Character & POV
3 min read

How to write a great antagonist

An illustration of an antagonist in a novel

Whether you're penning a novel, novella, or short story, you'll find that your narrative could use a bit of spice – a conflict, a counterforce, a wall for your protagonist to hurdle over. Enter the antagonist. This article aims to delve into the art of creating a memorable antagonist, a character that's more than just an obstacle and is, in fact, integral to your protagonist's journey.

Understanding the antagonist

Before we dive into creating an antagonist, let's first establish who an antagonist is. An antagonist, in the simplest terms, is a character or a force that opposes the protagonist or the main character. They serve to create conflict and challenges, driving the narrative forward.

The antagonist often acts as the catalyst for the narrative. Their actions, decisions, and the conflict they create set the wheels of the story in motion.

Different types of antagonists

Antagonists aren't a monolithic group. They can range from a vile villain to a well-meaning individual whose goals conflict with the protagonist's. Recognising the variety of antagonists can aid in crafting a fitting adversary for your protagonist. Some examples of antagonists are:

  1. The Villain: This is your classic antagonist with evil intentions. They're often out to harm the protagonist or the world at large. Example: The White Witch in C.S. Lewis's The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.
  2. The Authority Figure: This antagonist represents a system or societal norms that the protagonist is in conflict with. Example: Nurse Ratched in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
  3. The Equal: This antagonist is similar to the protagonist in many ways, but their values, goals, or methods are in conflict. Example: Professor Moriarty in Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series.
  4. The Protagonist Themselves: In some stories, the protagonist's own flaws, doubts, or fears serve as the antagonist. Example: Jack Torrance’s inner demons in Stephen King's The Shining.
  5. The Friend-Turned-Enemy: This antagonist starts as a friend or ally of the protagonist but turns against them due to a misunderstanding, betrayal, or ideological difference. Example: Iago in Shakespeare's Othello.
  6. Nature or Fate: Sometimes, the antagonist isn't a person at all but rather a force of nature or a run of bad luck that the protagonist must overcome. Example: The harsh environment in Jack London's To Build a Fire.
  7. Society: In some narratives, societal norms, prejudices, or expectations can act as the antagonist. Example: The social constraints in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Crafting an unforgettable adversary

A memorable antagonist is more than just a villain. They're complex, multi-dimensional, and in some instances, uncomfortably relatable.

Crafting a relatable antagonist involves giving them identifiable motivations, qualities, and flaws. This deepens their character and makes them more engaging to readers.

Think of Iago in Shakespeare's Othello – his jealousy, cunning, and persuasive skills make him a complex and memorable antagonist.

Unpacking motivations and goals

An antagonist without clear motivations and goals is like a ship without a rudder.

Understanding what drives your antagonist and what they desire can make their actions and decisions more plausible and compelling.

Your antagonist's motivations can range from personal gain to ideological beliefs. Their goals should reflect these motivations and pose a challenge to the protagonist's objectives.

Consider Voldemort in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. His fear of death and desire for power drive his actions and set him on a collision course with Harry Potter.

Weaving a backstory

A well-crafted backstory can provide context for your antagonist's motivations, adding depth to their character.

An antagonist's backstory can humanise them, offering insights into why they are the way they are.

The backstory can include past experiences, traumas, or events that shaped the antagonist's worldview, motivations, and goals.

For example, the White Witch in C.S. Lewis's The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Her backstory, explored in The Magician's Nephew, provides context for her tyranny in Narnia.

Antagonist vs protagonist: The seesaw of narrative

The dynamic between the antagonist and protagonist is central to the narrative. Crafting a strong, well-matched antagonist-protagonist pair can heighten the tension and intrigue in the story.

Focus on balancing the antagonist and protagonist, and ensuring that your antagonist is a worthy adversary to the protagonist. Their strengths should challenge the protagonist, and their weaknesses should offer the protagonist some hope of victory. The antagonist's actions often shape the protagonist's journey, driving their development and decisions.

The confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist should resonate with their characters, be grounded in their motivations, and reflect the stakes established in the narrative.

Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty in Arthur Conan Doyle's detective series are an iconic antagonist-protagonist pair, their intellectual rivalry driving the narrative.

Antagonist vs villain: Clearing the confusion

An antagonist isn't necessarily a villain. While a villain is a character with malicious intentions, an antagonist is simply a character or force that opposes the protagonist. Knowing this difference can broaden your scope when crafting your antagonist.

Embrace the antagonist

Creating a great antagonist is like crafting a second protagonist – they need to be well-rounded, relatable, and integral to the narrative. Remember, the antagonist is a vital part of your protagonist's journey. So, embrace the antagonist, delve into their character, and let them shine in their own wickedly delightful way. Happy writing!