Creating A Great Antagonist

The antagonist or antagonists of a story are often the central driving force to the story or what causes the central driving force to come into being. That being said, a lot of thought has to go into creating an antagonist, especially the central antagonist. In fact, for horror novelists such as myself, it’s often one of the first things we come up with in a story, and what we often use to describe our stories to others (ex. “an evil clown demon terrorizes a small town”, “a cult leader with horrifying dark powers and those who stand against him”, “two children fall through a doorway to a world where the demonic ruler has a terrifying interest in the young boy”).*

When designing antagonists (human or otherwise), there are a few things I try to keep in mind in order to make them as evil/terrifying/monstrous as possible. Here’s some of them (the ones I’ve identified, anyway. I’m still new at this and I’m still identifying what I do, what works and what I should probably stop doing):

1. What does your antagonist want? I’m going to use a villain from a hypothetical novel, because I don’t think this is the best place to advertise any of my own books(as fun as that might be). And since I’m watching Once Upon a Time while watching this, I’m going to say…my villain wants to take over the magic kingdom. Why does this villain want to do it? Perhaps he’s a sociopath (I’m going to make it a male villain) who just wants power, mayhem and murder. Perhaps he’s the illegitimate child of the King’s eldest daughter, there was a really bad scandal where they murdered to keep things under wraps and he’s got some mommy issues. Or maybe he’s thinking he’s doing the kingdom a favor by trying to avert a prophecy about the current regime and the destruction about the kingdom, so he’s willing to do some very terrible things to avert disaster. Any of these or even a combination could work. This is also a step where I try to create as much backstory as needed to explain how my villain came to be, though if I need to I can hold that off till much later in the story, when it becomes much more relevant to the story to explain why my villain is so evil and screwed up.

2. What are my villain’s means of getting what he wants? Every villain has a means of getting what they want. Maybe he’s a very dangerous, highly-trained assassin. Perhaps he has magic powers, or a mercenary army with enough magical weapons to do a miniature Chernobyl. It can be anything, as long as you can make it plausible in the universe of your story.

3. Who opposes my villain? I’m going to assume the protagonist. Perhaps it’s the crown prince of the kingdom, who just found out about his elder sister’s illegitimate son and sworn to stop him but bring him back alive for the sake of his sister, who has always regretted letting her child go. Or maybe a knight who wants to protect those close to him by going off to slay the great evil. Perhaps it’d be more interesting to see if an orphan of humble background (or perhaps not; s/he is an orphan, so s/he could have any background I please) could go up against this great threat to the kingdom. In any case, the antagonist needs someone to go up against him, so I have to create that person at some point early on.

And now that we’ve come up with the antagonist’s motives and who’s going to try to stop him. Here comes the fun part of designing the antagonist:

Family values, loves cookies and miniature golf…and he does horrifying magical rituals to become a terrifying demon. What’s not to love?

4. Design your villain’s character. Perhaps my villain will be a full adult, or perhaps a teenager or even a young boy, to drive home that he’s the son of a princess, son being the operative part here. I could give him a dark, sadistic personality. Or maybe he’s like one of my favorite villains, Mayor Wilkins III from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who always had a smile on his face and acted like your typical 1950s sitcom dad even up until the moment he killed you. Maybe he’s got a hobby that indulges in while he’s not busy planning the destruction of the kingdom. Does he actually care for anyone besides himself? Maybe that person would give him someone to interact with besides his despicable followers. All these options and more are at my fingertips, and I can mix and match as I please in designing this villain.

This is basically how I design villains. And it works for all types of villains, from primary to tertiary in importance of plot and in all types of stories. I could also use these steps to design a sultry heiress hell-bent on doing some nasty stuff in LA’s best social circles. Or maybe a company president with some very cruel plans for a Native American community in the Amazon. It even works on zombies and vampires, too.

However you create your antagonists though, if it fulfills your need to create a great villain to go up against your hero or heroine, then it works. I’m just trying to give helpful suggestions, and if these help you, then my job here is done.

Also, if you get inspired by the hypothetical story I created above, by all means write a story about it. I just came up with it on the spot and I have enough on my plate without another story to write. Go ahead. It’s yours.

*Only one of these examples is a story I’ve actually read, and that’s Stephen King’s IT. The other two, if there are stories that are like that, I haven’t heard of them. Let me know if you have.

27 thoughts on “Creating A Great Antagonist

  1. Lauralynn Elliott December 19, 2013 / 10:58 am

    “Evil clown demon”…we all know who that is. 🙂 At least those of us who love horror. And as soon as I saw that about cookies and miniature golf, I knew that was the mayor. LOL

    This was a great post. Although the protagonist is important, you have to have a good antagonist for a rich story. I hope I’ve done a good job on my antagonist in my current story. 🙂

    • rami ungar the writer December 19, 2013 / 11:16 am

      I wish I was psychic so I could give you my opinion on that antagonist. But if you have beta readers, they can probably give you the feedback on the villain or villains you create. And, like everything else in writing, creating an antagonist is something we get better at as we continue practicing writing. I wish you the best of luck and I hope you are able to create the villain of your dreams…or nightmares. 🙂

  2. williamkendall1 December 19, 2013 / 12:00 pm

    A very good rundown on the villain, Rami.

    Since I write in the spy genre, my antagonists in my MS are terrorist. They’re driven by their own pain, grief, and rage, and they blame everyone for it. So they’re focused on vengeance.

    • rami ungar the writer December 19, 2013 / 12:13 pm

      One of the classic motives for villains. And it works every time. Thanks for your feedback and good luck with your stories.

  3. Ruth Ann Nordin December 21, 2013 / 9:36 pm

    I love Once Upon a Time! Those writers have done an awesome job with creating great villains. I’m especially impressed with how they can take a villain and give them a sympathetic side that makes you care about them. That show has made me think a lot about point of view. Any character can be seen as a protagonist or antagonist depending on another character’s point of view.

    Sometimes I am more intrigued by the antagonist because that character is often the most complicated one. 😀

    • rami ungar the writer December 21, 2013 / 9:42 pm

      Yeah, and I hear they’re bringing the Wicked Witch of the West and Rapunzel to the second half of Season 3 (boy, this should make an interesting arc).

      I want to someday create a really awesome and complicated villain. I often feel that my villains are actually pretty simple, no more than their motivations and their drive. I’ll have to see what I can come up in future stories. Hopefully something that will satisfy me more than in past stories.

  4. Shay Fowler December 22, 2013 / 12:33 pm

    This is an area that I’m struggling with now. I’m trying to figure out how much to tell from the bad guys’ perspective. Do I let the reader in on phone calls between the minions? Do I put in a scene with the leaders? (Turns out there are two running the show) I’ve got the dastardly plot, but I’m not loving the way it’s being revealed.

    • rami ungar the writer December 22, 2013 / 4:31 pm

      Without knowing a lot more about your story, I can’t really be the best judge (sorry). But here’s something that’s sometimes worked for me: when I am writing a story and I get stuck, I go back to the beginning and start looking where things started feeling off. Sometimes a solution presents itself while doing the searching.

      • Shay Fowler December 22, 2013 / 4:37 pm

        Thank you, Rami.

        I’ve got two stories being told simultaneously, then they come together. Then they break apart. One is a straight-up romance, the other is a PI mystery. I think that part of the issue is that I’m developing three threads at the same time. I’ve got the romance, the detectives, and the bad guys.

        The fight with the bad guys is all from the detectives’ perspective (as of now), but *I* know the deeper plot. I’m starting to think that the reader won’t ‘get it’ if it’s all from what the detectives see.

        (make sense?)

        so how does one give the antagonist’s perspective? That’s what I’m asking. Is it fair to let him be a ‘hero’?

        • rami ungar the writer December 22, 2013 / 5:16 pm

          Maybe if you found a way to tie all three threads from the beginning of the story, it might be easier to tell the story and let the reader in on all three connected threads.

          • Shay Fowler December 22, 2013 / 5:23 pm

            Thank you for your response, rami. I’m getting three of my closest together this week to discuss the issue. I think that the antagonist will be written as a hero with sympathetic motivations. Evil people are rarely truly evil. Even Hitler liked dogs and loved Eva Braun. A psychopath isn’t the norm. Most people who do bad are good people who’re led astray. I’ll present him in that light.

            • rami ungar the writer December 22, 2013 / 5:49 pm

              I agree with you on some of that…except for the Hitler part (he’s done too much to my people for us to consider anything about him good or sympathetic).

              Good luck with recreating your villain and fixing your story. I hope it works out for you.

              • Shay Fowler December 23, 2013 / 10:34 pm

                I just wanted to thank you.

                I’ve been really struggling with my antagonist for months. (The problem was that it wasn’t one guy. It was a huge sinister plot. I felt like it was getting away from me.) Yesterday I sat down and simply wrote a page of questions. What’s my antagonist’s motivation? Who’s helping him and why? Is “Queen XXX” innocent in her evil actions or is she complicit? Who’s his mother? And on and on. I went a little nuts with details that ended up not being important, but those details gave me a ‘feel’ for the whole.

                After filling a full page with single-spaced questions, I found answers being revealed. As I questioned, I would find myself going back and answering other questions until the whole thing was puzzled out. Characters that I had in mind for another project found a use and a home here. Characters who were only vague ideas began to develop personalities with hopes, desires, fears, and drive.

                Bringing them into the story became natural. It was easy to see where they belonged and where they needed to be introduced.

                This morning I finished my outline and have started the rewrite to Part One. I’ve also finished the outline for Part Two (something that’s stumped me for three months) within just a couple of hours.

                I had to stop thinking of these people as ‘bad guys’ and give them the story that they deserved. Their own story. They see themselves as heroes and have pure motivations, even though their methods are wrong and destructive. This has added a richness and complexity to my heroes fight that had been lacking. (Up until now they’d been shadowboxing.)

                I’ve still got a lot to work out, but I can see it being worked through by the end of the week.

                So thank you! Just taking the time to ask myself the hard questions cleared up a huge mess. Your article helped me find the way.

                Onward and forward! 🙂

                • rami ungar the writer December 24, 2013 / 12:14 pm

                  I’m glad I was able to help in some small way. I hope your story goes well and you are able to create an awesome story with fearsome villains and amazing heroes. Good luck in the future.

  5. steven.m.ross. December 22, 2013 / 3:49 pm

    Thank you for sharing its much appreciated Greetings for the festive season God bless

  6. Shay Fowler December 23, 2013 / 10:37 pm

    I just wanted to add one more thing for anyone who finds themselves in my boat: Don’t neglect your antagonists. I think that we don’t *want* to relate to the bad guys, so we tend to keep them two dimensional.

    Keep in mind that the heroes are cheated if they don’t have a fully-developed foe.

    • rami ungar the writer December 24, 2013 / 12:12 pm

      Very good point. For the sake of our heroes, our stories, and even just for the villain, the villain needs to be more than two-dimensional. They need to feel real.

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