Every hero needs a villain. Every protagonist needs an antagonist. More than that, every great story needs a great antagonist. Why? The antagonist is often the engine for the plot. His or her desires come into conflict with the hero’s (or heroine’s) and must be overcome in order for there to be victory, freedom and cake.
Of course, not all stories work that way. Sometimes the antagonist isn’t a person. If your heroine’s stranded in the desert, then her adversaries are the harsh conditions in which she finds herself. If your story is your protagonist’s struggle with loneliness, then the antagonistic force is provided by his emotional state. In cases like these, the antagonist is less a negative force that must be overcome than an absence of positive forces – a void that must somehow be filled. This kind of tale’s a great way to delve into your hero’s psyche, but we’re not here to talk about that today. We’re here to talk about flesh-and-blood villains.
So what makes a great antagonist?
Like most storytelling concepts, there are plenty of schools of thought on this particular topic. You can (and people do) write pages and pages in answer to that question – sometimes self-contradictory, sometimes confusing, sometimes a vehicle for wit that never quite seems to make it into their actual novels. But today, I’m going to bypass the theory, get straight to the point and focus on three simple answers.
Give ‘Em a Goal
First of all, a great antagonist has to want something – a goal your reader can empathise with, every if they don’t agree with the method by which it is to be reached. You know the phrase ‘every villain is the hero of his own story’? Well, it’s like that. While the comic villain who wants to destroy the world ‘because’ has his place, such characters seldom last without a ‘why’ to their ‘what’.
However, this goal isn’t what the hero’s trying to prevent – it’s the motivation behind what the hero’s trying to prevent. The disease, not the symptom. The physical progress towards said goal may be realised by assassinating the BoBo Ambassador and plunging the Twelve Realms of Eee into endless war, but endless war shouldn’t be your antagonist’s goal. Your antagonist wants what endless war will give him or her.
Marvel’s Thanos is a good example (at least when written by creator Jim Starlin). When Thanos snuffed out half of the universe’s population, it wasn’t capricious – it was a means to an end, namely to prove himself worthy of his love, Death. Not death as an abstract, but the actual physical personification of Death herself. Thanos’s nihilism stems not from a maniacal hatred of life, but from a desire for acceptance from the one being he actually loves. While it’s hard to condone his methods, it’s possible to empathise with them. We’ve all been there, at one time or another.
Better yet is if your antagonist wants the same thing as your protagonist, but pursues his goal in a flatly incompatible manner. Sticking with comics for a moment, the relationship between Professor X and Magneto is compelling because they genuinely want the same thing. Both are fighting for their people – Magneto simply has a wider definition of who the enemy actually is. Magneto’s power as an adversary isn’t about his raw, physical threat, but because every clash is a test of Professor X’s faith in the course he’s chosen.
Make ‘Em Likable
No, this doesn’t mean your antagonist has to be a nice person. Nonetheless there should be something about him or her that the reader’s drawn to. Something that makes them think ‘aww, if only they were a good guy/gal’. Consider this the counterpoint to ‘give your hero a flaw’.
One way to go with this is a tragic backstory™ – making an antagonist likeable by evoking sympathy through some long ago trauma. There aren’t as many options for this as you might think. Most boil down to three broad categories: Dead Family, Abusive Family, and Enemy Country/Faith Destroyed my Family. I’m not a fan of this approach, because all you’re really doing is highlighting the fact that your antagonist hasn’t been strong enough to overcome his or her demons. And if that’s the case, what right have they to be your protagonist’s personal demon?
No, I much prefer to have an antagonist who has plenty of admirable traits. Remember, your antagonist is just a protagonist who’s ended up in someone else’s story. Quoting from the classics: ‘Just because you are bad guy, doesn’t mean you are bad guy.‘ Make her honourable, charming, scrupulously honest. Make him courageous, self-sacrificing, hard-working, funny. There’s nothing more effecting than to see great gifts used to ill-purpose. It’s the principle of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’.
The reason so many Star Wars fans hope for the return of Grand Admiral Thrawn isn’t just because he was a great villain – it’s because he was a likeable character. Thrawn was shrewd, focused, an instinctive leader. He was brave, honourable and working towards a necessary goal: uniting the fractured galaxy against a greater threat. Sure, he did this as the de-facto ruler of the Empire, and his methods could be considered underhand and brutal, but had things been a little different, we’d have cheered for him. Most of us still did.
Give ‘Em a Personal Connection
I’ve already touched on this a little bit, but if your story revolves around the direct conflict between protagonist and antagonist, then consider giving them a history together. Yes, this can be a romantic history if you so choose, but it can be almost anything. Family. Love. A Soldier’s Bond. Shared Trauma. It’s something that made your protagonist and antagonist the same until that singular event drove them apart. Do you have to show your reader yon event? It’s up to you. Sometimes it’s better to hint, and let him or her draw their own conclusions. The important thing is that both protagonist and antagonist know what it was. It shapes them, and binds them close even as it pushes them apart.
This idea’s hardly new. It forms the underpinnings to a goodly amount of classical literature and folk tales. Half the conflicts in Arthurian myth centre around personal bonds gone sour – notably Arthur/Lancelot, Arthur/Mordred and Merlin/Nimue. And that’s before we start on Thor and Loki in Norse mythology.
Beyond the benefits a personal connection brings to your antagonist, consider what it does for your protagonist. Wielded properly, the what and why of the differences shape both sides of the coin. What was the pivotal choice that made the two follow opposed paths? What shared character traits made one the hero, and the other the villain. Why did they diverge? The answers may surprise you. Make sure they surprise your reader.
Bringing it all Together
Let’s end with an example of a great villain: the iteration of the Master in the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who, played by Roger Delgado, and created by Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts.
This version of the Master oozes likability. He’s charismatic and witty. He has great intellectual and physical strength. He’s courageous. It’s just as shame that he’s also deeply, deeply amoral (if such a thing is actually possible).
Why is he so amoral? We don’t know. But we do know he and the Doctor share a similar history, having gone into exile from their homeworld. They were even at school together. They were friends. We don’t need to know, because that sense of shared history is palpable whenever they share a screen; that sense that they could almost, perhaps, maybe be friends again. That the Doctor might redeem the Master, or even descend into the same amorality. This adds an extra spark to every confrontation – the possibility that one or both might not leave that encounter how they entered it – because, ultimately, they’re more similar than they are different.
As to a plan? Well, even on a charitable reading of the evidence, the Master doesn’t really have a goal. Whenever he shows up, it’s to take over the world, or destroy it, because evil.
Except, that’s not really the case.
There’s a straightforward formula to every Pertwee/Delgado confrontation.
1) The Master shows up.
2) He seeks to control a powerful alien force in order to dominate the world or the galaxy.
3) Despite his best efforts, the Doctor can’t actually stop him.
4) The alien force turns on the Master.
5) Working together, the Master and the Doctor defeat the alien menace.
This happens every single time. Why, if the Master’s so brilliant? It’s because taking over the world isn’t really the goal. His goal is to prove that he’s better than the Doctor. It’s a game. And it’s a game he constantly wins, even while seeming to lose. It’s the core of the character, and was sadly lost as other actors, writers and script editors made their mark.
Delgado’s Master is a great antagonist because he wants something we can all empathise with: to prove that he’s better than an old friend turned maybe-enemy. He drives the plot. We want him to win, even though we know we shouldn’t. Faced with that, the Doctor, our protagonist, has to work all the harder. He has to be smarter, more likeable if he’s to keep the audience engaged. The very presence of the Master challenges the Doctor to be better, to be worthy of his role as protagonist.
And that’s what a great antagonist does.
And speaking of great antagonists…
There’s still time to pledge your support to the Evil is a Matter of Perspective Kickstarter – an anthology of antagonists, desperate to set the record straight (or at least play said record at a different RPM).
Fifteen authors, myself included. Fifteen adversaries, Shadow of the Raven‘s Lord Solomon included, and all manner of exciting stretch goals waiting to be hit. Why not head over to Kickstarter, and show your support.
I’m sure Solomon and the rest deserve it. After all, they’re only trying to make our heroes better.
Interesting blog post. Personaly though I’ve always held that there are two sorts of ‘antagonists’. There’s ‘Villains’ (which this article deals well with) and there are ‘Monsters.’ Which don’t quite fit into the mould. They key difference is ‘villains’ are, in some way, relatable. Monsters are less so, if at all. To use an example – The Master is a great example of a Doctor Who Villain. The Darleks are a great example of a Doctor Who Monster (at least in old school DW, less so the recent series). The Alien out of Alien is probably also a good example of a Monster. I don’t know if you watch any of the Marvel shows – but another good example is Daredevil’s The Kingpin is very definatly a Villain. Wheres as Jessica Jones Killgrave is more of a Monster. The main difference between them is one has motivations, personalities even methods we can comprehend and even empathy with. The other is a mindless, alien, murderous thing. Villains may inspire dislike, even hatred, but they’re still people. A monster (which in fairness tend to be things that more often occur in Horror than anything else) is terrifying because it is so completly alien to us, pshycologcialy. So unstoppable in whatever melavolent desire it has. I’d add in that perhaps the Villain part resonates with interpersonal conflict – which is to say one human being dissagreeing, all be it violently, with another. Monsters harken back to something more primal, something that cannot be reasoned with. That’s my theory anyway.
I’ll go most of the way with you on that. While I agree monsters and villains are different, I’m not so sure that monsters are antagonists in the most focused sense. Daleks, zombies, escaped dinosaurs and the like lack agency – they don’t choose their actions. Put a Dalek in the same situation fifty times, and you’ll get the same result fifty times. Effective enough for a lot of storytelling, but not as compelling as, say, put the Master in the same situation fifty times. As monsters, Daleks are primal forces, crucibles which force the human(ish) characters to confront their own natures, or an antagonist within their own ranks (Power of the Daleks and Death to the Daleks are both good examples of this). Davros, however, is a great antagonist. (Even if he does tend towards the ‘power because I want it’ end of the spectrum).
Daredevil’s Wilson Fisk is a fantastic antagonist, full of empathic desires and drives (while at the same time I’m still not really sure what Matt Murdock stands for, at least as presented by the TV show). As to Kilgrave, I’m on the fence. His character’s never explored, but I can’t shake the feeling that’s down to a lack of focus in the series’ middle episodes. There’s a faltering attempt to put Kilgrave through an arc, but the writers seem to lose interest in it almost immediately. Kilgrave in the (non-Alias) comics? Definitely a monster, so perhaps I’m being a little harsh on Netflix.