There’s a pretty basic storytelling flaw that trips up many writers and that’s creating villains/antagonists who aren’t successful. Let’s define what I mean by successful. A successful antagonist moves the story ahead, directly challenges the protagonist, and has a better than 50% chance of success. Without a powerful antagonist, your protagonist has nothing substantial to fight against—there’s little reason to cheer for them.
3 Pillars for a Successful Antagonist
- Does the antagonist/villain directly oppose your protagonist’s main plot goal?
- Does the antagonist/villain have a head start?
- Are there aspects of the villain/antagonist we agree with or can even love?
4 Ways to Make Your Antagonist Menacing
Backstory – Your antagonist needs a past and a history. Evil is grown not born. Even if it never comes out in the story, YOU need to know what made them like this.
Justified – Your antagonist is the hero of their own story and can rationally justify their thoughts and actions. Their actions and motivations are not random or nonsensical.
A Moral Code – Your antagonist can’t be completely bad all the time. Let them rescue kittens, love their moms, never break their word, whatever. Some antagonists have a moral framework they restrict themselves to—they only kidnap and murder men who abuse children, for instance. Other people can fall in love with the antagonist. Anyone can fall in love, but is there something in your antagonist worth loving?
Heighten Tension – I recently binged all 7 seasons of Game of Thrones (the last season has been out for over a year now—so there are spoilers ahead). You know what this TV show does really really well? George Martin has crafted some serious underdogs and overwhelming villains and antagonists. It’s an epic, so there are several protagonists and antagonists.
The Lannisters rule everything pretty much, they are fairly formidable, right. They’re already the richest family and in political power when our story opens—and they have a future game plan for longevity. There’s a steady stream of good guys to cheer for and many of them die trying to defeat the Lannisters. As the series progressed, we see the Lannister power base dwindle, die off, get scattered—loyalties are tested and broken.
But just as we begin to yawn because the chink in the Lannister armor is too big to compensate for, the antagonist who’s lurked in the background for several seasons suddenly emerges and forces the board to rearrange itself. So, the protag team begins season 7 with the numbers to defeat the Lannisters, new allies, and three dragons. By the end of the season, their allies are dwindled and they’re down a dragon. What happened to the third dragon? The white walkers have turned it into a zombie dragon and it fights for them now. BOOM! The board always remains in the favor of the bad guys—the pieces on the board rearrange themselves according to the actions of the antagonist.
If there’s no struggle, if the threat of loss for the main character isn’t imminent and devastating, there’s no underdog to cheer for.
The Problem with Protags who Start Strong
Remember that however strong you make your hero/protagonist, your antagonist needs to be bigger, badder, more threatening, etc.
Superman is a fabulous hero, but his only weaknesses are kryptonite and his love for Lois. My son argues that Zod is a convincing threat (yes, my 16yo son talks plot and story arc with me if it involves superheroes or comic book movies), but in the first Justice League movie, the bad guys don’t show up until the Kyrptonian leaves and when Superman returns it’s game over. Even the bad guys know it’s over at that point.
You need a villain who’s more powerful, influential, smarter, etc. than your protagonist. The antagonist needs a head start on their evil plans.
Look at Daredevil and Wilson Fisk. Fisk has already got a criminal enterprise and a grand plan before Daredevil ever emerges in Hell’s Kitchen. Fisk has the money, the corrupt cops, the alliances, the influence, the larger-than-life persona to win it all and he very nearly does.
Look at Thanos (at least, what we know of him so far). Infinity War begins with Thanos having defeated the most powerful of the Avengers—Hulk. Thanos has a plan that was begun long long ago. The audience is primed already to know who he is, what he’s about, and how much closer he gets to his goal with each movie. And when Gamora believes she’s killed Thanos, she weeps despite the fact that she hates him.
“As an antagonist, Thanos surprises us with his many 'good' qualities, including his patience, his dignity, his compassion, and the 'philanthropic' motives behind so evil a mission as wiping out half the universe.” – K.M. Weiland
Be Sure You Have an Antagonist and Not Just a Story Obstacle
Sometimes things can get really muddled in story land, and as the writer it's hard to know exactly who or what is the main antagonist. Flip to the beginning of your story. What's the inciting incident? Whatever problem is caused by the inciting incident is the main story problem and whatever is causing or in opposition to the main story problem is the antagonist—generally.
A man is marooned on a mountain in a snow storm. What’s his main story goal? If his main story goal is to survive and get off the mountain, the snow storm (nature) could be a valid antagonist. If his main story goal is to survive the storm, get off the mountain, and kill the person who left him stranded on the mountain, then the snow storm (nature) is merely an obstacle to his goal. Do you see the difference?
An antagonist actively works to prevent the protagonist from reaching their main story goal.
The Difference between a Villain and an Antagonist
The antagonist is the source of the opposing plot movement, and they get to win quite a bit right up until the end of your story. The antagonist is a role. The villain is any character who opposes your protagonist. (Consider Disney’s The Lion King. Scar is the antagonist and the hyenas Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed are villains. The hyenas oppose Simba but don’t move the plot ahead. Do you see the difference?)
This construction happens in genres like romance a lot. In romance, often you have a hero and heroine who are at odds but must end up together. The antagonist must lose so neither the hero or heroine can serve that role. Instead, there are obstacles to the hero and heroine getting together, so who/what is the antagonist?
In Patricia Brigg’s novel Cry Wolf the main story problem is that Charles knows Anna is fated to be his mate, but she’s terrified of him. It doesn’t really matter what force is keeping your hero and heroine apart—that force becomes the antagonist, but there’s often an ancillary story problem that can have a villain.
Anna’s suffered past abuse and that experience and fear is what keeps her from committing to Charles. There’s a witch trying to kill Charles and his father, and Anna is central to the solution to the witch problem, but the witch isn’t the antagonist. The witch is the villain, but the witch doesn’t directly oppose the main story problem—the witch isn’t preventing Charles and Anna from getting together. Anna’s fear and anxiety are the main antagonists—this is the main story problem that must be overcome, the witch is a story obstacle.
So, for the story to have a satisfying ending, Charles and Anna must defeat both the witch AND Anna’s fear.
Is there an antagonist or villain that you love to hate? I think Loki definitely makes my top 5. Who’s your favorite antagonist or villain?
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Lisa Hall-Wilson was a national award-winning freelance journalist and author who loves mentoring writers. Fascinated by history, fantasy, romance, and faith, Lisa blends those passions into historical and historical-fantasy novels.
Find Lisa’s blog, Beyond Basics for intermediate writers, at www.lisahallwilson.com.