The villain of a story can be every bit as important as the hero. Many times, however, the antagonist becomes a stereotype of evil whose only role in the story is to put obstacles in the way of the protagonist.
But is there a better way?
While the demands on an antagonist may differ depending on genre, here are a few things to consider when sketching out your next antagonist or when editing your story to make sure your villain has enough depth.
- Parallel journey to the protagonist. Often times, the journey of the antagonist and protagonist are similar. Sometimes the main difference is the decisions they make in response to something. The good and evil between the two characters are more connected than the casual observer might realize. The protagonist has both good and evil traits as does the antagonist.
- Go beyond stereotypes. A stereotype might be a good jumping off point for a character, but if you end there, your character will feel shallow to your readers. Antagonists need to have their own quirks and personality traits that make them an individual. Giving an antagonist depth is just as important as giving your protagonist depth.
- Motivation. One key factor in going beyond stereotypes and making a deeper, richer antagonist, is to show their motivation. And, I can’t stress this enough, your antagonist’s main motivation shouldn’t be that they want to be evil and it shouldn’t be to ruin the protagonist’s life.
- Think about it this way: What is your antagonist trying to get/achieve and how is the protagonist getting in the way?
- Justification for their actions. No one does something thinking, “This is evil and wrong, and I’ll be a horrible person if I do it, but I’m going to do it anyway.” Everyone can justify their actions. “He deserves it because…” “I need this, and she’s trying to keep me from it even though it means nothing to her.” “The life of one can be sacrificed for the greater good.” There are a million different rationalizations people make in their everyday lives, and antagonists are no different. They are fighting for something, and they’ll justify their actions in any way they can, which means, they don’t think that what they are doing is wrong or evil. They probably even think they are the good guy and the protagonist is the evil one.
- Give your antagonist one final check. Here’s a good exercise: Flip your story and follow your antagonist as if they were the protagonist.
- Are they interesting enough to carry the story?
- Can you understand why they do what they do, even if you don’t necessarily agree with it?
- Does your antagonist have weaknesses? More than one vulnerability is better than just one weakness. Things that make them pause and possibly reconsider their actions. Events or interactions with other characters that make them question their justifications.
- Are they redeemable?
Not every question or tip here will be applicable to every antagonist, but pushing your characters outside of the box they are stuck in will help strengthen and deepen them while making them more memorable. Antagonists are sometimes the most interesting characters in stories, so they deserve as much care in crafting as protagonists.
I’d love to hear about your favorite villain from a story. What attributes made them stand out? Please feel free to add any other ideas on what makes a strong antagonist in the comments. I only covered a few elements, so it’d be great to hear from you.