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How To Write Compelling Antagonists

Other than your protagonist, your antagonist is going to be the most important active force in your story.


by K.M. Weiland

The antagonist doesn’t have to be a person. It could be weather, circumstances, or the protagonist’s inner self. But, more often than not, the antagonist takes the form of a person. And crafting that person into a memorable and compelling character in his own right is vital to the success of your story.

Your antagonist needs to summon up reader emotions that are just as strong as those felt for the protagonist. Hateable bad guys will deepen reader sympathy for your protagonist. But, beyond even that, bad guys with whom the reader can identify to at least some degree are bad guys who will make him squirm even more.

Let’s a take a look at several categories into which your antagonist may fall, so you can choose the best one for your story.

Your antagonist needs to summon up reader emotions.

The Immoral Antagonist

This is easily the most popular form of antagonist. The bad guy is one readers will have no trouble hating. He is usually set in clear contrast against the good-guy hero. The lines are drawn in varying shades of black and white, and readers have no problem choosing whom to root for.

Hypocrite:

The hypocrite is an antagonist who feigns goodness. He may be guilty of all sorts of treachery and evil, but on the surface he’s all honey and sunshine.

He puts a righteous face on his misdeeds (perhaps even accusing the protagonist of hypocrisy to disguise his own), but the reader knows the truth: this guy is not just bad, he’s a fake. And we hate him all the more for it.

Psycho:

A mainstay of horror stories, this guy is just evil all the way through. He has no excuses, no thread ofgoodness leading him back to redemption. He’s just bad. And crazy on top of it.

Serial killers, genocidal world leaders, and sadists fit the bill to a T. Not only do readers hate psycho bad guys—they’re scared to death of them.

Regular Person Forced to Do Bad Things for an Illegitimate Reason:

Most antagonists—in life as well as fiction—aren’t mustache-twirling, maniacally laughing whackos.

Most of them are just regular Joes who have let their weaknesses get the better of them. Lust, greed, and hatred can drive even ordinary people to do extraordinary evil.

The bad guy is one readers will have no trouble hating.

The Moral Antagonist

In the moral antagonist we find a more complicated—and often more compelling—character, since he presents more parallels than contrasts with the protagonist.

This is a person who is doing the right thing—as he sees it—and usually for the right reasons, but who has nonetheless been forced to do battle with your hero, thanks to the requirements of your story’s overall conflict.

Good Guy on the Opposing Side:

Not all stories are going to offer an epic battle between good and evil. Sometimes the conflict will allow good people with opposing views to appear on both sides of the battle lines.

Lawyers fighting each other for causes in which they each believe passionately, football teams competing for a championship, two love interests trying to win the same girl—none of them have to be inherently bad. Stories of this nature can provide all kinds of interesting possibilities for exploring the gray areas of life, relationships, and morality.

Crusader:

The crusader can be an insanely scary bad guy in his own right. This is someone who fiercely believes he is doing the right thing, and indeed he may well be fighting for a good cause.

He may be someone who believes he has to choose between the lesser of two evils in his decisions. Or he may be someone driven to fanaticism—and thus dangerous decisions—by his passion for his cause. In fact, he may be just plain out right, while the protagonist is the one who’s wrong.

Regular Person Forced to Do Bad Things for a Legitimate Reason:

Sometimes even essentially good people end up doing bad things because they feel they have no choice.

A character who robs a bank to pay for his wife’s operation or to save himself from the Mafia’s threats may be a hero in his own right—or he may be a compelling and relatable antagonist to the detective protagonist who has to go after him.

The possibilities for your antagonist are every bit as vast as they are for your protagonist. The more time you spend creating a character who can properly oppose your hero, the stronger and more compelling your story will be.

Antagonists should be just as well-rounded and believable as your heroes. Don’t settle for anything less than brilliant!

 He may be just plain out right, while the protagonist is the one who’s wrong.

-K.M. Weiland

 

[box]K.M. WeilandK.M. Weiland is the author of the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn.

She enjoys mentoring other authors through her writing tips, her book Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration.[/box]


Photo Credits: Stock XChng, K.M. weiland

About the Author

KM Weiland

Comments 10

  1. Great post! In my first book, I have a moral antagonist, but I never really thought of a label for him. I’m getting ready to start a new book and this post is helpful in that I haven’t yet decided who the bad guy is.

    1. Bad guys can be even trickier than protagonists, if only because most of us don’t relate to their motivations. If we can give them a motivation that makes sense, we’re on our way to creating someone memorable and compelling.

  2. Certainly a comprehensive list of permutations. I believe the best villains (antagonists) are those that are true believers of their cause and that have a shred of goodness – even honour – in them. I find audiences are truly fascinated by a villain that believes in himself and that has redeeming qualities at the same time. Another vital thing is that the antagonist must be a real prover of your protagonist’s true worth. Just like the finest steel is forged in the hottest fire, the best protagonists are proven by a villain that pushes them to the utmost.

    1. Absolutely. A namby-pamby villain whom the protagonist can run over any time he wishes will never present the conflict to create the necessary character arc in the main character.

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  6. Serial killers, genocidal world leaders, and sadists fit the bill to a T. Not only do readers hate psycho bad guys—they’re scared to death of them.

    Not true.
    My friends LOVE psychos in books. They are really interesting. And pretty neat. My main character in one of my stories is insane like that, and hundreds LOVE him.

    Case in point, this is not entirely accurate.

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