Dear Author: We antagonists, villains, bad guys, femme fatales—call us what you will—don’t get no respect. We’re overlooked, underdeveloped and squeezed into a space that would cramp your average gerbil. When we get short shrift, your books aren’t nearly as good as they could be. They lack tension and depth. They’re forgettable. Not that I’m one for pointing fingers, but I’ve got to tell you, it’s your fault. Who was given pages and pages of backstory in your last novel? That’s right—the protagonist. Whose motives and character arc were fully fleshed out? Right again—the so-called “good” guy’s. Who did you “interview” and construct a character bible for? Yeah, him again. Well, I don’t mind getting second billing, but I have to point out that if you gave readers a chance to truly know and understand me, your books would be a lot more memorable and engaging. We might even get a movie deal, like my idol, Hannibal Lecter.
Sincerely, Eva N. Carnate
I don’t know how the above email got into my inbox, but it caught my attention immediately. Did Eva have a point? It didn’t take me long to review my work-in-progress, analyze some novels I’d read recently and realize that she did. Many authors are guilty of discriminating against their antagonists. Yet, they’re just as important to good stories as the protagonists are. If your antagonist is not fully realized, lacks depth or is a caricature of evil, your story will suffer.
—by Laura Disilverio
Luckily, transforming your antagonist from a one-dimensional paper doll into a force to be reckoned with—and remembered—is completely possible if you implement a few simple but powerful methods for creating antagonists and expanding their roles. You can build a worthy adversary during the outlining process or beef one up when you revise your already completed draft. It’s never too late.
The antagonist is, quite simply, the person who acts to keep your protagonist from achieving his goals. Note the key words person and acts. I’m using person here as a catchall for a sentient being or creation of any kind that is capable of emotion and has the intellectual ability to plot against your protagonist. Thus, a personified car (as in Stephen King’s Christine) could be an effective antagonist, but an abstraction such as “society” or “Big Pharma” cannot. (More on this later.)
The antagonist must act to prevent your heroine from achieving her goals, whether that action is whispering reminders that she’s totally useless, plunging a knife into her back or anything in between. The type of action your antagonist takes will depend on his nature and the kind of story you’re writing. But your story must have an antagonist. (In some stories—Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde comes to mind—the protagonist is actually his own antagonist.) Without an active antagonist, your hero could take a leisurely Sunday stroll toward his goal. Lacking the obstacles a worthy antagonist would provide, he would also lack the opportunity for growth or the necessity to change, and his character arc would flatline (as would your sales).
With the following tips in mind, reread your manuscript with an eye toward making your antagonist as compelling as your protagonist. Some effort on your part could even put your villain in the heady company of Professor Moriarty, the White Witch, Simon Legree and Nurse Ratched.
1. Remember that Antagonists are people, too.
I stop reading novels in which the antagonist is obviously nothing more than a device to move the plot in a certain direction. If I can’t empathize with the antagonist, believe in her motives or understand why she’s dishing out evil, I put the book aside. Flesh out your antagonist. Give us an origin story (how she became the way she is) or show that she regrets something and might change if given a chance.
If working with a nonhuman antagonist, personify him at least a little bit. Think of Frankenstein’s loneliness, HAL’s (the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey) jealousy or Shere Khan’s hatred of the “man cub” (The Jungle Book). Show the antagonist doing something nice. Even villains love their mothers or cockapoos, volunteer at soup kitchens or help snow-stuck motorists push their cars out of intersections. Do this early on. Give him believable, even laudable, motives.
Inspector Javert from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is a strong antagonist because his obsession with finding Valjean stems from his belief that stealing is wrong. How many readers would disagree with that? Javert’s insistence that theft is always, without exception, wrong, however, turns his crusade into persecution. His inability to believe that good and evil can coexist in a single man leads him to suicide. His death is one of the story’s tragedies because he has been so thoroughly developed as a character and because we have, from the beginning, understood his motives and his flaws.