Every great story needs both a protagonist and an antagonist: it’s the conflict between these two characters that keeps the audience invested and pushes the plot forward.
What is an Antagonist?
In simple terms, the antagonist is ‘the baddy’. Every story has a protagonist (usually the main character) and a contrasting antagonist.
In fiction (especially thrillers), this figure often reoccurs throughout the novel. It could be a physical battle against a political force such as in The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood (although Fred Waterford is the major assailant). Conflict may also come in the form of inner turmoil or moral ambiguity. Here are some examples of famous antagonists:
The Joker in The Dark Night
Darth Vader in Star Wars
Voldemort in Harry Potter
Captain Hook in Peter Pan!
Why do we need an antagonist?
Without a challenging obstacle, the hero would get what they want without any fight, which is no fun! The antagonist not only creates tension but also makes the MC (main character) more interesting and their victory more rewarding. They provide a comparison with, and further depth to, your protagonist – showing their weaknesses as well as their strengths.
It is just as important to flesh out the antagonist as it is to create a compelling main character.
Writing a great Antagonist
A good antagonist is one who is complex and multidimensional. They have their own motivations and goals that are just as important to them as the protagonist’s goals are to them. They should be relatable in some way so that the audience can understand why they are doing what they are doing – even if they don’t agree with it.
Another quality of a good antagonist is that they are a worthy adversary for the protagonist. They should be just as smart, cunning, and capable as the hero, if not more so. This creates a sense of tension and suspense as the audience wonders who will come out on top.
A good antagonist is also proactive. They don’t just sit around waiting for the hero to come to them – they actively work to thwart the hero’s plans and achieve their own goals. This creates a sense of urgency and raises the stakes for the hero.
Finally, a good antagonist is memorable. They should leave a lasting impression on the audience and be someone that they remember long after they finish reading!
Give them a painful backstory
Not all antagonists are pure evil. Some can be very complex creatures. They have suffered such pain that they act out of a place of emotional pain as it hijacks their humanity and ability to empathise with others. They may suffer from some mental health illness or have suffered abuse themselves. Something in their life has damaged them.
In The Joker, we learn that his disturbed psyche is due to the mental illness of his mother and the loss of his childhood. You may not choose to write the backstory of your antagonist, but you need to be aware of it.
The baddy who is not all bad can often be the most dangerous one!
A sympathetic antagonist is one where the reader can understand why they’re committing the evil acts they do. The character believes that events from their past make their actions appropriate. It could be they were betrayed, suffered at the hands of someone, or lost a personal battle of some sort. Whatever the cause, this antagonist believes in their cause to right a wrong, by whatever means. The reader is drawn in, despite morally being on the side of the MC.
How to write – Consider giving them some positive traits. Make them appear charming, funny, pitiful, or perhaps family-orientated.
Ronnie, in my book ‘The Hoax’ has certain qualities that people admire and is charismatic, and yet paradoxically he is quite unlikeable. The practical jokes he plays on people seem harmless and fun to him, and yet they cause psychological damage to his son James and ultimately lead to his own downfall. He is, however, unaware of the damage and harm he creates.
Types of Antagonist
A wicked individual or force is often attempting to bring harm to the hero. In a thriller, this could be the stalker or revenger – somebody who holds a grudge for a long time and perhaps makes scary phone calls to the main character who could be an ex-partner they want revenge on. It could also be a man who has become obsessed with a female character and follows her every step, hoping to ruin any relationships she has.
The Conflict Creator
This tends to be someone like Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice whose ambitions directly contradict the protagonists.
Or Valjean and Javert in ‘Les Miserables’. They are not necessarily out to harm the MC, but their goal differs from theirs.
A Force of Nature
An example of this is Cormac McCarthy’s novel, ‘The Road’. It depicts a dystopian world where the protagonist struggles against its limitations. The dystopian world is the main antagonist. Another example is Alfred Hitchcock’s story, ‘The Birds’, where the birds are the antagonist who menace with humanity. In both cases, nature serves as the antagonistic force.
Hero of their own story
Their delusional way of thinking often means this antagonist cannot see they are the villain. Their actions may seem downright wicked to the reader but in their mind, they are doing the right thing.
They operate in black and white. There is no grayscale in their world. Good is good; evil is evil.
My current work in progress features several antagonists who are hindering my protagonist from getting her material ready for publishers before the deadline. Additionally, there is a parallel story where ‘Thelma’ is a hard-hearted mother and Sister Agnes is like an image from a horror film as a strict, unforgiving nun of a convent. Moreover, there’s ‘Fedora Man’ who’s stalking the MC, and she can’t make sense of his presence. She receives anonymous threats and hatemail, with the added complication of losing Kitty, who is the elderly lady she meets in her café.
This should be the last part of the creation of your antagonist. Their mindset, motivation, backstory, and intentions are by far the most important things. But writing their physical descriptions can be great fun.!
You can give them clear dermatological features – the nun in my current WIP has a scar from her harelip and thick angular brows pulled upwards by her habit.
You can give them clear disfigurements and flaws such as twisted fingers, broken veins,verrucas, dull-looking eyes, rank breath, and so on. How do they laugh? What is the sound of their voice like? Do they have facial hair or other physical features that betray their vices and indulgences?
A cruel and revengeful person would harbour stress in their body that may make them round-shouldered – even hunch-backed. They would have a pinched look that perhaps depicts their internal bitter thoughts, and would certainly never smile!
A good antagonist should have depth and complexity. They should not simply be evil for the sake of being evil. Instead, they should have motivations and reasons for their actions, even if those reasons are misguided, flawed or evil. This makes them more relatable and human and adds an extra layer of nuance to the story.