Fond Husband and I were talking the other night about antagonists. We’re both way into speculative fiction, but our tastes can vary pretty widely on what we like and don’t like. Therefore, I wasn’t too shocked when I learned that he doesn’t like a sympathetic villain. Personally, I love it when I feel like I can understand the bad guy, when I know exactly why they are the way they are and feel like maybe, just maybe, I could have walked that same path in those same shoes. (Note: I am not a sociopath. Honest.)
One thing we did agree on, though? Neither of us likes it when the antagonist is just contrary to be contrary. The mustache twirling villain tossing hapless maidens onto train tracks for the heck of it isn’t really our thing. Evil for evil’s sake is kind of lame. (And just to be clear, we’re talking about physical antagonists, not abstract ones. None of this really applies as well for a storm, or racism, or whatever.)
So I sat down after our chat and wrote up a list of the things that I feel like every believable antagonist needs, regardless of whether or not we can sympathize.
Background A protagonist can’t exist in a vacuum; neither can the antagonist. What made them this way? How did they get where they are? Just as a protagonist’s background sets the stage for them, so does an antagonist’s.
Personality Every character in a story should have a unique voice, little ticks and quirks and patterns that make them their own person, rather than just another place holder. I feel like this is especially important in the main characters, which I would definitely count the antagonist as.
Motivation This is huge huge huge for me. The antagonist must have an understandable goal. Even if it’s just to stay in power, despite the efforts of this punk protagonist, I have to know why the villain does what they do for me to feel like this is a real character. Cardboard does not have motives. Characters do. I feel like this is especially important in cases where the antagonist isn’t necessarily evil, like when the Lawful Good cop is trying to arrest the sketchy-but-heart-of-gold protagonist or whatever.
Menace This probably doesn’t really need to be said, but let’s say it anyway. An antagonist should be menacing. Readers should harbor some serious fear that the antagonist is going to really mess things up for our beloved protagonist, whether that’s ruining prom or enslaving humanity. Within the context of the story, stakes need to be high, and it needs to look like the antagonist just may tip them in their favor.
Power A power imbalance must exist between the antagonist and the protagonist in order for the protagonist to go through the kind of struggle that makes a good story. The story’s bad guy should stand on a higher power rung in some way (wealth, an army, powerful connections, whatevs), but on the other hand, they don’t need to be some über-powered demigod. Therefore, they also need…
Weaknesses Sauron’s tether to the Ring. Swarm’s entirely understandable difficulty with insecticides. The Emperor’s acceptance of a Death Star that has a design flaw you could fly an X-Wing through. If a powerful antagonist doesn’t have a weakness, it can make any ending where they lose feel implausible, and therefore a cheap plot push on the author’s part. So give your antagonist a weakness that is believable given their background, not so outrageous that they wouldn’t have taken care of it, and just enough of an edge that your protagonist can use it.
In closing, do you notice anything about this list? It’s pretty similar to the sorts of things that go into making a protagonist. In a lot of ways, the villain of the story is a lot like the hero; the two can be the flipsides of the same coin, even at times sharing remarkably similar features, but having simply made different choices. Because, after all, the antagonist is the hero in their own story.
Of course, there’s a lot more that can go into the crafting of a believable antagonist, but this is hopefully enough to get you started on a shiver-worthy baddie. Happy writing!
Wanna dive deeper? Here are a few links to other articles about antagonists! Enjoy!
Ken Miyamoto’s 15 Types of Villains Screenwriters Need to Know– all about the different tropes that most evil-doers fall under
Literary Device’s Antagonist– terms and definitions within the broad umbrella of, you guessed it, antagonists
Chuck Wendig’s 25 Things You Should Know about Antagonists– it’s, uh, what the title says it is