Crafting Your Antagonist
Edited by Megan Talia
We often assume our most important character is the main one. The hero. The person who saves the day and gets the girl/guy/binary person and walks off into the sunset leaving a warm feeling in our heart.
But that’s wrong.
The truth is our stories are about how our protagonist responds to what the antagonist is doing. Better yet, heroes are trying to figure out what is happening so they can be one step ahead and do what they can to save the day. Take Harry Potter, Avengers, and Tamora Pierce’s books for example. Each of those main characters are barely keeping up with the evil counterpart. It’s engaging and entertaining to read. But we forget that in our writing as we become focused on the plot, scenes with our main character, their relationships, and all the really awesome stuff we want to write with our hero in mind, that we forget about our villains. Our villains have a story too. They have motivations and past and at one point they were children who enjoyed playing tag with their friends.
Learning my antagonist was more important than my hero was something I found hard to accept when I wrote my first book—Queen of Swords and Silence. In fact, when I initially finished my first draft, I didn’t create a tangible bad guy for my heroine to defeat. In my mind, I thought myself very clever in the way I’d originally set the overarching plot of my series into motion. I kept thinking that way until my developmental editor sent me her feedback. Let me share one snippet of it with you.
“Another weakness in the plot is a definite antagonist. We have the Hunters as a nebulous entity. We have the Dreamer. We have mooks. But we don’t have a clear bead on anyone that is actively (through their own agency) trying to stop Ghost. (Again, she doesn’t seem to have actual limits, so her foe needs to be impeccable.) Because of this lack of a clear plot and foe, the climax is weak, and the end not satisfying.”
Ouch. That one hurt pretty deep. But she was right. I created an awesome character, gave her amazing abilities, and imagined all the ass she’d be kicking. My editor basically told me I created a Mary Sue. Character’s—people—need an antagonist to kick them down, give them challenges, force them to go through change. Readers like going through those challenges with characters. Being told I had a Mary Sue character with no antagonist to keep the story moving forward was brutal. I ended up scrapping half of my book and rewriting it.
The first thing I discovered was I didn’t know a damn thing about my antagonist as the author—my first mistake. He appeared as this dark shadowy figure in the corner pulling the strings of events and complicated my main character’s life. When I did the re-edit, I realized I didn’t know his childhood, what lead him down his dark path, what shows on Netflix he liked or even his favorite color. These are seemingly unimportant details, but his interests and his choices, shape his character. It crafts his motivation and ultimately my heroine’s destruction.
Determined to create a fully developed antagonist, I wrote his name and what little information I had about him and slapped it in the center of my thought board. I stared at him for a long time and asked myself a lot of questions about him. This was hard in the beginning because I didn’t even like the original concept I’d created for him.
And then it hit me. I was writing someone I didn’t like who did things I rolled my eyes at. If I was having this reaction to him, how could I expect my readers to be engaged with him or relate to his motivation?
So I scrapped it. All of it.
Rather than forcing myself to create something I didn’t enjoy, I made him someone I would like. I won’t lie, I modeled his reworking after someone I have great respect for in terms of manner, speaking, and gestures when it came to his personality. After finishing the surface level work, I altered his twisted history into something which could fit the personality. I’d established and examined his desires, goals, and drive and found someone I liked. Hell, I’d probably have a beer with him if the opportunity presented itself.
When I finished, I found that the villain I fleshed out had chemistry with my protagonist. They could easily work together, maybe be drinking buddies, if the situation was different. Which helped in his ability to thwart Ghost, use her, to fulfill his agenda.
He’d left the realm of being a plot device to make my character do something and became a force all of his own. This is what you should do with your own. He/She/It should never be doing something for the sake of the plot, but doing it because they have their own agenda and hero is the one getting in his way, not the other way around.
Yin and Yang
Another realization I found about my villain while I adjusted my outline was he was not on equal footing as my heroine. If I put them in the same room together, I was confident Ghost would ping-pong him off the wall with little effort. I needed to find a way to give him an edge which allowed him to combat my character on equal footing. And I am not talking about having a massive army or a lot of money—those are cliche and boring.
No, I had to find the Yin to my hero’s Yang.
One of my favorite Yin/Yang combos has always been the Joker and Batman (notice which name I put first). You have rich, serious and devoted Batman fighting off poor and comical Joker multiple times throughout Batman’s crime-fighting career. Batman represents order while the Joker is chaos. The two characters have a lot in common and the Joker is always trying to push Batman against his personal code and give him that “bad day” in which Batman is morally destroyed. People love the Joke for the threat he presents to Batman physically and internally.
In some shape or form, your opposing characters should be able to square off against each other and have a difficult time beating each other. If it is too easy for it to happen, then your reader will throw the book against the wall while screaming “C’mon!” You don’t want that. You want them to gobble up the pages wondering what will happen next.
I Can Sit Around… Forever
Something I’ve seen repeatedly over time are villains who sit around and wait. Sure, the antagonist has lackeys who do the grunt work, but that doesn’t mean your villain is sitting around playing solitaire while the work is getting done. I’ve lost track of times I read a story and the villain is a static figure who only takes action when the hero does something. Your evil overlord didn’t build his empire by waiting for others to do things. He took brutal, merciless action. Why would they stop doing it? They still have a name to maintain, fear to invoke, and power to collect.
Sitting around and doing nothing, ironically, was my villain’s problem. When I conducted the major overhaul of my outline in Google sheets, I created a column solely for my antagonist. I wanted to know what he was doing during the scenes, why he did it, and his desired outcome for those moments. In the original story, he did nothing. You only heard his name whispered, but he never did anything. That changed in the new outline. My goal was for my villain column to have more information than my actual scene synopsis. And you know what? It made a huge difference in the flow of the book. Your hero is responding to your villain, not the other way around, so take the time to know what they are doing and always have them do something.
The takeaway here is your antagonist should never be sipping tea and waiting for the hero to show up and give him trouble. Give them an agenda. Have them do things.
Special Evil Snowflake
“But Carrow,” I hear some of you saying “maybe that’s how your story works, but my antagonist was groomed to be the way they are since they were born. They were chosen by a dark god to be their avatar to ravage the land. Their only friends are rage and the cries of people they crush under them.”
Okay, so you’re telling me your character is an evil snowflake of specialness. Do they get a participation medal when they burn down a village? I’ll be the first (and not the last) to tell you something about that you may not want to hear: that concept is boring and cartoonist. Pure evil for the sake of doing evil things doesn’t interest readers these days. You remember back in the day when a guy with the bar handle mustache would grab the girl and tie her to the train track, but we never actually knew why he did it? Readers don’t want a typical mustache twisting evil person without any self-motivation or goals because they come off as flat and uninteresting. People are looking for an antagonist who has morals and beliefs they can identify with and feel conflicted when trying to figure out who to root for. Give them that.
Is your “antagonist” nature, war, a corporation, or nuclear fallout? Not society in sense, but a concept which represents the overall evil of humanity? It is possible, but if you want your story to revolve around a concept, you are going to need more.
If this is your first book, and you are trying to get published, your antagonist will need to be something the hero can overcome. You can’t beat nature, but you can beat someone in the story who wants to do your hero harm as they try to make it through the brutal wilderness while the zombies chase them. An example is “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gorgan” by Stephen King. We have a little city girl trying to find her way out of the forest and she’s not doing well as she faces mosquitoes, exhaustion, hunger, thirst… and something following her in the dark. If that last part excited you, then you’ll understand what sparks your reader’s interest.
One movie which could have brilliantly touched on the concept of human evil was Wonder Woman. Near the end of the movie when Wonder Woman vanquishes her foe, she expected humans to stop fighting, and you know what? They didn’t. I remember sitting in the theater and thinking, “Oh wow, what is she going to do now? Her ideals of humans are challenged at this point since they are still going to continue with the war. What will she do now?” And then the last part of the movie happened and I threw my popcorn at the screen.
I know there are strong counterexamples to my how your antagonist doesn’t have to be tangible. The Hatchet by Gary Paulsen is a story about a boy living off the land with no actual antagonist outside of nearby predators to overcome. It’s a great story (one of my favorites) but if you look up the author, it wasn’t his first book. He did several other works before tackling this and did so brilliantly. Gary had experience on his side when creating The Hatchet and was able to weave a story where the boy learned to live off the land while facing his own inner struggles. You have to really know what you are doing.
You antagonist is key to your story. It is important to put more effort into them than your hero. Readers have evolved away from Wal-Mart evil and crave depth with our villains. If you create a villain you come to love, your readers will as well. Put in that extra time and effort.
How do you approach writing your villain—your antagonist? Is he/she/it/they the first character you draft? The last? Or just some evil clown sitting in the corner twirling around a butcher knife?