9 Tips for Creating Your Antagonist

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9 Tips for Creating Your Antagonist

Anybody Can Write a Novel 2.0

Chapter 5 “Characters” – Section 3 “Antagonists”

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                                                           “You don't really understand an antagonist until you understand why he's a protagonist in his own version of the world.”
-John Rogers

Whether the obstacle that stands in the way of your protagonist is an evil person, a person of just another philosophical belief, a person with a contradicting goal, a force of nature, a force of the supernatural, a monster, an emotion, an experience, or just a challenge in and of itself, it has to make sense, stand up to reason, and be every bit the deep and complex an entity as your protagonist if you want to create a balanced story. Today, we will talk about how to design the antagonist in a way that will be appropriate to the story you are trying to create.

Tip 1: Identify the type of Antagonist that will make your story most dynamic.

When I went to watch the movie “Big Hero 6” without having watched the previews or read any reviews, I was initially impressed by the beginnings of a heart-felt story about a robot helping a boy to learn how to deal with antagonistic force of grief, and how to let other people in after the death of his brother. For me, that was where the power and the sincerity of the narrative was rooted. And then came the super hero and villain plot which many people liked, but left me feeling like it was all just a distraction. Regardless of how you feel about that movie, stories with great potential are often stunted by the writer thinking that a villain is always necessary—somebody with evil intentions with whom the hero must battle if the story is going to be dynamic. Nothing could be further from the truth. Villains can be great but your antagonist, as much as all other parts of your story, should serve to make the heart of your plot better, not detract and distract from it. If your story is about survival, for example, you may not need an evil poacher in the woods, only nature itself as an antagonistic force with which the hero must learn to understand and cope with. Look at your protagonist and his/her flaws, the strongest elements of the plot, and the world in which your story takes place; then figure out what force would bring the sort of growth and confrontation that would feed into these elements of the story.

Tip 2: Find a place for your Antagonist within the world of your story.

A common flaw that amateur writers make is that they create an antagonist that exists within a sort of bubble, with little impact on the world itself. When this happens, you villain loses a feel of gravity and reality, and begins to seem like just a plot device that exists for the hero to defeat. To create an antagonist that feels connected fully to the story and the world, you should show an interaction and consequences that the antagonist has on the world. Even in cases like the Joker (where the villain is an obsessive maniac who is completely dependent on Batman to give his existence meaning) your antagonist will still seem more formidable if you show actions and effects that take place when the protagonist is not around. The same goes with situational and emotional antagonists. If you character struggles primarily against their own anger, for example, show through another character what anger left unchecked can lead to. If you are trying to show the effects of nature, freeze a bunny to death and let the hero find its corpse.

Tip 3: Give your Antagonist real motivations that require conflict with the protagonist.

When writing, you must find a legitimate reason that your antagonistic force is standing against your protagonist instead of simply moving out of his or her way. Think of it as Robin Hood and Little John, meeting at the crossing over a river; there has to be a reason that one of them does not just politely step aside for the other to pass instead of going through the great amount of trouble and personal risk to fight over it. As an antagonistic force, nature regulates itself with disease and extreme weather, regardless of what heroes may be passing through, and humans to not fair well in extreme weather. Zombies eat because they are hungry and find humans delicious, which directly coincides with the general preference of humans not to be eaten. Overbearing fear can prevent a protagonist from doing what he/she needs to because of a self-preservation instinct, but this makes it into an antagonistic force that must be dealt with. Make sure that your antagonist has a reason to go out of their way to oppose your hero, apart from just really disliking them; and make sure their realistic goals cause a necessary conflict with the protagonist that cannot be avoided. Because why rob a bank in a city where Batman is patrolling the streets, unless your real motivation is to confront Batman? If your antagonist is a person, put yourself in their position and make sure that their actions make sense.

Tip 4: Make sure that your Antagonist is not a contrived force of pure evil.

Another big failing in storytelling is the idea that the antagonist is a force of pure evil (parody and humor aside). Not only is this a falsehood that creates a break in reality for the reader, but it paints a deceptive picture of the world. Just because someone is an insane serial killer, does not mean that they consider rape okay. Just because someone beats his wife, doesn't mean he'd stand by as a child was being kidnapped. Humans, even the bad ones, are complex creatures with standards of their own. Making your Antagonist ethically complex will not only register as more real with your reader, but create a more complex and dynamic relationship between the reader, the Antagonist, and the protagonist. It will also create empathy, the emotion that draws readers into a story unlike any other.

Tip 5: Develop an “Antagonistic Shadow” for those scenes where the antagonist is not present.

Storytelling frequently tends to utilize antagonistic forces that are mysteries for most of the novel. An example of this is the Harry Potter series, especially the early books that chronicled the time before Voldemort returned, and where the villains were often unknown until the end. This is a valid and fun way to tell a story, but it does not allow for the audience to begin to get to know, appreciate, respect, or empathize with the antagonist. One way of resolving this is by creating Antagonistic Shadows; these are events that are caused by the mysterious antagonist and which reveal more about them, without divulging their identity. An example of this is “Harry Potter and Chamber of Secrets” where Rowling gives us a great amount of character exposition about Tom Riddle without divulging his true identity until the end. This can be also done through henchmen, insidious plots, a line of command, or a variety of other ways. This can even be done with nature as the antagonist, like when the protagonist finds a bunny frozen to death in the snow. The important thing is to begin showing the intimate truths about your antagonist, before their identity is ever revealed.

Tip 6: Determine how your Antagonist will foil the Primary Protagonist.

If you begin to deeply analyze stories that feature a conflict between a hero and a villain, you'll notice that the hero and villain are more alike than they are different. Luke and Vader, for example, were both strong and very emotional users of the force who had a strong sense of justice. Usually, there is only a small difference between the two that causes such a dramatic clashing between them, such as whether they try to achieve their goals with strength or with compassion. By determining the specific way that your antagonist foils a quality of your hero, you can build upon that element when you write scenes where the two forces must come into conflict. The results, like the iconic Star Wars scene where the final battles feature Luke trying to elicit the good out of his father while Vader tries to rouse his son to righteous anger, will become complex, deep, and more memorable than a mere action scene.

Tip 7: Figure out what ideals that your Antagonist represents.

When it comes down to it, a dynamic story—even an action-based one—is not about physical prowess or confrontation. It is about a conflict of ideals. Nihilism vs Hope. Humanity vs Nature. Strength vs Kindness. Order vs Chaos. Man vs. Nature. And so the list goes on. Figure out what sort of ideal your antagonist represents—which will either be defeated by or crush the ideal of your protagonist. This conflict of ideals should be at the very core of the necessary conflict between your protagonist and antagonist.

Tip 8: Makes sure that every protagonist in your story had their own, appropriate, antagonist.

I very much enjoyed the Avengers movie, although I admit that there were some problematic elements. The greatest of these flaws, in my perspective, were some of the final scenes in the movie where the Avengers basically took turns going up to the tower and beating the snot out of Loki. I understand that there would not have been time to reveal a number of antagonists equal to that of the heroes, but the effect was that I began to view Loki as the underdog fighting against impossible odds. While it is possible for heroes to share a common antagonist, especially if the heroes have the same exact goals, are facing a more powerful opponent than what they are, and are together for the entirety of the plot, it is usually a better idea for each protagonist in your story to have their own antagonistic force that they struggle against. Don't just tack on a Secondary Protagonist to the story-arc of the Primary Protagonist, especially when they have different goals and desires; respect each of them enough to give them their own struggle, designed to fit within the context of the overarching plot.

Tip 9: Interweave your Antagonist into your Twelve-Point Plot Outline

The main plot-points at which your primary antagonist should appear or cast a heavy shadow will be the First Pinch Point, where the antagonist puts the hero in a situation where they have to act; the Midpoint, where the antagonist defeats the protagonist; the Second Pinch Point, where the antagonist again does something that makes the hero feel compelled to act again; and Climax, where either the hero or the antagonist arise victorious. It can also be potent to add the antagonistic force to the other plot-points, but the above listed are good for a bare minimum, depending on the particulars of your specific story.

Weekly Recommended Watching: Parasyte the Maxim (For a fresh look at antagonists and antagonist motivations that create empathy and respect from both the audience and the protagonist).

Write-a-Novel Exercise 5.3

Pull out your Twelve-Point Plot Outline and come up with an idea for an antagonist encounter or antagonistic shadow in each plot-point. Keep the ones that seem to work and cut the ones that don't, but be sure to have encounters or shadows planned in the plot-points listed in Tip 9.

If you haven't already, make sure to create a Plot Premise for your Primary and Secondary Antagonist characters.

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JaydenChrom's avatar

Hello, I find your tips interesting.

I have a question you can imagine being a test reader. It's about a dragon story for a friend of mine, he sent me to find test readers. He would like to present his story to a publisher later and for that we need some test readers beforehand, you look like a professional and I hope that your advice will help us.

If you don't have time we can understand.

I hope you have some time for us.

Hoping for an answer

the Dragon Team

DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar


I am happy to give some feedback and advice. However, due to problems in the past, I have three requirements.

1. I would ask that before submitting anything for me to look at, your friend read Chapters 1-8 in my guide, in their entirety. Doing so saves me from repeating the same things I've already written.

2. Please do not send me anything to review until you have finished the entire first draft. That means having written all the chapters of the story, from beginning to end. Writers tend to get discouraged when given feedback before that point.

3. When the above two steps are finished, feel free to send me the first two chapters of the story, as well as a 12-point plot outline (or similar outline), as detailed in my guides.

JaydenChrom's avatar

Many thanks for your response. We will go through all the points and get back to you again. Thanks for the help, we'll get back to you after completing the three requirements.

ZennyTheGlaceon's avatar

Very well written on what good antagonist should be, and how they always don't have to be people. Definitely getting a favorite, will also be showing this to other writers to help them improve.

DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar

Thank you :) I'm glad you enjoyed

ZennyTheGlaceon's avatar

Always good to see someone trying to help others learn the fine art of writing. Trying to become known on DA though with your writing is a struggle. At least for me, but I enjoy writing so it's all good :}

BerrymeadowBlitz's avatar

Thanks, I will use this when editing my villan, Jade fur, for my warrior cats, oc Dawnclan series

heroic412222's avatar
In my story, my antagonist is called Ominous (his real name is Grey the Panther). He's an anthropomorphic panther who hates all evil and conflict beyond the omniverse and wants to put an end to it for good. He's usually calm, modest, serious and vigilant, but also pessimist and self-loathing to a fault. His motive is that he doesn't want others to experience the same, if not worse, turmoil and conflict that he's experienced in the past. 

What do you think?
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
He seems like he could be a good anti-villain. 
TalkerNotYawner's avatar
In my story, the antagonistic force is my character's ideals. But my character views the efforts of the mentors as antagonistic. I also have a Secondary Protagonist who considers my Primary Protagonist as an antagonist and opposes him. Is too many antagonists? 
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Seems fine to me. Though one main one will usually pop up predominantly, there are usually quite a few. 
TalkerNotYawner's avatar
Alright, thanks. Hey, I have been using the advice of another person to help me create my characters and then I use your Plot Premise to summarize. The article is here in deviantart. Its called: A Writer's Guide: Believable Characters by DarlingMionette. You should check it out, it's got some pretty good stuff.
Watchful-Bystander's avatar
I've read several books that have splintering POV characters where it seems each one is the protagonist of their own story. They happen to connect with one another through circumstance and clashes of ideals, but no one ever felt like an actual antagonist with respect to the overall story.

So my question is, can an antagonist be a POV character while retaining the qualities of an actual antagonist (like always being a step ahead of the hero, a symbol for the final hurdle the main character has to face)? I figure they can be, but haven't found a story where the antagonist played such a visible role they had numerous POV segments.
*Basically mean to say it feels as though when an antagonist becomes a POV character, they turn into a protagonist as everyone is the hero of their own story. Trying to avoid making my heroic villain look like a genuine hero/protagonist in order to preserve the even better qualities of my actual hero.
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
"Antagonist" is ultimately a relative term relating to a particular character's story-arc. So, depending on how much detail you give your villain, they will end up being the protagonist in their own eyes. A good example of this is Watchmen, where each of the heroes and villains is a hero in their own eyes, trying to bring about good for the world and their loved ones. 

If you're having difficulty with your villain being too heroic, try focusing in more on their fatal character flaw--greed, anger, fear, etc...
grievousfan's avatar
I might have overlooked it in your gallery, but do you have any advice on writing the antagonist/big baddie as the protagonist/main character? This is all sound advice, but some points don't really help much simply because of the nature of the story I'm writing.
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
In that case, you would simply follow the tutorial on protagonists, that is universal and applies to primary characters of any sort, even evil ones. 
grievousfan's avatar
Read that one shortly after I posted my comment and it really did help character development :dummy: Thanks!
Graeystone's avatar
Tip 10 - Actions should have consequences.
Even if the antagonist isn't 'evil incarnate', they are going to do something bad to the protagonist, innocent bystanders, or people close to the protagonist. Unless the story is about the 'antagonist winning at the end', then there should be some kind of justice happening.

Tip 11 - Don't make the Antagonist TOO relatable/pitiable. The TV show Criminal Minds has some great Antagonists. They tend to be very violent characters that do horrible things to their victims because of things that went very bad in their lives in the past and they just 'snapped'. However, while these Antagonists can be pitied for their pasts no one would say they shouldn't go to jail because of what happen in their pasts and what they did in the present.
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
What do you mean by "justice happening"?

Hmm, I would say to your tip 11, that it would simply depend on what sort of story you are writing. If your antagonist is just a minor neighborhood bully (of the wedgies caliber) you may want them to be as relatable and pitiable as possible so that your protagonist can learn empathy and how to deal with situations using his/her brain and knowledge of human nature, in order to create a more lasting and wide-ranging solution than simply getting justice. 
Graeystone's avatar
Justice happening - to many stories (especially manga) have antagonists who can do horrible things and nothing happens to them when it comes to getting caught.

While handling a bully like you suggest is fine for children, adults are very different.
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Why do you think that justice is necessary for a story? 
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