I received an influx of antagonist questions in the past few days, so I thought I’d compile my posts on the topic. I think I might have written a few others, but I think these are the most helpful. Thanks for your questions!
Understanding Your Antagonist
I’ve been getting a lot of questions about how to make an antagonist realistic/relatable without excusing their bad behavior. Many of the questions are afraid that giving the antagonist back story is a poor way to give the villain a “pass” for all the terrible things they’ve done. I’ve previously posted about antagonists and how you should focus on making them as real as your protagonist, which explains you need to develop their back story just as much as you would any other character. Here are a few tips that should help:
If you’re having trouble developing your antagonist, try to think about the story from their point-of-view.
For the most part, making your antagonist evil for no reason doesn’t make any sense. There’s usually a reason, even if it’s not 100% exposed to your readers. Everyone in your story should have a motive, just like they would in real life. Your antagonist thinks he is the main character. Your antagonist thinks he’s doing the RIGHT thing. Very rarely do villains with no motive work out or feel realistic (I know they have, but it’s a very hard thing to pull off). In the mind of your antagonist, your main character is stopping them from accomplishing their goals.
Discussing your antagonist’s bad childhood is not the same as trying to give him a “pass” for his evil ways.
You just need to find a way to interweave his back story without it feeling forced. If you say “He was abused as a child and that’s why he treats other people so badly”, your story will feel flat. Finding a way to show that information instead of telling it is very important. You don’t need to flat out say why the antagonist is so bad, but you should help the readers come to their own conclusions. For example, maybe your antagonist becomes furious when someone mentions something about their father. The readers will be able to infer that there’s been some sort of issue between the antagonist and their father and we might start to understand the source of their rage.
Like I mentioned before, developing a realistic past for your antagonist is the same as developing any other character.
Your main character has to have flaws and their flaws need to come from somewhere. I would suggest doing some research on real life serial killers and see what sort of places they came from. Sometimes it’s impossible to tell why people snapped, but there are usually some clues or some build up from that person’s past. You’ll get ideas for your own antagonist.
In order to make it seem like you’re not excusing what your antagonist has done, you need to remind the audience about free-will.
If your antagonist has a past that seems like he was driven into doing evil deeds, there needs to be actions your antagonist has done while making his own decisions. Your readers need a way to understand that your antagonist is capable of making his own choices and can also stop what he or she is doing. Having a sympathetic antagonist is not a bad thing, but you need to make sure your readers relate more with your protagonist. Your readers should usually want your protagonist to come out on top.
Why Bad Characters Aren’t Always Bad
This is a follow-up to my Why Good Characters Aren’t Always Good post, but this time I’m going to focus more on antagonists than protagonists. I previously talked about the differences between writing a strong character (well-written, developed, interesting) and writing a morally strong character. This time I’m going to talk about writing a strong antagonist that might also have strong morals. It’s important to remember that your antagonist will not always be wrong; they are just someone who opposes your protagonist.
Your antagonist won’t always do the wrong thing
Just like your protagonist won’t always do the right thing, your antagonist isn’t always trying to destroy the world. In fact, your antagonist might actually do the right thing every once in a while and they might be the one with all the right ideas. They might decide to save your protagonist, even if they don’t necessarily agree with what they’re doing. They might even side with your protagonists on some issues. The antagonist doesn’t always have to be out to completely destroy your protagonist, so keep that in mind. Take time to discover their motivations and how it will fit into your story.
Good vs. Good is an interesting way to think about characters
If you want to write an interesting story, think of your character conflict as good vs. good. Your protagonist thinks they are doing the right thing, but so does your antagonist in most cases. I know there have been cases when the antagonist is just an awful person, but most of the time they do think what they’re doing is necessary. If we find reasons to side with both your protagonist and antagonist, your story becomes very fascinating. Consider that both characters believe they are in the right.
Your antagonist might have the best intentions in mind
You protagonist is only the protagonist because it’s the character your story is focusing on. They’re the main character of your novel and the one we’re told to care about more. However, that doesn’t mean your protagonist is making all the right decisions and what they say goes. Your antagonist might also have the best intentions in mind. Some of the best stories are when your protagonist realizes that they might not have been making the best decisions OR when they see themselves in the antagonist. Remember, your antagonist might think they’re doing the right thing and they might intend to do something good.
It’s possible for your antagonist to care about your protagonist
Your antagonist and protagonist do not have to hate each other. As I mentioned before, your protagonist does not have to be the good one and your antagonist doesn’t have to be the evil one. They just oppose each other in some way. Usually whatever they want they can’t have unless the other one fails. This doesn’t mean that your antagonist can’t care about what happens to the protagonist. Stories become more interesting when the protagonist and antagonist have a relationship that goes beyond hating each other.
This post is intended to help you switch up how you look at antagonists, so hopefully you can explore this in your writing. Antagonists and protagonists come in many shapes and forms, so don’t always think one has to be “good” and one has to be “evil”. I usually think of the “wrong” character as the one who doesn’t change or develop throughout your story despite the information presented to them and the experiences they go through. Figure out what works for your novel and what helps make the plot most interesting/exciting.
Reasons Why Your Antagonist is the Antagonist
Any antagonist or villain that doesn’t have a reason for being the antagonist will come off as a flat character. Even if you know as the writer why a character is doing something, you need to find ways to explain it to your readers. When you reveal this information is up to you, but you need to do it at some point to make your characters relatable and believable. Here are a few things that might explain why your antagonist is the antagonist:
Looking at your antagonist’s background is always a great way to explain why they are the way they are. Think about how your character’s parents had treated them in the past. Maybe their father was busy at work and didn’t have time for your antagonist. Maybe their mother left the family or never wanted a child. Though these particular situations do not make people “evil” or “bad”, they do help shape your character. Build the individual situations of your characters and use them to help explain why your character turned out the way they did.
Again, family behavior doesn’t always negatively affect a person and turn them into something bad, but it might have an impact on your character. Try to only include information about this behavior if it has helped develop your character in some way. Or consider the reverse. Family behavior like a mother being too caring or suffocating might have caused a character to act out. There are so many ways to do it!
Outside of family behavior, your antagonist might have had some bad things happen to them. Maybe they were bullied when they were younger or there’s something they wanted badly that they never got. Looking into your antagonist’s personal background will help you understand a lot about your character. Were they constantly made fun of? Did they witness something violent that helped shaped them as an adult? If a character has felt weak at certain times in their life, they might want some control over other people. Consider these factors.
An antagonist might be an antagonist simply because they got caught up in something bigger than themselves. They might have heard something from other people and decided to join the cause. They might have gotten swept up in something they didn’t fully understand and gained power. Something might be so ingrained in them that they can’t see your protagonist’s point of view. A character can be susceptible to what everyone else is thinking, so conformity might be a factor that turns them into the antagonist.
If someone is in a desperate situation, this will definitely shape their behavior. Consider the idea that your antagonist is just as desperate as your protagonist. They need to succeed. If they don’t, maybe something horrible might happen to them. A villain doesn’t always do things just because they want to stand in the way of the protagonist. They’re not just simply evil. There’s always a reason behind their actions and desperation might be one of them.
Remember, your antagonist isn’t always the bad person; they’re just someone who doesn’t want to see your protagonist to succeed. Their ideals clash and they believe different things. You should develop your antagonist just as much as your develop your protagonist. Explaining why they’re doing the things they’re doing will help your readers understand what’s happening.
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