The Craft of Writing: How do I Create Antagonists?Making villains that aren’t moustache-twirling cardboard cutouts.
The art of making an antagonist is not so different from the art of making any other character. The same techniques that apply to dynamic characters also apply to antagonists, of course, though it’s easy to create antagonists that end up feeling kinda flat.
What extra considerations do you face with an antagonist? Start with what the protagonist wants. What are the protagonist’s goals? What does the protagonist hope to accomplish?
Second, consider who opposes those goals. Why does the antagonist oppose the protagonist? What are the antagonist’s goals? What does the antagonist hope to accomplish?
Third, you consider the world. What role does the antagonist play in this world? Given the world’s background, what would an antagonist with those goals look like?
Magneto, the only character I find even remotely interesting in the entire X-Men franchise, is a fantastic antagonist. What does he want? To prevent what he sees as the potential annihilation of his people. How did the world create him? He’s a goddamn Holocaust survivor, that’s how. Given that, how does he oppose the protagonists? Well, that right there is the movie, innit?
When my co-author and I started writing a far-future, post-collapse magical realism story, we spent a loooong time talking about our antagonist. He comes from a strongly theocratic, authoritarian, aggressively expansionist society. How does that shape him? He’s educated, ruthless, and as a representative of the Church’s power, wields tremendous authority.
What does he want? Power, obviously, for one. Why does he oppose the protagonist? That’s a long story—book-length, in fact, with a twist at the end like the barb on a scorpion’s tail.
So given that—given his goals, his desires, and his motivations, what is he like?
My co-author Kitty has referred to him as Hans Hans. Imagine if Hans Landa from Inglorious Basterds and Hans Gruber from Die Hard had a love child who grew up like Cesare Borgia, the sociopathic bastard son of Pope Alexander IV (and incidentally also the inspiration for Machiavelli’s The Prince). He’s smart, cunning, sadistic, manipulative, cruel, and always, always, always three steps ahead of everyone else in the room.
This scene, which introduced the antagonist to the reader in the first conception of the novel (we’ve since completely reworked it), shows What I mean.
“It’s unfortunate your personal business arose at such a wretched time for traveling. Rain and chill and no sun to speak of.” The glint of hidden silver sparkled on his cloak as he prodded the coals, revealed in the sudden flare of light and then quickly gone once more. “But we can’t always predict the guiding hand of Providence, can we?” The fire crackled and spat a shower of sparks. “Ours is not to question, but merely to accept the will of the Most Divine.”Part of what makes him so creepy and sinister is the way he toys with people. You get the sense that the conclusion is foregone before he even begins the conversation; he already knows where he’s going, and enjoys bating the trap for Aiyah, the protagonist.
Aiyah’s mouth went dry again. “Of course.”
He regarded her for a long moment. “Of course? Why do you say that?”
“Well, because…” She hesitated, trapped by the unyielding stone behind her. “Everybody knows that God is the master architect. He determines all things.”
“Everybody knows. Hmm.” Diego leaned forward. Shadows danced across his face. “But do they? I have encountered many in my line of work who do not understand such a basic truth, no matter how plain it may be. Our enemy to the south and east, do you think they know?”
“Well, I…” Aiyah dropped her gaze. “I suppose not.”
“Which is exactly why we are forced into this unfortunate and wholly unnecessary war, because there are those who do not know that all things lie in the hands of God.” He shook his head. “But they have some measure of blamelessness, don’t you think? After all, it’s not fully their fault.”
“Why…” Aiyah gulped. “Why do you say that?”
“Because they do not know any better. Those who have not received the Word cannot be faulted for their ignorance, even though that ignorance condemns them to the fires of hell. We do what we must for the greater good, so that their ignorance does not become their descendents’ damnation. No, I do not blame our savage neighbors. I pity them, even as I understand what must be done. But I do not blame them. Do you know who I do blame?”
“Who?” Aiyah’s voice came thin to her ears.
“Those who know the Word, who understand that Providence has a plan for everything, and yet, even understanding, seek to impose their will in disobedience to God.” His eyes blazed in the flickering firelight. “For such people, there can be no pity. It is one thing to act in ignorance, but quite another to openly defy the will of God. Are you a believer, Aiyah Weaver of Half-Circle Cothold?”
“Am…” Aiyah blinked. Fear wrapped icy tendrils around her heart. “Am I what?”
“A believer. Do you believe in the Most Holy God, the Word made manifest, and in the sacrifice of His Son upon the cross?”
“Of course!” she cried.
“Ah. Of course.” He nodded. “Of course. And do you believe God answers prayers?”
“Well, I…yes. Yes. Sometimes.”
“Sometimes. And sometimes not?”
“Why is that, do you think? Why would a God who loves His children not answer their prayers?”
“I…I don’t know,” Aiyah stammered.
Diego sighed. “When you were growing up, in your creche and later when you were assigned to your family, did you always get everything you asked for?”
Aiyah twisted her fingers together around her empty cup. “No.”
“No.” He paused for a moment, dark eyes gleaming. “Why not?”
“I guess…I guess because sometimes my parents knew better.”
“Ah, there it is.” He clasped his hands together. “There it is. Your parents knew better. And just as parents sometimes know better than children, isn’t it also the case that God might know better than His flock?”
Aiyah hung her head. “I suppose.”
“Consider the rain.” Diego gestured airily at the darkness beyond the little camp. “If one were forced by circumstance to travel on such a wet and miserable day, just as…well, just as we two are, one might wish for an end to the rain, don’t you agree? After all, it’s never pleasant to be out in this weather. One could hardly be faulted for desiring a bit of sun.” He brushed droplets from the shoulder of his cape, then turned a sharp eye on Aiyah. “Well?”
“You don’t enjoy traveling in the cold and the rain, I imagine.”
“No.” Her voice dropped to a bare whisper. “I suppose I don’t.”
“There, you see? No reasonable person would hold you to task for that. But what of the farmer, who needs the rain to water his crops? You wouldn’t want his harvest to be destroyed, just so you have a better day, isn’t that correct?”
“Yes.” The icy tendrils squeezed harder. Aiyah clutched at her mug tightly to hide the shaking of her hands. “I suppose so.”
“So for the sake of idle example, if someone were, say, to invoke blasphemous energies that might threaten a farmer’s crops, merely for the sake of some fleeting comfort, that would be an act of extraordinary selfishness, would it not?”
Tears filled Aiyah’s eyes. “Yes,” she said, her word barely a whisper.
“Marvelous!” Diego clapped his hands. “I am pleased we have found agreement. God is wiser than we are. Anyone who elevates himself, or, indeed, herself, above God’s plan for His creation is not only selfish, but threatens to bring ruin on us all. Such a person must necessarily be an enemy to all the Dominionate.”
In the much darker and decidedly not YA re-imagining of the story, he’s a lot more complex. He’s still pretty much like what you see here when the reader encounters him, though the new Diego has rather more complex motivations and isn’t entirely black—he's more nuanced and in some ways more admirable than old Diego.
So what makes good antagonists? I think a good antagonist is:
- A complex, nuanced character;
- Who is consistent in ethics and worldview;
- Who has an arc (the most interesting villains grow and change over the story);
- Who is capable surprising (but not random) things that the reader and protagonist might not expect, but are still consistent with their motives, ethics, and worldview;
- And has something going on beneath the surface.
Particular props to villains who have a point (or, for that matter, protagonists who occasionally get things wrong without being stupid).
But more than anything else, what I like to see is competent protagonists facing competent adversaries. Little will ruin a character faster than Plot-Induced Stupidity—that is, characters we are told are amazing and competent, who somehow become thick as two short planks whenever the plot needs them to be.