“Every villain is a hero in his or her own mind.” – Allison Brennan
What suits a hero best? That which opposes them. Despite the fact your protagonist is an expert in whatever field applies to your story, the very best at what they do, they’re only really as strong as their antagonist. And how do you create a strong antagonist? By not treating them like a mustache-twirling villain.
While your shouldn’t limit yourself to the suggestions below, here are the most common antagonist archetypes writers tend to use for ideas and inspiration:
The Immoral Antagonist
Easily the most popular form of antagonist–the person your audience will have no trouble hating. They’re usually set in clear contrast against the hero. The lines are drawn in varying shades of black and white, and readers have no problem choosing whom to root for.
1. The Hypocrite is an antagonist who feigns goodness. They may be guilty of all sorts of treachery and evil, but on the surface they’re all sweetness and light. They put a righteous face on their misdeeds–perhaps even accusing the protagonist of hypocrisy to disguise their own–but the audience knows the truth: this person isn’t just bad, they’re a fraud, which makes them all the more hateable.
2. The Psycho is simply evil through and through. No excuses, no thread of goodness leading them back to redemption. They’re rotten to the core… and crazy to boot. Serial killers, genocidal world leaders, and sadists fit the bill and if you do your job properly, your audience will not only hate the psycho, but fear them as well.
3. The Regular Person Forced to Do Bad Things for an Illegitimate Reason who has let their weaknesses get the better of them. Lust, greed, and hatred can drive even ordinary people to do extraordinary evil.
The Moral Antagonist
In the moral antagonist we find a more complicated—and often more compelling—character, since they presents more parallels than contrasts with the protagonist. This is a person who is doing the right thing—as they see it—and usually for the right reasons, but who has nonetheless been forced to do battle with the hero, thanks to the requirements of your story’s overall conflict.
1. The Good Guy on the Opposing Side is usually present in stories where the conflict is between good people with opposing views who appear on both sides of the battle lines. Lawyers fighting each other for causes in which they each believe passionately, football teams competing for a championship, two love interests trying to win the same girl—none of them have to be inherently bad. Stories of this nature can provide all kinds of interesting possibilities for exploring the grey areas of life, relationships, and morality.
2. The Crusader can be insanely scary in their own right, someone who fiercely believes they’re doing the right thing, and indeed may well be fighting for a good cause. They may be someone who believes they’ve to choose between the lesser of two evils in their decisions. Or they may be someone driven to fanaticism—and thus dangerous decisions—by their passion for the cause. In fact, they may be just plain out right, while the protagonist is the one who’s wrong.
3. The Regular Person Forced to Do Bad Things for a Legitimate Reason because they feel they have no choice. A character who robs a bank to pay for their family member’s operation or to save themselves from the Mafia’s threats may be a hero in their own right—or they may be a compelling and relatable antagonist to the detective protagonist who has to go after them.
So, what are you waiting for? Walk a mile in your antagonist’s shoes, see the world from their point of view, empathize with their plight, understand the justifications for their actions. In other words, treat them with the same love and respect you do your hero for they’re equally as important to the overall success of your story.
Sally forth and be writeful.
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Cheers for the compliment and I’ll definitely check out your blog!
I completely agree. I actually just wrote a blog post on this (which unfortunately won’t be posted for about a month), but so many times we don’t bother to get to know the antagonist, or their motivation. If we did, we might actually root for them, rather than for the protagonist. Great points!
The false notion that the antagonist must be this sniveling and conniving creature that displays all the worst traits that humanity has to offer in order to make the protagonist look better is probably the biggest thing that sticks in my craw when reading a story or watching a movie.
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I love this! Recently, I’ve been really digging into the history and past of my antagonists, and it’s amazing how sometimes their stories are even more tragic than the MC’s! It’s important to remember that every character has a POV, and a reason for doing what they’re doing. I had a recent post on a similar topic.
The best villains are the tragic ones, no doubt about it. Case in point, Breaking Bad is getting a lot of well-deserved praise for the slide rule morality of the Walter White character who vacillates between the underdog (where you root for him) and the criminal mastermind (where you want him to get his comeuppance).