Out of all the characters that exist in a story, antagonists are the most difficult for me to get right. Too often, I find myself in danger of falling into the trap of writing an antagonist that is too obviously bad, usually to the point where the character just falls flat and becomes a 2D character. I did this a LOT during my early writing days, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was a major reason why all of those early unpublished manuscripts I wrote were rejected by every agent I sent my work to. Even though I think (I hope!) that I’ve improved from creating antagonists that are “too evil”, it’s still something that I have to take a lot of time to develop. Along the way, I’ve picked up a few thoughts about what I like in a bad guy.
To me, villains in stories have a little more leeway than protagonists. Unlike a story’s heroes, the villains might or might not have a character arc, or they might or might not be empathetic or likable to the reader. Villains can come in a wide variety of flavors:
- Some are like the Eye of Sauron. The muhahas of lit. Distant, generically evil, bad, probably not even human.
- Some are Fascinating Crazies. Hannibal, or the Joker. In these cases, they’re interesting because of their mysterious, twisted views and their relationship with the protagonist.
- Some are broken souls turned dark by some tormented past, but with shades of gray in their persona. They also sometimes have a character arc, one that might involve redemption (Anakin Skywalker, I’m looking at you). These are my favs.
No matter what type of villain is in my story, though, I always try to remember: From the antagonist’s point of view, s/he is the protagonist.
It’s more fun when the goals and aspirations of the antagonist are just as logical and compelling as the protagonist’s. Who’s right, the hero or the villain? For example, in Watchmen, the villain states that he is willing to kill millions, in order to save billions. Is this right? I dunno…. But I can totally see where he’s coming from, however twisted it is.
My favorite example is Magneto, from X-Men. He’s consistently ranked as one of the best villains in entertainment, and for good reason. Magneto starts off in life at a very different place than Professor X—the child Magneto lives in a concentration camp, where he has to see his mother get killed because humans want to use and exploit his mutant powers. He sees the ugliest sides of human nature. When he clashes with Professor X on how humans and mutants should co-exist by suggesting that mutants must band together and make humans their enemies in order to protect themselves, and when he uses his dark past as the fuel for his intense rage against humans, well….as the audience, you kinda feel for him.
Here’s an exercise I find helpful when building antagonists: Take the first time your protagonist conflicts with your antagonist and rewrite it from your antagonist’s point of view. Put yourself into the villain’s shoes. Make your villain the protagonist, and force him to justify himself. There’s nothing as intriguing, and as chilling, to me than a bad guy whose reasoning makes sense to me. It stirs the dark bits of my own soul (I’m pretty sure we all have dark soul bits), and that can be deliciously frightening.
But what about all those Eye of Sauron bad guys? The ones without much of a personality or arc, the ones that are just overarchingly evil? Well, I think they’re fine and they do happen quite a bit, especially in Fantasy/SF. In those cases, though, I think the story works only if there is also at least one Backup Antagonist.
I mean, in Lord of the Rings, you’ve got the Eye of Sauron…but then you’ve also got complex, more deeply developed Backup Antagonists. Like Gollum. Harry Potter has Voldemort/Tom Riddle, who is also kind of a muhaha bad guy…but supporting him is a colorful host of baddies, including Draco Malfoy, who tries to thwart Harry at every turn and then falters when he’s asked to do truly heinous things. These Backup Villains are what make both of these stories work for me, even though they have the generically evil, overarching villains.
I’m still deep in the learning process of how to create antagonists that really resonate with readers, but these are some of the things I’ve learned so far that have kind of worked for me. Great villains are harder to come up with than great protagonists, imho, but I think they’re also much more fun. I mean, who doesn’t love conjuring up a badass baddie? 🙂