A Theory on Writing Effective Antagonists

When we talk about characters and conflict in writing, we spend a lot of time fussing over our protagonists, because we recognize how crucial they are to the success of our story and the reader’s exploration of its ideas. But I think it is equally important to recognize the antagonist as an invaluable storytelling opportunity. We identify and define antagonists as those who oppose the protagonists and their goals in the story’s conflict, but we only have conflict because the antagonists challenge the protagonists.

They provide the problems and situations necessary for the plot’s progress that the protagonist needs to grow and develop as a character. This position gives our antagonists powerful influence on how our readers interpret the ideas at the center of the conflict and at work in the protagonist’s journey, so it is in our story’s best interest to make sure we do right by our antagonist and take advantage of the opportunities they offer.

It is difficult to pin down any universal characteristics of a great, effective antagonist, because an antagonist’s success is inextricably connected to how well they match their role in their story’s conflict, and how well they support the decisions and development of their story’s protagonist. Excellent antagonists contribute significant meaning or evidence to the way we read the story. They might offer a critical perspective on the protagonist’s beliefs, or provide such a uniquely compelling threat that they help us understand the story’s world.

But as stories’ needs vary, we see a similar diversity in the construction of their antagonists. In some ways, we actually accept more differences in antagonists than we would in protagonists, like the way antagonists with relatively “flat” development in one story can be as effective as an antagonist who is a fully-developed, nuanced character in another story. This means we can’t have as many helpful guidelines (or “rules”) as we do for protagonists, but it can seem that way. And that makes it hard to understand what we need to fix when an antagonist isn’t working, what we could gain from their impact on the story, or what other problems in a story might be solved by changing the antagonist or their role.

However, there are three parts to all antagonists that I feel will yield answers if we examine them on an individual basis–antagonist by antagonist, and story by story. I think of these three areas as nature, method, and motivation. Together, they encompass who or what the antagonist is: how they challenge the protagonist, what they do to pursue their goals, and why they oppose the protagonist or pursue their course of action and desires. Each of these parts adds something to our understanding of the antagonist, the conflict, their relationship with the protagonist, the world, and the story’s major ideas, especially in the context of the story’s other parts. In my experience, the story needs to fully explain at least two of these three parts for the antagonist to function as a working part of the story’s whole. But any one part can drag an antagonist down if it does not work with the other parts or fit the story.

I’m going to pick on A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab to show you what I mean, just because I read it most recently. (Note that there will be spoilers in the paragraphs ahead and that I have not yet read the sequel.) I enjoyed this fantasy adventure. Its main antagonists, Astrid and Athos Dane, rulers of White London, were truly terrifying opponents for protagonists Kell and Lila to face. We knew from the start of the novel who they were: power-hungry, remorseless, bloodthirsty tyrants with obsessive, possessive, sadistic streaks who had seized the throne by murder and mind control and would likely lose it to White London’s next usurper. By the end of the novel, we know exactly what they wanted and why they did it: White London is losing magic and power, and the best way for the Dane twins to preserve their world and their powerful place in it is to break into Kell’s Red London and get the magic flowing between the worlds again–and more the better for them if they can control this magic by enslaving the minds of Red London’s royal family.

“I want to conquer the world” or “I want to steal the special power source” are fairly common goals in fantasy stories, but the Dane twins’ motivation works because it feels like a natural extension of their characterization and known desires. It also compels tension and consideration because we know that the loss of magic is a legitimate problem for White London–and it is partly Red London’s fault. The Danes have much to gain for themselves and their world if they can solve the problem, and they’ll have to face their inevitable decline if they cannot. The motivation is also specialized to Schwab’s original premise of multiple worlds connected by magic, contributing to our belief in the story’s world and creating the enchanting sense that there could be no other story like this one.

However, Astrid and Athos’s methods for conquering Red London and opening the gates between worlds don’t make any sense to me. They were certainly interesting methods. They were exciting, dangerous, and mysterious, and kept me wondering how Kell and Lila would escape or thwart them next. But once Astrid and Athos explained their motivation and why parts of their plan worked the way they did, I realized that many of their actions were confusing, overly complicated, or frankly unnecessary.

None of these are good descriptors to find attached to our antagonist’s behaviors, because once I understood this, my suspension of disbelief was fundamentally damaged. The plot I had read so far no longer seemed as cleverly terrifying or immersive as it had, and unless something else popped up to explain why or how competent, merciless, straightforward Astrid and Athos made such a ridiculous, chancy, convoluted plan, it could not go back. I understood that the Danes needed the Black London stone in Red London to open the world’s doors, but why did they need Kell to take it when Holland was a more dependable option?

They are comfortable sending Holland to get the stone back when Kell takes it to Grey London, so they are clearly not worried that its power would mess with their mind control on him. Astrid controlled Rhy with the necklace Holland delivered, but we see that her magic is crap in Rhy’s body, so how did they take control of the king and queen or all of those guardsmen who attacked Kell at the drop point? Why did they attack Kell at the drop point in Red London when Astrid already had control of Rhy? She shouldn’t have let him leave White London at all, but she could have waited for Kell to eventually come home. The Dane twins are slightly unhinged, but so is all of White London, and I would have needed to see more irrational or blatantly “reckless for fun” behavior to accept this absurd plan as the result of character-driven “logic.”

These confusing points were especially grievous because almost the entire plot of the book revolved around Kell and Lila reacting to the behavior of the antagonists’ rather than acting to fulfill their own goals, as they tried to survive Astrid and Athos and stop their plan. So, my doubt in the antagonists also called into question what the protagonists were doing the whole book. I read the rest of the story with the less-exciting certainty that Kell and Lila would triumph over these villains and a slight fear that they would do something else that seemed stupid, and I was not wrong.

While Athos and Astrid’s defeat may align with their flawed methods for conquering Red London, their decisions in the final battle with Kell and Lila also strike me as out of character or noticeably plot-convenient for the ruthless tyrants of White London. We know that Athos derives sadistic pleasure from hurting, humiliating, and tormenting his enemies and subjects, and his treatment of Belroc and Holland shows that he has a bully’s penchant for making his assertion of dominance personal, but his study of magic is also the magic of control and manipulation. He is the most familiar with the Black London stone, and it never seemed like he had the kind of personal investment in Kell that his sister did. But then Kell pulls the old “You’re not really beating me if you use power-ups” trick, and it works. And I don’t even know what Astrid hoped to accomplish by pretending to be Lila that she couldn’t have done by blasting an injured Kell from across the room.

The Black London stone itself was another antagonist that worked well by comparison because all of its parts matched and fit the stone’s place in the story. The story’s basic work-consume-spread method worked really well with the stone’s desire to follow its magical nature of work-consume-spread, and its challenges pushed the protagonists to understand their world and themselves. (Spoilers end here.)

But I’ll stop picking on Schwab. While the Dane twins were not stellar antagonists for the reasons above, they were good, and they worked well enough for the overall story to go on as a great read with plenty of deserved praise and acclaim. A few tweaks to strengthen the connections between Astrid and Athos’s leadership in the conflict and the actual plot events might have made the story even better according to the direction it was going in, but it’s impossible to say what those tweaks would have been or how they would have changed the story we got. And I would say that it is very easy for writers of all skill levels to make this kind of mistake or miss this kind of opportunity—as I said earlier, successful antagonists can be so different from each other and so interdependent on the successful development of the conflict, tone, and protagonist relationship that ferreting out individual pieces for evaluation can be extremely difficult or simply unhelpful.

This brings me back to the areas of nature, method, and motivation. I believe that thinking about my antagonists in this way as I brainstorm, outline, write, and edit helps me focus intentionally the many aspects of the antagonist while remaining cognizant of their important connections and role in shaping other parts of the story. The areas are specific to the antagonist’s literary existence, but they are also broad and dependent on the context of the story’s world, the protagonist’s involvement and characterization, which makes it easier to consider these areas from the angle of whatever purpose the antagonist serves in the story. Of course, the antagonist is part of the organic and personal creative process of writing, so this theory will work and speak differently to everyone, but let me offer a more detailed explanation of these areas and some sample questions that I think would be helpful when writing and designing antagonists.

“Nature” is probably the simplest to imagine and change if we find ourselves in a bind with our antagonist. I consider both “character personality” and “character type” as part of the antagonist’s nature, so this term includes the antagonist’s personal traits like their strengths and weaknesses, their appearance or representative form, and their characterization as well as whether they are a round, developed character or a flat, static antagonist. Obviously, this area varies a lot from story to story, and I feel like it’s often the easiest to come up with, understand, and convey to readers.

When I first get the idea for an antagonist, I usually know immediately whether I need to make them work as a believable, complicated person in their story or if they are going to be a flat but terrifying force of the world. I work from there to build something that will play well with the other story elements I already know. Usually the antagonist’s nature is so well-established in my head that my ideas for it do not really change as I plan or write the rest of the story, and this helps me think of what challenges they would be likely to pose the protagonist and how the protagonist would interact with them. But, if something isn’t working with my antagonist in my draft or in revision, I usually consider their nature first when I look for solutions.

Nature is easier to change than methods or motivation because altering an antagonist’s nature usually means just writing more, like adding or cutting character development content or tweaking personal characteristics and descriptions to better match their context in the rest of the story or support the methods they used. By the time I reach this point, I usually have a better idea of what the story is about or what needs to happen anyway, so revising the antagonist’s nature is a good way for me to point the plot in its true direction while I go forward. It’s not always the thing that needs to change to make an antagonist effective or improve their impact on the story, but it’s a good place to start when you are certain of their motivation and the core events they need to participate in.

Questions:

  • How does my antagonist’s nature add to the reader’s understanding of the story’s world? How has the world influenced them, or what about them gives them influence on it?
  • How do I want readers to feel about my antagonist? How does this compare or contribute to how I want readers to feel or know about my protagonist?
  • Does my antagonist’s nature contribute to the tone I want for my story?
  • Is my antagonist capable of believably doing the things the story needs them to do?

We say “actions speak louder than words”. The way the antagonists choose to execute their plans often makes up the bulk of their presence in the story and their visibility to readers. Whatever form the antagonist takes, their methods for opposing the protagonist—capturing the prince without killing him, backstabbing vs. honorable combat, refusing apologies, donating money, elaborate magic vs. a loaded gun, wanton destruction, taking steps to minimize collateral damage—will reveal a lot about their internal nature and work with other pieces of the story to define the stakes for the protagonist, establish plot events and scenarios, and drive tension. Because methods are so closely related to the plot and the antagonist’s more practical role in the story’s conflict, the main pitfalls to look out for here are whether the antagonist’s methods make sense for what they are capable of doing, what they are trying to accomplish in the context of the setting, and what they know their protagonist is capable of doing.

For these reasons, sound methods are closely matched to an antagonist’s nature and motivations, so I have usually found it best to determine my antagonist’s nature and motivation before working out what they would naturally do to pursue their goals. Sometimes we can improve methods that don’t seem to make sense by making adjustments at the scene level of the text, such as by adding factors that would limit the antagonist’s options to the one you need or by clarifying and improving world-building elements or character-based explanations. If your story calls for your antagonist to have really complicated methods or plans, try to make an outline or keep tabs on what needs to happen, how it happens, and why before writing and as you go, because it can be extremely hard to untangle later once you’ve built conflict progression and protagonist development into a full draft.

Questions:

  • What does my antagonist need to accomplish to reach their long-term goal? What are their simplest options for doing so?
  • Why does the story need the antagonist to take this particular route of action? Are there any alternative choices they would be equally likely to make?
  • What does the antagonist think of their chosen methods? How do they make their decisions?
  • Have I explained what is happening clearly? Will my reader be able to understand what the protagonist faces from the antagonist though their nature/motivation has not yet been revealed?

I feel that the antagonist’s motivation presents the greatest storytelling opportunity an antagonist can offer, but then methods are most often the minimum areas you need in working order to have a functional antagonist. We see this often in simple stories where the antagonist’s nature comprises their motivation (e.g., the evil world destroyer destroys worlds because he is evil; the hungry fox wants to eat the chicken because she is a hungry fox). All of the areas work together as a whole, but the antagonist’s motivation is the most explicit one for contributing to the story’s meaning and focus. If the antagonist’s motivation compels sympathy, if it leads them to only incidental competition with the protagonist, or if “they have a point,” this will more obviously question or complicate what the protagonist has been working towards or against than if the antagonist has wholly, clearly deplorable motivations like Lord Voldemort or the White Witch.

The role of antagonist can also move through all different types of characters or forces as the protagonist struggles against each in turn. The antagonists’ motivations are the most effective way to establish parameters for the new conflicts and competitions with the protagonists. It says something, too, if the antagonist has simple motivations like those I mentioned above, such as if “the Darkness” wants to consume and destroy by its nature as a metaphor for greed. There are also cases where the antagonist has no motivation, like if the protagonist is their own antagonist, or the antagonist is a system or force so present and powerful it is practically characterized. This part of the antagonist’s design and creation will probably come naturally in connection to the conflict and protagonist, but I believe taking the time to consider motivation in full detail will offer great rewards.

Questions:

  • Why does my antagonist want what they want? If they don’t want anything, why are they still acting?
  • How do my antagonists’ motivations compare to my protagonist’s?
  • Do my different antagonists want the same thing? How will their motivations diverge or change over the course of the story?
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