Saturday, December 8

12 Tips On How To Write Antagonists Your Readers Will Love To Hate

How To Write Antagonists Your Readers Will Love To Hate

Who is the most important character in your story? Your protagonist, right? Wrong! It's the antagonist. Or at least that's what Jim Butcher says. He writes:
One of the most critical skills an aspiring writer needs is the ability to build a solid villain. Even the greatest protagonist in the world cannot truly shine without an equally well-rendered opposition. The converse of that statement isn’t true, though—if your protagonist is a little shaky but your villain absolutely shines, you can still tell a very successful story. (How To Build a Villain, Jim Butcher)
Whichever is the most important, the protagonist or antagonist, the protagonist needs a strong adversary. Here are 12 tips for ensuring your antagonist is in tip-top shape:

1. Spend As Much Time Developing Your Antagonist As You Do Your Protagonist

Your antagonist needs goals and obstacles, hopes and fears, just like your protagonist. As Jim Butcher says, arguably, having a strong antagonist is more important than a strong protagonist. (See: Ten Tips for a Terrific Antagonist)

2.  Antagonist and Protagonist Have Conflicting Goals

If the antagonist gets their way the protagonist doesn't and vice versa. For instance, in Lord of the Rings, if Sauron gets the One Ring then Frodo has failed to destroy it in the fires of Mt. Doom.

3. Antagonist and Protagonist Have Conflicting Characteristics

In Die Hard protagonist John McClane (Bruce Willis) cares about other people, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) not so much. John McClane cares most about his job and his family, especially his estranged wife. Hans Gruber cares most about the millions of dollars he's going to steal from the vault. And so on.

It's interesting that in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone many of Severus Snape's (also played by Alan Rickman) characteristics were the opposite of Harry's and this was partly why it was so easy to think he was the one out to get Harry.

4. The Antagonist Drives The Conflict

Without the antagonist's dastardly plans, the hero would have nothing to do.

For instance, before Changes begins Harry Dresden's having a grand old time. This peacefulness is shattered when his ex-girlfriend calls and tells him (surprise!) he has a daughter and that she's been kidnapped by Red Court vampires.

If the Red Court hadn't taken Harry's daughter he'd have had time for an afternoon nap and a leisurely dinner at McAnally's. But that wouldn't have been terribly exciting.

5. Outline Your Book From The Antagonist's Point Of View

Kathy Steffen writes:
As Donald Maass suggests in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, outline your book from the antagonist’s point of view. Not every scene, but give him an outline with steps throughout the story so you clearly see the path he will take through your book. Whether you do it at the beginning, middle, or end of writing your book, this is a wonderful way to strengthen conflict in your story.  (Ten Tips for a Terrific Antagonist)

6. The Antagonist Is The Hero Of Their Own Story

Many antagonists think they're the good guy. Like Col. Jessep in A Few Good Men, the antagonist does terrible things to protect the group. He is the necessary evil doing what needs to be done for the greater good.

Or not.

Hans Gruber in Die Hard was motivated solely by the bottom line. He wanted money, lots of it, and didn't give a fig who he had to kill to get it. Different strokes. But I bet in Gruber's own mind having a lot of money made him a success and, at least in that minimal respect, we could relate to him.

I think what matters is that the antagonist is as fully fleshed out a character as your protagonist. That means giving her goals, motivations, fears, likes, dislikes, phobias, and so on. She has to have both strong points and faults, likable qualities and detestable ones.

Once your antagonist has fears and hopes and weaknesses it's hard to see them as pure evil. But that's good because it's much more interesting.

7. Don't Make Your Antagonist Too Powerful

If they are too powerful it's difficult to relate to them. Give your antagonist at least one weakness.

8. Don't Make Your Antagonist Too Weak

If they are too weak then there isn't enough conflict. We're not really worried for the protagonist. There's nothing to root for.

9. Have A Moment Of Connection With The Antagonist

Even if he's a complete jerk, find one point of connection, one point of contact, between your readers and the antagonist. Find the last surviving ember of his humanity. Fan that ember to life and show it to your audience.

Chuck Wendig says it best:
[M]ake me connect with him: something he does, something he believes, should be something I would do, something I believe. Or connect me to his past — help me understand ... (25 Things You Should Know About Antagonists)

10. Give The Antagonist An Arc

Just as your protagonist changes through the course of your story, so should your antagonist. For instance, at the beginning the antagonist might be a careful planner, over-confident and jolly and at the end she is paranoid, reckless and vindictive. (Though I guess it's not paranoia if everyone is out to get you!)

11. Give Your Antagonist A Kick-The-Cat Moment

This point comes from Chuck Wendeg:
In Blake Snyder’s books, he speaks of giving the hero a “Save the Cat” moment — meaning, we get to rally behind the protagonist early on as we get to see just what he’s capable of because, y’know, he rescues the cat from the tree (metaphorically). Antagonists need the reverse: one requires a “Kick the Cat” moment (see also: “Detonate the Puppy,” “Machine Gun the Dolphin,” or “Force the Baby Seal to Watch a Marathon of the Real Houswives ...). We need to see just why the antagonist is the antagonist — show us an act that reveals for us the depths of his trouble-making, his hatred, his perversion of the ethical laws and social mores of man.
Just as we need to show that our protagonist is a good guy by having him do something good, so we need to show that the antagonist is a bad, bad person, by having him (or her) do something horrible.

12. Let Your Antagonist Win Occasionally

Let the antagonist win. Sometimes. He's going to lose at the end, and lose big, so give the guy a break and let him (or her) win every onece in a while. Besides, it'll keep your readers guessing and interested.

13. Make An Antagonist Your Readers Will Love To Hate

The goal of writing is to create stories that move your readers emotionally.

Your antagonist can help you with this, but it all depends on your readers truly hating him. And not just hating him, loving to hate him. If your readers don't despise your antagonist as the lowest form of pond muck then, chances are, they won't like your protagonist much either.

Check Wendig writes:
[T]he biggest and best test of an antagonist is that I want to a) love to hate them and/or b) hate to love them. Do either or both and it’s a major win. If you make me love them and I feel uncomfortable about that? You win. If you( make me despise them and I love despising them the way a dog loves to roll around in roadkill? You win again. I hate that I love Hans Gruber. I love that I hate every Nazi in every Indiana Jones movie. ... [M]ake me feel something. (25 Things You Should Know About Antagonists)

Further Reading:

- Jim Butcher: How to Build a Villain
- Chuck Wendig: 25 Things You Should Know About Antagonists
- Kathy Steffen: Ten Tips for a Terrific Antagonist

Other articles you might like:

- Editing & Critiquing
- The Albee Agency: Writers Beware
- Connie Willis And 11 Ways To Write Great Dialogue

Photo credit: "Who dressed YOU?" by juhansonin under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. Re: Antagonists

    I learned how to do Antagonists by studying _Stargate SG-1_ (SG1). In the pilot episode, SG1 introduced the Antagonist -- Apophis. Apophis came out in the opener, less than 2 minutes into the show. He was handsome, powerful, ruthless, and evil. Peter Williams played the part well. He made the show. He created a bad guy we loved to hate.

    SG1 went wrong with Anubis. Anubis was faceless. All the writers gave us was a figure in a hooded robe. Did not work. Trying to hate Anubis was like trying to hate a bathrobe.

    As if Anubis were not bad enough, SG1 went wronger with the Osiri. Antagonist by committee. Unseen committee.

    And the show ended on that note.

    Running the spectrum from the outstanding antagonist to the worst antagonist ever conceived, SG1 is a study in how to write bad guys right and how to write bad guys wrong.

    The rules I write by:
    1. Make the bad guy a single person, not a committee. A reader can identify with one person; a reader cannot identify with a committee.
    2. Make the bad guy handsome. Better if he is a man.
    3. Make the bad guy powerful. More so than Joe on the street but not a superman.
    4. Make the reader identify with the bad guy at least once in the story. For example, the bad guy has another enemy who almost kills him.
    5. Make the bad guy evil but not too evil.
    6. Make it clear that the bad guy's goals conflict with the hero's and have him pursue them ruthlessly.
    7. Have the hero pull to an inside straight to beat the bad guy. That is, have the bad guy winning the final face-to-face -- it must be face-to-face -- confrontation until the hero pulls out the victory against the odds.

    1. Thanks Antares! Great tips, though I'm going to disagree with you about (2). I think that depends on the story. Thanks for your comment. :)

  2. Awesome post. In my experience (and I've written 5 completed novels), this has long been my single biggest weakness. My antagonists tend to face multiple opponents, or I view the general obstacles to their objectives as the "antagonist," or I write an "antagonist force" rather than a singularly embodied villain. All crap. The fact is, good guys need their bad guys. Just look at Khan from Star Trek. Possibly the only Star Trek film worth seeing (and I'm not counting the awesome J.J. Abrams' new efforts) was "Wrath of Khan." Why? Because of Khan. Kirk can't be at his best unless he's up against an opponent like Khan. And our protagonists can't be at their best unless they face worthy foes. I should add that Star Trek IV (the whale one) is the funniest movie ever (if you're a Star Trek geek), and that film has a great antagonist too: A giant space probe that is going to destroy the entire world if it doesn't get retweet from a whale or two. Sorry to babble: thanks for the great post, and this is a great truth we all need to pay attention to. The antagonist is everything. I can't tell you how many times a friend pitches me on a story with no antagonist, or only a vague antagonist. They need to follow your blog, too.

  3. Thanks for the kind words csoffer!

    I am indeed a Star Trek geek. I've seen all the movies up to Nemesis. Star Trek 2, The Wrath of Khan was great, as was Star Trek 4, The Voyage Home. I LOVED Star Trek 6 The Undiscovered Country. Leonard Nimoy and Kim Cattrall, that was a great combo.

    (Have you noticed that the even numbered movies were a bit better than the odd numbered ones? Or it could just be me ...)

  4. SUCH a clear, informative, useful post, thank you!


Because of the number of bots leaving spam I had to prevent anonymous posting. My apologies. I do appreciate each and every comment.