There’s a pretty basic storytelling flaw that trips up many writers and that’s creating villains/antagonists who aren’t successful. Let’s define what I mean by successful. A successful antagonist moves the story ahead, directly challenges the protagonist, and has a better than 50% chance of success.
Without a powerful antagonist, your protagonist has nothing substantial to fight against—there’s little reason to cheer for them.
3 Pillars for a Successful Antagonist
- Does the antagonist/villain directly oppose your protagonist’s main plot goal?
- Does the antagonist/villain have a head start?
- Are there aspects of the villain/antagonist we agree with or can even love?
4 Ways to Make Your Antagonist Menacing
Backstory – Your antagonist needs a past and a history. Evil is grown not born. Even if it never comes out in the story, YOU need to know what made them like this.
Justified – Your antagonist is the hero of their own story and can rationally justify their thoughts and actions. Their actions and motivations are not random or nonsensical.
A Moral Code – Your antagonist can’t be completely bad all the time. Let them rescue kittens, love their moms, never break their word, whatever. Some antagonists have a moral framework they restrict themselves to—they only kidnap and murder men who abuse children, for instance. Other people can fall in love with the antagonist. Anyone can fall in love, but is there something in your antagonist worth loving?
Heighten Tension – I recently binged all 7 seasons of Game of Thrones (the last season has been out for over a year now—so there are spoilers ahead). You know what this TV show does really really well? George Martin has crafted some serious underdogs and overwhelming villains and antagonists. It’s an epic, so there are several protagonists and antagonists.
The Lannisters rule everything pretty much, they are fairly formidable, right. They’re already the richest family and in political power when our story opens—and they have a future game plan for longevity. There’s a steady stream of good guys to cheer for and many of them die trying to defeat the Lannisters. As the series progressed, we see the Lannister power base dwindle, die off, get scattered—loyalties are tested and broken.
But just as we begin to yawn because the chink in the Lannister armor is too big to compensate for, the antagonist who’s lurked in the background for several seasons suddenly emerges and forces the board to rearrange itself…The board always remains in the favor of the bad guys—the pieces on the board rearrange themselves according to the actions of the antagonist.
If there’s no struggle, if the threat of loss for the main character isn’t imminent and devastating, there’s no underdog to cheer for.
Check out these posts on writing antagonists.