How to Write Stronger Antagonists

Creating Better Villains

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?

Yes.

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?

Creating Better Villains

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.

 

15 Comments


  1. // Reply

    Very good advice! I especially like the idea of the hero and the villain having similarities in their life journeys.


  2. // Reply

    Believe it or not, my favorite villain moment is from Barbie’s Swan Lake. The villain is in the middle of a battle with the hero and the villain’s daughter screams for help. He wants to keep fighting, but he stops what he’s doing to rescue his daughter.


    1. // Reply

      I like that this example shows that the villain has other interests other than pure evil. The daughter in distress is more important than the fight.


      1. // Reply

        Exactly! It made his character a lot more interesting. And it may have been the inspiration for my lead villain’s relationship with his daughter.


  3. // Reply

    I cannot think of a favorite villain… but I fully agree that you have to understand their motives (or if they are driven by lust, at least some remorse)… the shallow villain you find in some crime novels feel very unreal. One of my own favorite type of stories are those where the tables turn and the protagonist changes into antagonist and the other way around… if nothing else I think that shift of perspective can be a sanity check it it works….

    One the thing I like the least though are stories where I dislike all characters… a story filled with antagonists hurts to read.


    1. // Reply

      I like those types of stories too, Björn, where the protagonist and antagonist switch sides. It causes me to question why I assigned the roles to each character to begin with and to realize a series of events can change the way any character is evaluated.
      I have a similar dislike. I dislike when a stereotypical bad guy gets the lead in a story and all you feel is sickened by them because they have no redeeming qualities. If a reader can’t sympathize with the main character and understand why they are doing what they are doing and find something to like about them, then I think the wrong character was chosen as the lead. It’s hard to invest your time in a book when you don’t like the character with which you spend the most time.


  4. // Reply

    Great advice as always. I also like when prots and ants swap sides. But I love when an antagonist’s story makes you think, “yeah, if that happened to me, I’d probably be the same way…”


    1. // Reply

      I love finding myself rooting for the bad guy. Even hoping against hope that they’ll make a turn for the better. 😃 And like you said, there are times when they do something and you find yourself finding their actions justifiable.


  5. // Reply

    Great advice, Mandie. My all-time favorite villain is not from a book, but a movie: Tom Cruise in Collateral. He was a well dressed flawless killing machine, but he had a conscience when it came to the driver’s mother. I would’ve love to know more about his background, though.


    1. // Reply

      Thank you! That is the bad part about movies. A lot of times the background and character motivation gets glossed over due to time constraints.


      1. // Reply

        You’re welcome! Yes, so true. I wish they could’ve spend a little bit more time on the character’s background instead of leaving it to open for interpretation.

Leave a Reply