5 Traits of a Good Antagonist

The term “good antagonist” seems an oxymoron (even though many fictional antagonists are just as in the right morally as the protagonist). However, you should make your antagonist as well-rounded as possible. You don’t want to make him impossible to defeat, but you don’t want the protagonist to walk all over her either. To make your antagonist as balanced as possible, and entertain your readers, here are five tips.

1. Molded to the protagonist

There has to be a reason for the antagonist to oppose the protagonist. Either the protagonist stumbles on to the antagonist’s plan, or the antagonist is trying to stop the protagonist from achieving his/her goal. One of my favorite authors, James Scott Bell, divides this “engendering bond”, as he calls it, into four categories: a reason to kill, a moral duty, a professional duty, or a confining environment. The antagonist will oppose the protagonist if he/she is trying to do things right, is going against the antagonist’s role, or is simply in the same area.

2. Is complete, not a caricature

Stereotypes are hard to overcome, especially when our greatest influences used them (or created them). However, we need to pay just as much attention to the antagonist as the protagonist. The villain needs redeeming qualities, even if only to confuse us. Your villain should preferably not be a manifestation of evil itself. This is true whether the antagonist is a person, God, nature or whatever you choose. He should also have flaws, even endearing ones, and a sense of morality. Think of it this way: your antagonist is doing what seems right to her. The protagonist is the enemy.

3. Has a goal (that needs to be stopped)

Ah, yes, the immortal “evil plan”, another of the countless villain stereotypes we must tackle. We need to create stakes, but not too much. Sometimes, you care more about one guppy in the bowl than all the fish in the ocean. To apply this, your antagonist’s plan should stray away from ruling and/or destroying the world as we know it. Your antagonist’s goal should be small enough for your protagonist to adequately destroy without resorting to team/international ex machina or “Mothership” tropes where if the leader is killed, the minions fall apart. If you’re still dead set on a larger evil plan, you can plan multiple books, in each book dismantling a piece.

4. Has secrets (that need to be revealed)

Both your protagonist and antagonist should be hiding things, from each other and even their allies. Both of these secrets should be discovered before the end of the book. Traditionally, the protagonist’s secret is revealed first, leading to reversals, but the protagonist bounces back and finds the antagonist’s weakness. However, the antagonist’s secret can also have a negative effect if it is found out. Perhaps it is information that the protagonist did not want to know.

5. Has a justifiable backstory

There is a reason that many villains have extensive fan bases. Not only are they just “cool”, but we, in a way, know where they’re coming from. Even if we disagree with their opinions, we still see from their point of view. Coupled with their well-rounded personality, it helps create all of those fun gray areas. One way you create these gray areas is through backstory. If something happened to the antagonist in the past to make him this way, we sympathize more with her.

A good antagonist can make or break your story. Showing too much favoritism to your protagonist isn’t going to help. Take some time to craft your villain. Your readers will (probably) thank you for it.

One comment

  1. I am not a fictional writer so reading your piece is super interesting for me. I do enjoy reading fiction and based on my experience I defiantly agree with your assessment. Many literary scholars say there are no new characters because they will all fit the same archetypes/stereotypes. I imagine that’s why it is really hard to develop an authentic character. However, your comment about giving them flaws, even endearing ones, struck me as absolutely right. Maybe you can’t make an entire new or unique character but if you make someone who is real and relatable then they will feel original. Thank you for your insight!

    Like

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