As a reader we’ve all encountered an opposing force or an antagonist in our works, something physical which stands in the way of the heroes. Why is it then that it is so hard to get them right? What is it that separates a good antagonist from a bad one? This is something I’ve thought about a lot since I’ve started writing and so here we go. These are bits of advice for writing antagonists.
1) They do not have to be a villain.
It is common for the antagonist of the story to be the villain and to many the two words mean the same thing, but there is a reason why I am using the term antagonist as opposed to villain. In truth stories are complex and many times we can find ourselves following a protagonist who goes well and beyond anti-hero territory, actually becoming the main threat of the story. Contrasting them are antagonists who are actually quite heroic. These can crop up in any work but are especially common in works where the protagonist is either a villain or anti-hero.
Basically these antagonists are only an antagonist because they are forced to pursue the protagonist, usually if said protagonist is not on the side of the law, and are generally nice people despite this. These types of antagonists are usually quite well written and can serve to enhance a story. Not every antagonist needs to be a villain and if your protagonist is an anti-hero, villain or just on the wrong side of the law then this type of villain can add an extra dimension to the conflict which a typical cackling villain wouldn’t.
2) They must be a challenge to the protagonist.
A good antagonist should provide some kind of challenge to the protagonist, whether it be a physical challenge or a psychological one. The antagonist may be able to kill the protagonist, or otherwise be able to capture them. Or alternatively they could pose as a psychological barrier, which creates the threat. For example, Batman could take out a lot of his rogues gallery swiftly if he fought to kill but since he does not, he has an added challenge of having to talk them down or having to take them in alive. Likewise in Return of the Jedi, is unwilling to kill Darth Vader since Vader is his father. A good antagonist makes the reader wonder if the protagonist will be able to overcome them. Doesn’t matter if it’s a small time crook or an evil king with a powerful magical sword, they must make the reader ask the question: will the protagonist win?
3) A good motive is essential. Why do they do what they do?
A good villain also needs a good motive, whether they’re the vilest thing on the planet or someone with a bit more sympathy behind them. We’ve all seen the cackling villain who is evil for evil sake and to be honest they’re somewhat boring. Even the most vile villain should have a reason for doing what they do, and more importantly their behaviour, personality and flaws should reflect this motive. The question you need to ask yourself is why are they doing what they’re doing? Does their motive alone explain their actions, or is there something else explaining their more antagonist actions, for example anger issues or a complex of some sort? Simply put, your villain needs to make sense more than anything and be more than just an archetype with no sense of purpose beyond being villainous.
4) They can sometimes be a personification of the real threat.
Sometimes there is no real antagonist driving the conflict the story, but rather circumstances, and the antagonists are merely something the protagonist encounters during the course of a larger adventure. Stories such as Finding Nemo, feature the vast ocean environment as the main driving force of the conflict, and the individual antagonists are animal personifications of the dangers posed by said environment. The real antagonist isn’t always something you can see, and as a result it may be better to have a series of smaller antagonists which represent dangerous circumstances or a dangerous environment. The antagonists of the story are instead tests for the protagonist, whose overall conflict is with something much larger. One does not necessarily have to write the antagonist in this way, but it is a reminder that sometimes the antagonist doesn’t have to drive the story but rather be a part of it, an obstacle to overcome.