blog Carnival Issue #9 | Fantasy Scroll

  8. erinkenobi2893
    April 8, 2014

    I did a full powerpoint on developing villains, actually… Next time I present it, I’m adding the link to this post to the “Suggested Reading” section.

    • John Hansen
      April 8, 2014

      Thank you so much!

    • Watzzit Tooyah
      April 8, 2014

      Are you the erinkenobi from the NaNoWriMo forums? The one from the Fandom City RP thread?

      Because I’m Nocturne_The_Hunter 🙂

      • erinkenobi2893
        April 8, 2014

        Yes, indeed! That’s me. Great to see ya, Nocturne! 😀
        Did you ever get the chance to read the story my incarnation of Obi-Wan came from? If not, it’s on my blog in the “Shifting Tides” category, under “The Hero’s Dream” and “Battlefield of the Soul.” 😉

  9. Allyson Tamers
    May 25, 2015

    I don’t think you understand how much you helped me on this. I mean, you don’t understand how much you helped me on this. Thank you so much!

    • John Hansen
      May 25, 2015

      So happy it helped!

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