Writing tips for a great antagonist
A classic antagonist can turn a story from Good to Brilliant. We love to hate the person who does everything in their power to thwart the hero. We despise them even more when their actions and words make them cruel, despicable creatures as we await their inevitable downfall. If they revel in their dark deeds, they represent the worst aspects of human nature. We see such actions in the world all the time but they are not always resolved in the way our ethical norms demand. It's different in stories usually, the antagonist is inevitably confronted by justice in one form or another. As readers we need to be satisfied that Right will prevail over Wrong.
But how to create such a villain? One that is equal to the protagonist and presents such a huge threat, we cannot predict how they will be defeated. Of course, defeat, justice and retribution may not occur. They may be too powerful. What then? In my research I've found some useful advice from a range of experts which I hope you will find helpful.
Antagonism as a force
Robert McKee, author of the seminal 'Story Seminar', is on record as saying, “A protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.” His point is a simple one: the force of antagonism defines the protagonist. They should be more than just the villain of the piece. This force can appear in lots of ways - some of them I've listed below. But the message here is that the force is more than the villainous character, it is everything brought to bear on the protagonist. The story comes down to how the protagonist weathers the force of this storm. After all, it is only by surviving it that they change.
There is a wonderful irony in the way the protagonist's flaws can be changed by this process. Remember the old (and inaccurate) adage? "Pressure is what turns coal into diamonds." In the best stories, that pressure is generated (and sustained) by antagonism.
To illustrate this point, the greatest such force for me, resides in the character of Felix Jongleur in Tad Williams 'Otherland' novels. He is powerful, the head of a mysterious and ruthless organisation whose influence goes beyond conventional forms of authority. They can do whatever they want. Instantly, the force of antagonism is mega-powerful. However, as a character Jongleur is vile. A murderer and sadist, he operates outside humanity's values of morality. He's a psychopath (covered later in this post). Throughout the story his actions heighten the need for our heroes to succeed. Yet, we can never see how that will happen. The guy is unstoppable.
The Writer's Takeaway: Antagonism needs to extend beyond the character of the story's villain. It may not be down to them being in a position of power. The force may be psychological, they erode the protagonist's state of mind. They gaslight. They feign ignorance or pretend. They charm and win others over to their cause (look how popularist politicians do this!). Empower your villain with something beyond themselves.
The Antagonist and the Mirror
The danger facing the writer who wants to create a great villain, is to make them so bad, they lose credibility. They commit terrible acts of cruelty, say awful things, threaten to destroy the world even. Things that can make the reader yawn because we don't see them as credible. They turn into actions we'd expect from the moustache-twirling, cloaked villain of Victorian melodrama. There's the classic debate about Iago, in Shakespeare's Othello to include here. There is a reference or two to Iago's repressed homosexuality and his racist motives but, as one of the best villains in the canon, the actor isn't given a great deal to work with when it comes to playing the antagonist of this story.
The point I'm making here is another simple one: the antagonist must appear real by reflecting some of the awful qualities we see around us. They should embody what is terrible about human nature. The writer needs to hold up a dark mirror to our race and use what we see there.
For me, in my writing and in the books I enjoy most, I want to see something of the real world there. They may be speculative in nature but that doesn't stop our characters from being human. Isn't it this quality that causes us to engage with them? We see others in their words and deeds; perhaps we see something of ourselves too. But we engage with them because we recognise them.
To illustrate? Voldemort in the Harry Potter stories is a dark reflection of the hero. His past is similar, his motives too. He's the Hyde to Harry's Dr Jekyll. In Star Wars, the same is true for Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker. It is his past experiences that haunt him enough to carry out awful deeds because he's gone over to the Dark Side, unlike his children who remain in the Light, having suffered similar, life-defining experiences.
The Writer's Takeaway: If the reader is to engage with the antagonist, they must be recognisable. They must be credible. We need to know they are real, that people really could behave like that. We may even have seen it for ourselves (eg. on the news). Hold up that darkened mirror and see what's in it.
I'm a big fan of Jon Ronson. This investigative journalist's books include The Psychopath Test. It is fascinating as well as chilling. It defines the psychopath in ways that go beyond the traditional archetype of serial killer we see in films and TV. I won't go into lots of detail about this topic, it will detract from the central message. Qualities of a psychopath can include:
a good education and can be respected in their career
a tendency to control others, to be highly manipulative
highly controlled, even repressed, behaviour
an inability to form emotional attachments with other people
a willingness to take risks in order to achieve specific goals
an obsession with achievement and success
Thinking back to my earlier point about antagonism as a force, this is where the psychopath has a role to play. These qualities play into this role perfectly, don't they? These qualities, when directed against the protagonist, will often turn out to be successful because they've been carefully planned. Think about how the protagonist can be manipulated - as well as others around him/her. They are strategic thinkers with major goals and an obsessive focus on achieving them. That inability to relate to others, to lack any form of empathy, allows them to commit terrible crimes without hesitation.
Some illustrations of psychopaths in literary fiction? I'd nominate Amy Dunne in Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl for a start. She happily manipulates others, lacks the emotional attachment too. There is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in Patrick Suskind's Perfume too, where smell becomes the force of anatagonism. And that chilling line from Anton Chighurh, "When I came into your life, your life was over," is a product of Cormac McCarthy in No Country for Old Men.
The Writer's Takeaway: When it comes to plotting the narrative, the psychopathic antagonist is of great value because they manipulate the reader as well as the protagonist. Their lack of empathy allows them to do awful things to others, it offers the validity that might otherwise evade us. Jon Ronson's book highlights how certain politicians might qualify in this category. It's worth exploring this personality dysfunction to identify assess the ways you can make this person credible.
The Antagonist's Flaws
The ultimate question the writer needs to consider is this: how does the protagonist defeat the antagonist at the end of the story? If the two are so well balanced throughout the story, it propels the plot to an exciting climax. So, what upsets that balance? The answer is - the antagonist's greatest flaw. Two things to consider here:
The flaw must be visible to the reader from an early point in the story - but not obviously so. This requires subtlety. If the flaw is an arrogant underestimating of the hero, we need to see an example of this early on.
The flaw needs a backstory. Why is this character like this? What has caused the flaw? Perhaps it has developed, hardened, deepended over time?
Simple flaws may be forged out of greed or jealousy, any of the seven deadly sins! They may be the result of a traumatic experience, useful if you want your readers to engage with the baddie. Perhaps they are corrupt? The obvious one is a need for power. (That might take us back to the psychopath!)
The flaw may be a weakness. This offers you the option of having an external force which weakens or destroys the baddie. If Superman was a villain, kyrptonite would be the way to defeat him. This is a trope to approach with caution. Telegraph this weakness too early and the reader will spot it. Do it too late and the plot becomes contrived, the reader disengages. Timing and credibility is everything here.
Some examples: Voldemort's fear of death is one I like. On a different level, in Snow White, the evil queen's vanity is what defeats her eventually. Vanity is the flaw of the horrible Ginevra Fanshawe, in Charlotte Bronte's Villette, who tells the protagonist she can have any man she wants because she is so beautiful. And then adds, "I would not be you for a kingdom."
The Writer's Takeaway: The central source of conflict in the story is the battle between the Hero and the Baddie. There is a balance to maintain here. It is eventually tipped over to help the hero win when the baddie's flaw is identified and used against her/him. Like all character flaws, it must be credible, visible throughout the story and natural.
Sympathy for the Devil
So far this post has focused on the antagonist being someone who challenges our ethical and moral values, a baddie, a villain. But what if they're not like that? What if they are someone whose actions are driven in other ways. They become a character for whom we feel sympathy? If you're not sure what I mean, let me illustrate by using Hamilton, the stage show (and book originally). While Alexander Hamilton is the protagonist, the antagonist is Aaron Burr, the man who kills Hamilton in a duel. The story is about the battle these two men wage against each other to influence the way America should go as it establishes ints independence from Great Britain. Burr is no villain. Indeed, he is on record as consistently saying, "My friend Hamilton, who I shot." When it comes to analysing the cause of the conflict, it resolves around one issue - Burr's lack of support for Hamilton's measures, his reluctance to commit.
To expand further then, what happens in your story when the two main characters are friends? Or even worse - siblings or family members? This might complicate the dynamic of the balance of power - big time! Who do we, the reader, support? Does that support waver over time? You might even consider the idea of using the concept of the Unreliable Narrator here. Who is right? Who is wrong?
Want some more examples to stimulate your thinking? For me, the ultimate sympathetic baddie has to be Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley. He's the underdog but his wit and resilience allow him to succeed. Sure, he murders people but, well, poor guy! Then, despite the creepiness of the character, there is The Collector, Frederick Clegg, created by John Fowles. He's deluded sure, but a character who craves affection. And we can't exclude another classic from Luke Jennings, Villanelle from Killing Eve. This assassin is witty, endearing but tragic, her past defines her so should we blame her for being trained as an assassin at such a tender age?
The Writer's Takeaway: The balance of power between the two characters is nuanced here. Less of a battle perhaps, more of a change of emphasis as the relationship develops. Moral dilemmas may be toned down here to give way to the choices characters make - and the impact those choices have on the other person. The protagonist may not be so goody-goody either. I'd add this consideration too - what if this sympathetic relationship opens the story and slowly deteriorates? That's really going to mess with the minds of your readers!
A Question of Perspective and the Antagonist
Finally, I've saved the most perplexing question till last. When telling the story, whose perspective do you use?
Third Person - you're telling the story from a narrator's perspective. In this way, the balance between the two characters can be maintained quite easily. You might want to include sections which focus on each character, so the audience get their perspective in whatever way you want to share it.
First Person - more complicated surely? Do you have both characters telling their versions of events? Or does the reader only hear from the protagonist? In which case, there is an obvious bias here. Is that what you want?
Some considerations on these perpsectives:
Telling the story from the villain's perspective explains their motivations. It can increase tension, the reader knows something the hero doesn't. That's fine if the hero is going to fail, get caught etc. It allows us into the mind of the villain and that might be a very scary place. Or it might be somewhere that generates the sympathy we've just talked about. But is it sustainable? Do you risk making the baddie someone who we like? Or someone who is so downright horrible they lack credibility?
Is there a danger the balance of power between the two characters becomes so complex you lose your readers? Or do you risk losing some of them because they're rooting for the 'wrong' character?
Is there a danger you might reveal things from the baddie's perspective at the wrong time? This will affect the build up of tension. It risks throwing your readers out of the story too.
I've mentioned the concept already but it's worth repeating here - Unreliable Narrators are a useful asset in First Person perspectives. You can generate sympathy here but you can also keep your antagonist in the shadows for longer. You can perform a plot twist, switching between the two if that is a way to surprise your readers.
Your story might want to focus on the balance of power itself. In which case, the characters are there to illustrate the shifts in that balance. There are several plays I can think of (Alan Ayckbourne does them well) where the story unfolds from different character's perspectives. This takes some serious plotting to work. The advantage, for the reader, is that one event in Character P's tale is seen very differently when Character A picks up the narrative. For example: The sacking of Character Z, the lazy good-for-nothing, is an act of much-needed self-confidence by Character A. However, Character P's perspective focuses on the mental health crisis of Character Z who is now out of work and unable to support their family. Who is the baddie here?
My final consideration, which works better in Third Person, is the invisible influence the antagonist can bring to bear on the protagonist. It may be political, economic, emotional pressure. The character may lurk in the shadows so the reader doesn't meet them for some time. This offers a good way to build tension - understanding the more you build up the antagonist, the greater the readers' expectations of that character.
The Writer's Takeaway: The selection of perspective is vital. It's not only a question of whose story are you telling? It's also going to include - what is the message in the story? Who's wrong? Who's right? Anyone? The First Person perspective will get us into the head of the protagonist and that might be where the story lies. But remember, it limits the reader to knowing much about the antagonist. Does this sustain the balance of power? Does it ensure that 'force' we mentioned at the start will exist? It's probably easier to do this with a third person narrative but it may lose some of the reader's engagement with the protagonist. Decisions! Decisions!
One reason for researching this topic was for my new WIP. The plot still isn't clear to me. All I know at this stage is these two characters are brothers and they are estranged. The opening came to me in the middle of the night! I had to write it down and, as a result, it has developed into two chapters and I am thoroughly intrigued by where the story might go. That said, what I did know was I wanted to explore the idea of sibling rivalry as the antagonistic force. As brothers, I imagined them striving to outdo each other. My protagonist is in his twenties, a chancer, a good-for-nothing and disowned by the family. His older brother has power and wants more of it and goes to great lengths to obtain it. This dynamic has me wondering what's happened in their past to forge their characters and their dysfunctional relationship. I'm excited to see where all this leads me. However, critical to this process was understanding the role the antagonist can play in a story, hence my research. I hope you find it as useful as I have.