In a previous post, I discussed how monsters are different than other kinds of antagonists or villains.
Today, I want to talk about the most common of villains: the antagonist.
Simply put, the antagonist it the character or characters who’s motives act in opposition to the main character (protagonist). To create actual plot and tension, these characters need to interact on some level, preferably culminating in some kind of stand off and victory or defeat.
Of course, antagonists can be over-the-top Khan level villains, or can be subtle, someone just contrary to our main character’s desired outcome; someone their significant other has chosen over them, their boss, an intrusive neighbor, a paper boy demanding his two dollars, etc.
The most important aspect of an antagonist, though, is that they are not monsters – they are true, well-rounded characters, with thoughts and motivations and a whole reality belonging to them. Antagonists are characters that could be the protagonist in our story if were to tell it from their side.
They are tricky to handle because in all likelihood we won’t particularly like them – they are working against the story, and might be patterned after someone we know and hate (we all do it). Antagonists need compassion to be written well, if we want to cut past the tropic view of a maniacal bearded man rubbing his palms together in delight at the evil which he has wrought; that approach works okay in Disney movies and fairy tales when we can sum a villain up in titles like “Evil king” and “Wicked Stepmother ” but even these tropes can become fascinating and three dimensional if we write them well.
Antagonists are characters with a past – a past that has shaped them, their ideas, behaviors, morals. Often they are doing the things they do because they believe it is the right thing based on this past, even when it is truly evil seeming, or truly evil (we’re looking at you, Voldemort).
The more you understand your antagonist, the more believable your story will be (and the more the words will flow NaNoWriMo style). They need just as much, of not more, understanding and thought than protagonists. They might exercise irrational bouts of compassion at times (like Darth Vader saving Luke) or remain cold hearted until their lasts breaths (Severus Snape). They are human, and as humans are allowed to be a little inconsistent, just as our heroes are.
When we write from the point of view of an antagonist, it helps to remember this humanness. If they feel stuck or 2-dimensional, a good exercise is to think for a while as if the protagonist is the bad guy, and our antagonist is the good guy. This might be difficult – it isn’t easy to imagine the motives of a madman or genocidal dictator or Gaston (hate that guy) – but it pays off in realistic bad guys, and we can go back to hating them as we write from our main character agin.