What Makes A Great Antagonist?
It’s a timeless problem for authors of all shapes and sizes. How do you write a great antagonist that does not become a cliched cartoon villain? Can you write a character that the reader is supposed to dislike while also understanding and maybe even empathizing with him?
It is all too easy to fall into the trap of loving your protagonists so much that you neglect to give your antagonists realistic treatment. You want to emphasize what you think is important in your story and what the overall moral is, so you might be too obvious with it. Antagonists often fall victims to this and because you might not know exactly why people do what they do, they become cartoonish. Now in the past I have defended stereotypes and I still do, but there are ways that you can use stereotypes without sacrificing your characters.
Some of the oldest antagonists in mythology are deeply rooted archetypes and they appeal to us because their personalities speak to us. One of the best examples of this is the mysterious Loki of Norse mythology. He is the viper among friends, the one that will spread ill will just because he can do it, but there is also something deeper in him. We have all had those people in our groups of friends that always will be negative about everything and almost seem to sabotage your life. They seem to enjoy spreading misfortune and might end up destroying you and your loved ones.
I have mentioned before how the debate about Loki’s name and its meaning and how I think it might mean that it should have been locked away. This is a very great antagonistic trait. An enemy hidden among your friends that might sometimes ruin your good times. Loki often played this role to the other Norse gods, but he was also a very useful ally in some cases, like every time they needed to travel to Utgard, the home of the Ettins, but when the bitterness becomes too great for the antagonist, then he/she might use that intelligence to destroy those close to them.
This type of antagonist might be more common now in more socially realistic stories, but there is no reason why you cannot use it for your stories in other genres. A marooned spaceship or distant space station could always be a good setting for a great antagonist.
The more classical antagonist is the tyrant in the distance, like a dictator in any dystopian YA story. The problem with this character is that the motivation for antagonism might disappear in a haze of ideology and idealism of the hero. You could end up with a very flat villain if there is no depth to the character. If you include some POV chapters or dialogue that might tell stories from that character’s standpoint, it is easier to flesh out the character.
This type of antagonist is often more common in stories that explores dystopian settings and often can even be a system like in George Orwell’s 1984, even though there are occasional characters that work against the character’s goals, the main problem is with the system. It fits very well with a story where you want the constant presence of threat in the story or make some subtle ideological point. Making it a system is a challenge since it is often easier to personify the force working against the protagonist.
The hunter type of antagonist from such books as Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, are a great way of giving the chosen hero type a foil that might enhance the really good qualities of the hero on a quest, while also showing what could happen to someone who has hunted for too long. Even though he might not be classified as an antagonist, Captain Ahab from Moby Dick is such a hunter, someone so obsessed with a goal that he no longer sees the harm he is causing.
This type of antagonist can easily be used as a hidden antagonist and you can avoid using point of view chapters devoted with that character. This is actually one of my favorite types of great antagonist, because it adds a bit of mystique to the character and a lot more options to what drives him, but you as an author need to know what drives him to avoid making the character seem like it does not know what it is doing. Even minor hints to what it wants is enough.
Another thing you need to think about when writing antagonists, is how much like the main character you want the antagonist to be. Is your story about the challenge of falling for certain temptations? Then the antagonist needs to be one that understands what drives the protagonist and maybe even has been like the protagonist once. This can of course be revealed at some turning point in your story and it could also leave your hero in emotional turmoil.
Yet a way of making great antagonists is to look inwardly at yourself. What is it that might make you slip over the edge and into the abyss? Or maybe there was some event in your life where you felt slighted and could easily had gone to some place dark? I have personally had times when I could feel the shadow creeping in on me and I have often used my more extreme voice in my own writing. The voice that might tell you that it is okay to take vengeance onto those that have wronged you.
Now that isn’t always necessary, but the idea of tying your own doubts and fears into your writing can make it feel more alive. If you are writing something that matters to you a great deal, then the reader will love it even more if you include something more personal. Everyone relates easier to something that everyone fears and becoming gripped by something dark within oneself is always a universal human fear.
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