“Antagonize,” meaning to work in opposition to someone. Every story needs an antagonist, someone who opposes the protagonist, an adversary. Antagonists generate conflict and often foil the hero, contrasting the protagonist and highlighting the hero’s traits. But why are antagonists necessary? They are the main source of conflict the hero will face, and that conflict carries the plot forward. They create tension, which engages the reader. And they force the hero to grow and develop.
Read on to discover:
- The misconceptions about true antagonist characters
- Antagonists aren't always what they seem
- The good guy doesn't always beat the bad guy
- The antagonist doesn't even have to be human
Misconceptions about antagonists.
Many misconceptions exist about what it means to be an antagonist. Contrary to popular belief, they do not necessarily have to be evil or a villain. In Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, one of Raskolnikov’s main antagonists, Police Official Ilya Petrovich, in fact gets Raskolnikov to confess to murdering his neighbor and puts the dangerous man in jail, thus protecting society—though his actions are at odds with Raskolnikov’s ambitions to get away with a perfect murder. Keep in mind, while antagonists don’t have to be villains, this does not make them antiheroes. An antihero is a protagonist who lacks conventional heroic qualities and might have less-than-heroic motives for doing good deeds.
Antagonists aren't always what they seem
Antagonists can be both complex and relatable. Even villains can have redeeming qualities. Take Allie’s mom in Nicholas Sparks’s The Notebook. She’s responsible for keeping Allie and Noah apart for years, but her motivation was to protect her daughter. She wanted Allie to have a secure life with a good man rather than letting her daughter throw away her future for a boy. And in the end, it turns out Allie’s mom had a very similar past, though she chose a different path in life. So, while her actions hurt Allie and Noah’s relationship, her intention was good.
The good guy doesn't always beat the bad guy
The protagonist doesn’t need to defeat the antagonist in the end. There are many ways to resolve conflict, and some conflict doesn’t mean going head-to-head with someone. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Wickham winds up marrying Elizabeth’s younger sister to resolve the scandal of him running off with her and sullying the family name. Thus, the offense is reconciled without having to kill or defeat Mr. Wickham.
Antagonists don’t even need to be a person.
An antagonist could be society or even something within nature, like the racism found in Toni Morrison’s Beloved or the ocean in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. And stories can, and often should, have more than one antagonist. In Beloved, Sethe not only faces racism but also has to contend with the spirit of her dead baby, Beloved, who comes back to haunt her. And Pi isn’t just stranded out at sea after a shipwreck. He also has to share his life boat with a tiger.
There are many different types of antagonists:
- the classic villain
- conflict generators
- larger organizations, nature,
Even the protagonist can be an antagonist in a way. Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series, by J. K. Rowling, is a perfect example of the classic villain. His main goals throughout the books are to kill Harry and subjugate non-magic people under the rule of wizards.
Conflict generators, have fewer inherently evil motives, though their goals directly oppose the protagonists. Severus Snape is a perfect example of a conflict generator. While he and Harry Potter don’t have a single kind word to say to each other through all seven books, and often Snape catches Harry breaking the rules and proves determined to punish Harry, in the end, it turns out that Snape loved Harry’s mother and is doing everything he can to save Harry’s life and defeat the dark lord.
Antagonist organizations tend to have more social inequities that challenge the protagonist, like the Capital in The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, which culls twenty-four children from the twelve districts each year and puts them into a bloody battle to the death to determine a victor.
Nature can be an incredibly effective antagonist. For example, the wild in Into the Wild, which ends up killing the protagonist, Christopher McCandless, after he ventures out into the great unknown on his own. Or the white whale in Moby Dick that destroys Ishmael’s whaling ship and kills all of his comrades.
Internal antagonists, while less common, are not impossible to achieve. Mr. Hyde in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a wonderful example of how a person can be their own worst enemy. He is the physical manifestation of man’s inner monster, and Dr. Jekyll strives unsuccessfully to keep him in check.
So, how do you write strong, interesting antagonists?
Make them complex and multifaceted.
Give your antagonists reasons for their actions. Show how they became who they are and why. They could be a loving husband and father who’s become obsessed with bringing down the protagonist’s company after his wife was killed while working for them. Though the protagonist may only see the antagonist as someone who will destroy their livelihood, the reader will know the reasoning behind the antagonist’s actions and will sympathize with his pain.
Recognize what type of antagonist will create the most effective obstacles for your protagonist.
For instance, if your protagonist values loyalty above all else, make her friend an antagonist who betrays her. Not only will this strike directly at your protagonist’s beliefs. It will challenge the protagonist’s own sense of loyalty toward their one-time friend and bring into question what it means to be loyal.
Make your antagonist’s strength match the hero’s.
If your villain is too weak and easily defeated, the story will end too quickly, and the reader will leave less than satisfied. On the other side of the coin, if your antagonist is too powerful, and the hero can’t possibly rise to the challenge, then letting your protagonist win in the end will seem inauthentic and unrealistic. Find a good balance between your protagonist’s and antagonist’s strengths and weaknesses: pit a fire wizard against a water mage.
Give the bad guy a weakness
Along those same lines, give your antagonist a weakness or vulnerability. Make the antagonist concerned for the safety of their sidekick. Vulnerabilities make the antagonist more relatable and complex. It humanizes them as well as leaves an opening for defeat.
Be sure to make your antagonist’s motives compelling, relatable. A woman who wants to take back the crown that was stolen from her has the motivation to redeem herself, to recover what she once had. But if she wants to take back the crown because she wishes to end all the inequity that has come from the new reign, her story becomes much more engaging.
Raise the stakes
Use your antagonist to raise the stakes. What horrible thing would happen if your antagonist succeeded in their goals? Perhaps society would cease to exist or people would lose their freedom. When everything is on the line, the tension is greater and the resolution more compelling, so don’t be afraid to have your antagonist go to any lengths to achieve their goals.
Strong antagonists sell books because they increase the conflict. This catches reader interest. They make the protagonist’s success at the end far more enjoyable, and people want to read about overcoming adversity. So, by making your antagonist complex and compelling, carefully selecting them to match your protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses, and increasing the stakes, you’ll have an antagonist that will sell books.
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