Writing The Antagonist

© Copyright Arabella K. Federico


Writing The Antagonist That'll Make Your Hero's Blood Run Cold

Arabella K. Federico

How to take the typical archetype of "The Villain" and cunningly craft a terrifying Antagonist who's so perfectly tuned to torture your Protagonist, their blood turns to ice.

so what does the antagonist do, really?

To begin, Google defines Antagonist as: “A person who actively opposes or is hostile to someone or something; an adversary.” Well, shit…then that’s that, huh? Problems solved! Contrarily, not at all. This bland, blanketed description of such a vital character is probably one of the many reasons why the Antagonist falls so utterly flat in fiction. A good story has a powerful, exemplary, challenging bad guy-because nothing worth having ever comes easily-and your readers agree. They WANT to be scared this villain would and actually could do the impossible; win. What does “winning” mean for the Antagonist? It means your Protagonist loses. So the question then becomes: why does it matter if your hero loses? What’s at stake, so much that, by your Antagonist winning; your Protagonist loses?
Why does it matter?

So let's go back...

Firstly, if you’ve been with me for any amount of time, you know I am a huge proponent of crafting your characters with deep backstory, misbeliefs (The Lie they believe about the world or themselves), something they WANT and something they NEED. And a Truth they discover to bring it all home. I highly suggest you read my previous blog posts on Writing Your Dream Protagonists Part 1 & Part 2 for a deep understanding of this. But-here’s the secret that so many writers miss and it leads to boring and a bland Antagonist-they don’t craft them like the hero. For some reason, the villain is treated as a lower-level side character, therefore not as much development goes into them because of that. Big mistake. Let’s talk about why. 

Thanos. The Avengers

why the antagonist has to be AS developed as the protagonist

Secondly, in my Protagonist series, I talk about creating a hero who’s story is so intricate to the plot, that if you were to swap your specific Protagonist out with another character, the story and plot wouldn’t work. Similarly, when talking about the Antagonist, the same is true. A good, evil Antagonist is such because they specifically oppose the goal, beliefs/misbeliefs, or whatever it is the hero is fighting FOR. It’s not about the Antagonist being “bad” for evil’s sake. Everyone hates that type of villain. It’s about the Antagonist pushing back against the Protagonist in a way that’s contrary to the hero’s goals and belief systems. To the point that if you do it correctly, you now have a villain who’s so integral to the hero that if you were to swap the villain out, the story would fail to work.
Kylo Ren Antagonist

Antagonist Motivation

Thirdly, a great villain is so juicy because they aren’t merely an obstacle for your hero; they’re constantly in opposition to their goals-externally and internally. Ideals collide, beliefs differ, misunderstanding run rampant…but, why? Why is this person doing what they’re doing? Motivation is directly tied to backstory, and it’s hard to have one without the other. This person is going to be comin in so hot, so strongly, regardless of what your hero and their friends are doing. They must have their own lives, desires, and motives to be as great as you want them to be. I suggest asking your Antagonist a series of deep questions regarding motive, and why they want what they want so badly. Why is it important to them? How would they feel if they got what they wanted? What if they didn’t? Let’s talk below about how to craft this character in detail.

The Basics of character backstory & development

1./ Consider your theme when designing your Antagonist’s backstory/motive, because it’s a huge part of bringing that thematic truth to the reader. What do you want to say? What purpose, cause, or injustice are YOU-the writer-passionate about? How can a villain take that concept and either run with or distort it? Because whatever you choose should mean something, should make people ask questions, and the Antagonist is a great character to explore difficult topics with. 
2./ Identify within the villain’s backstory the painful moment in their past that caused a crack in their self-image or perception of the world. This should create a misbelief about something out in the world or within themselves. This is their “Lie”.

Who's your favorite Antagonist of all time? Leave it in the comment section below!

3./ Find at least three instances in their backstory where this misbelief is reinforced. We don’t form firm beliefs with one scenario. It takes certain events to collide repeatedly to form any belief-especially if that belief isn’t actually true. Make it believable to the Antagonist, and it’ll be believable to your readers.
4./ Now that their misbelief/Lie is all setup, what do THEY WANT? What’s the Antagonist’s goal and subsequent motive? After all…they’re the big baddy. THE bad guy of your story, so they need to seriously want something. And this want has to DIRECTLY interfere with what the Protagonist wants. Internally and externally.  It is NOT ENOUGH to merely have a villain who’s “in the way” of your hero’s goals. They need to be pushing, shoving, comin in HOT with a baseball bat to the face. 

a relatable antagonist is a scary antagonist

5./ Finally, will your Antagonist ever find what they truly need? I feel like the Antagonist is a tragedy in its own right, and most of the time they never manage to “get it”. To see the error in their ways. But finding a way to slide this true, “seeing the light” moment in there for them is a great way to humanize and empathize with the villain. This step is optional, but giving your Antagonist human and relatable qualities, needs, and motives is not. Most advice given on Antagonists, if any good, will talk about how relatability, empathy, and an understanding by your audience of your villain is necessary for them to be a successful one. So do it. Nobody is all evil, even your villain.

How to torment-the proper way

One of my favorite Antagonists, Pennywise the Clown, is a favorite because he knows how to TORMENT the Protagonist and other characters. Not just with his scary shape-shifting, but because he’s constantly able to find their biggest weaknesses and exploit them. In IT Chapter 2, there’s a scene where Pennywise is taunting a previously over-weight character. Though in present time this character is buff and beautiful, Pennywise knows he still feels insecure on the inside, therefore feeling unlovable and unworthy. It’s a 2-part system, crafting good characters and also crafting a villain who’ll find the cracks in their armor. It’s all about the internal conflict here, not about the external. Twisting and writhing a character’s deepest issues and insecurities is awful-and yet so painfully beautiful to watch. Remember, this isn’t as much plot related (external), but character related (internal). It’s vital to have this in your villain.

Pennywise IT Chapter 1 IT Chapter 2

see the antagonist as much more than "the bad guy"

In conclusion, what I want you to take from this blog that the Antagonist is AS important as your Protagonist. Every great hero is only as good as their adversary. Us as humans love polarity in stories because we live polarity in our real lives. Having a formidable bad guy for “good” hero only works because we see true evil in our own world. Additionally, works of fiction help all of us work through the true horrors of the world we live in. As the writer, your job is to mirror the real world in such vivid detail that it can be seen as real. Real enough for all of us to comprehend what evil really is, how it happens, why it is what it is, and how to deal with it. Your audience wants that duality, your audience wants to believe the hero can lose; and the villain can win. 

Thank you so much for reading! please comment below and share with your writer friends!

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