Monday, August 15, 2011

Develop your Antagonist

Do you have a great antagonist?

I've been seeing a lot of posts recently about antagonists, and they've been making me think (I love to think).

One of the things that makes a great baddie is the sense that this person might have been a good guy if not for certain small details of backstory. Some prime motivating event, perhaps, or a key element of character. This I find plausible because it makes sense for the antagonist to have quite a lot of strengths.

Another key element for an antagonist is a sense of vulnerability. I always loved that the dragon Smaug had a single scale missing in the middle of his chest - and was in denial about it. I mean, hey, that little flaw is awfully convenient for the good guys, right? But a good vulnerable point for an antagonist can be more than just convenient. It can be a major driver for that person's evil deeds: I know that I have this flaw, and that it may end me (whether a soothsayer has detected this depends on the story!) so I have to protect myself in whatever unethical way I can! Another possibility is to give your antagonist a flaw that also gives them strength. My character Nekantor is obsessive compulsive, and this is a real problem for him, but it also makes him very good at certain things like pattern detection (something of a bad guy version of Adrian Monk's situation).

But say you've got all this. Say your antagonist rocks in the evil, backstory, and vulnerability departments. Don't just set her loose in the story and let that be it! Not when you could be doing so much more.

This is what I mean by develop your antagonist.

Your antagonist deserves to have a fully developed character arc, as much as anyone else. Don't let her, or him, sit back in a corner and just do the same thing over and over to cause everyone trouble. Let your antagonist learn from mistakes. You've designed a creature of great power. Let it grow.

One way to grow an antagonist is the more common one: to let your antagonist react to ongoing events and have that change their attitude, their level of desperation, etc. We watched Kung Fu Panda 2 yesterday and it was a lot of fun to see Shen get more frustrated, angry and desperate as time went by, because that made his reactions more extreme and exposed his not-so-noble side. This is a great way to raise the stakes, because the antagonist will go farther and father in the attempt to prevail, making the task of the protagonists more and more difficult.

Lately though, I've been exploring another way to develop my antagonist - by letting story events increase his propensity for evil. This opportunity has come up because I'm working with a prequel-like situation, which is part of a much much larger story arc. So I'm actually in the middle of what was once my antagonist's backstory, and what it's teaching me is that antagonists don't need to be entirely reactive. They should be proactive, and they should be flexible in developing their strategies.

After all, how would the bad guys get to be so powerful if they couldn't grow and learn? Do they simply get to have other older bad guys willing to set them up in positions of power (how convenient for them)? But why in the world would big bad guys with power be interested in a new bad guy who could potentially cause trouble for them? There must be something awfully compelling about this small shark's characteristics that would make the bigger ones feel ready to risk meeting its teeth themselves. Why, and how, does an antagonist develop his skills at deception? Is it easy for him, or is it difficult?

If you can consider these questions, you may be able to bring an entirely new and exciting dimension to your antagonist.

It's something to think about.


  1. Ooo! These are great questions to consider, Juliette! Thank you. :)

    I have an antagonist now I'm not 100% satisfied with. He has a developed backstory and logical reasons for doing the evil that he does,'s not enough. Kind of like the way Nero was portrayed in the latest Star Trek movie. Having a sob story, looking scary and yelling while charging at people all the time with dangerous objects in his hands just wasn't enough for me. He still came across as flat.

    I look at movie baddies like the Operative in Serenity, or Joker in The Dark Knight, or Agent Smith in The Matrix....and these are like the best villains I've ever seen. It's like they've got some kind of special sauce that makes them awesome. It's not just their outrageously incongruent personalities and the crazy evil things they do; it's the combination of these things that contributes to their unique brand of evil.

    The Operative lives by a warped personal code of honor and he also kills by that same honor (I mean the paralysis/sword combo in a futuristic setting; how cool was that?); his personality directly influences his methods of evildoing. The same can be said for the Joker and his sense of humor, or Agent Smith and his articulate reasons for his perpetual loathing towards the Matrix and everyone in it.

    I think one of the problems with my antagonist is that his personality isn't jumping off the page like these other guys would. I haven't figured out a way to use his personality so that it uniquely and dramatically augments the horror of the evil he conducts. There isn’t a strong resonance between the two just yet.

  2. Wow, great point, and one I haven't ever thought about, tho it should be a no-brainer. A character arc for the villain, duh! I give mine motivation and try to make 'em well-rounded, but never thought about their growth throughout the novel. Thanks for the idea!!

  3. Great points! I love reading posts about antagonists because I'm terrible at writing them. For me as a reader, I think I care most that the antagonist has a plausible motivation behind his or her actions. Interesting point about letting the antagonist grow, too! Need to work on my antag's arc. Thanks for the food for thought. :)

  4. This post made me smile, Juliette. I love to see good, thoroughly developed villains, and especially villains who do so much more than just show up to hinder and react. I think I blogged about that a little while ago, but I lose track when it comes to villains. Either way, if they have depth of character, they'll make their own plans and start affecting the plot on their own.

  5. My antagonist took over my last novel. It turned into his story arc. I kind of liked it, too.

  6. You've nailed precisely the reason why, in so many stories, when the antagonist is done well, I like him better than the hero. After all, most of us fall short of being heroes. Maybe the flawed vulnerability of anguished evil makes the villain easier to identify with.

  7. Wow, thanks for all these great comments! I had an internet blip today and wasn't able to get back until now.

    Tiyana, thanks for sharing your favorite bad guys.

    Carol and linda, you're welcome.

    Hayley, thanks for the comment.

    Theresa, sounds interesting!

    Justine, that's very interesting. I don't have precisely that alignment pattern, but I do love a good antagonist.

  8. I really struggle with my baddies. Getting into their heads is hard, because I honestly don't understand their deeper motivations. Guess it says a lot about my world-view. But I keep working on them, hoping to eventually make them as cool as antagonists in my favorite stories.

  9. Jaleh, sometimes I have to spend a very long time working my way into a character. Years, even. I always find it a worthwhile exercise... good luck!

  10. Very helpful! I'm just at the point in Book Two of my fantasy trilogy (The Star-Seer's Prophecy) where I have to figure out what to do with my antagonist. He's got a vulnerability (a bad guy who is afraid of the dark!) and a story arc, but I haven't thought of how he might evolve further. Thanks!

  11. Thanks for the comment, Rahima! Good luck with your project.