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.
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.
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
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 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?
You can get a copy of my book Method Acting For Writers: Learn Deep Point of View Using Emotional Layers here.
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.
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Thank you Lisa, I hadn't made that distinction between villain and antagonist in quite that way before. And knowing what the antagonist is would help establish genre (in a Story Grid sense) - this has given me lots to think about!!
The villain I love to hate: Hannibal Lecter. Though Agent Smith (The Matrix) could be up there... And Loki's always fun 🙂
Oooh - yes! I love Hannibal. He’s just so genteel and cultured and intelligent.
Timely post! Your excellent clarification of antagonist and villain just saved me a lot of heartache!
Oh good. Glad it was helpful. Yes, getting this right as early as possible saves a lot of rewrites.
My favorite antagonists are the sneaky ones, like Eve in the movie All About Eve or Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca—you don't know exactly what they're up to, but you know it's bad. And yes, they feel justified and have their own moral code. Love those points you made! Those great tips help us craft three-dimensional "villains," instead of stereotypes or caricatures. Thanks, Lisa!
I love it when a beta reader gets mad at me for getting them to like the antagonist or villain in a story. I feel like I've done my job then. 😀
I think that is why I absolutely adore Dexter. He is a villain, the hero, and the antagonist to his own journey and everyone else's, sometimes all at once. Excellent post. Thank you.
Dexter is actually at best an anti-hero or even a villain protagonist. He's someone you find interesting, but I'm not certain you really cheer for him. IDK - that's my perception. You'd never want to have Dexter over to your house for instance.
I've only seen a couple of episodes of Dexter, but it seemed to me like the antagonist was actually his personality disorder - the psychopathy. The story obstacles would be the morals his father imposed on him and the laws and technology that might apprehend him. I might be totally off-base, but that was my impression on just a couple of episodes.
That's a pretty fair read and analogy on Dexter.
Thank you so much for these specifics, Lisa. Putting the difference between Antagonist and Villain into words is very helpful for me. Truly appreciate this. All best to you in 2019!
Glad you found it helpful! Breaking things down into smaller pieces often makes them easier to understand and apply I've found.
The Lion King example really made things clear. Excellent teaching!
Awesome! Thanks for stopping by!
You bet! ?
Wow, this was super helpful as a new writer! Helped me get unstuck and come up with options I've never considered!
Yay for getting unstuck. Happy writing!
Obstacles, antagonists and villians - thanks for the clarity. I needed that 🙂
Many thanks, Lisa.
Helps to break things down into small pieces sometimes. 😀
Wow, I never even knew there was a difference between a villain and antagonist, Lisa. Thank you!
And for all the great info. Saving this one.
Awesome. Glad you liked it.
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I have to nominate Magneto from the X Men movies. He wants to wipe out homo sapiens, so he's a Class-A bad guy -- but! His backstory as a Holocaust survivor helps us understand both his hatred and arrogance.
Yes - Magneto is pretty good and that holocaust backstory really helped me understand why he did/thought the things he did.
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Very informative. I'd love your feedback on having more than one antagonist, and especially when one of them seems evil to the core. It was difficult to make him out so evil, and I felt a need to at least sprinkle bits of humanness into his character; he's so evil, some may not notice.
In the back of my mind I've known his story will come to light at some point. My instinct is to let it flow. But I wonder about readers, if they'll come along for the ride. Do I force myself to wrap things up into a pretty bow, or do I allow the story to unfold naturally?
Sorry for the tardy reply. I would say it's partly a question of genre. If you're writing romance of any sort, readers want the happily ever after ending. They want it to end on a positive ride-off-into-the-sunset happy bow.
Other genres allow for more gritty or ambiguous endings, but you do need to resolve the main story problem or there won't feel like there's any closure for readers.
Can you have more than one antagonist? Sure. Just remember that the more complexity you add, the more plates you have to keep spinning. I don't know how George RR Martin keeps all those plot and sub plot lines going - so many threads to keep tight. Even the BIG antagonist is Game of Thrones has a backstory, an explanation for why he is the way he is. It's always best to have 3 dimensional characters both protagonists and antagonists. IMO
love how feelings can be the obstacle and an antagonist of sorts
Yes, there's lots of room for creativity and complexity. Often though, when the true antagonist is an internal conflict of some sort -- often a villain or another antagonist that can yell back is helpful.
This is a terrific and most helpful post. Brilliant use of Disney and Marvel as teaching tools. I have been concerned about my protagonist and I believe your post here has helped me. I will have to watch Dexter. Your label of Dexter as villian/protagonist may be a good example of my character. My story arc doesn't have characters who oppose him. As in Dexter, it seems to me, my protagonist's antagonist has always been his personality disorder (The psychopathy) In Nico's case it is abandonment by a drug dealing/using absent mother, his father left them, he also fell into the drug ring unwittingly as a child, he was abused, and then his mother dies of AIDS. He is sent to America where he uses his charisma and manipulation to survive. When he is shot and nearly killed (drug related) he begins the cycle of the hero's journey. First home to Buenos Aires and on to Peru for spiritual healing. In each place he is tested but not by clear-cut monsters. They are tests of character and morality. Does he need to fail as you have written in the post? Is this enough? The authors I look to for this inner struggle and search for a reason for being as well as to overcome fear and affliction are John Williams/Stoner; James Salter/All That Is; Philip Roth/The Zuckerman stories; Richard Ford/Independence Day; and Murakami/Kafka on the Shore. None of these protagonists are as damaged as my character Nico. Might you have any reading suggestions for me?