What would Harry Potter be like without Lord Voldemort? What would Black Panther be like without Killmonger? What would The Silence of the Lambs be like without Hannibal Lecter? And whatever would be the point of The Dark Knight without the Joker?
It has been said time and again that the strength of a story lies in the strength of the antagonist. They are the ultimate obstacle in the hero’s path. But this is where most beginner authors tend to stray away: ultimate obstacle does not mean a randomly evil illogically powerful person that the hero will defeat last.
An antagonist is the toughest game-changing life-altering and terrifying type of conflict. And if this conflict is a character (it can be a corporation or a nation or just internal challenges) – then they need to have a past, personality, ambition and agency. Voldemort had his lonely troubled childhood, was a shrewd skilled albeit cold person who was quite fearful of death, wanted to reform his society (and kill Harry Potter) and definitely acted upon his ambitions rather than waiting for his enemies to walk up to him. That’s not too hard to believe, right? Similar conclusions can be drawn from all memorable villains in the realm of fiction – they are not too complex and arouse some amount of empathy. They are great not just when pit against the hero, but as standalone characters as well.
So, what does it take to write a fully fleshed out villain? Bestselling author Kevin Missal shares the advice that helped him while constructing Andhaka, the antagonistic character in his latest novel Narasimha.
1. Personify, not objectify
Nothing affects the human psyche like the fears and insecurities we humans face. Dramas and romantic comedies often feature antagonists who are jealous, insecure, racist, bullies, etc., but otherwise quite human. Even if your antagonist commits terrible crimes, their source must lie in some very human defects. A display of emotions, at least in private, works well too. Emotional reactions like pain, mortification, happiness – all add to the intensity of an antagonist.
2. Silver Lining in a Dark Character
Let them have a few redeemable qualities – a moment of kindness, a fondness for dogs – something to balance out the negativity and give a hint of possible redemption, even if there is none.
3. Mirror the Protagonist
Making the antagonist quite similar to the protagonist in traits or in past situations can create a powerful dynamic. Both Harry Potter and Voldemort were orphans, had a loveless childhood, were half-bloods, considered Hogwarts their only home and shared twin core wands.
4. Killing is Not a Standard Pastime
Plotting with an evil smile is not one either. Give them a regular hobby – weightlifting like Francis Dolarhyde or reading like Dr. Hannibal Lecter.
5. Evil Look vs. Looking Evil
Give them a reasonable appearance. Looks and villainy are not dependent on each other. Expressions can be dark but your antagonist could be beautiful like Cersei Lannister or a perfectly ordinary person next door.
6. Past, Present…
Now that you have given your antagonist some unique traits, give them some history. Providing a suitable backstory adds depth to the character. It is a great way to justify their motives, reactions and situation, along with giving the readers an insight into why they are the way they are. Both Andhaka and Hiranyakashyap have terrible things happen to them in their pasts that shape their present.
7. …And Future
Don’t stop at the troubled past; let your character react and evolve as the story progresses and give them a reasonable future – an arc, and a resolution. Thomas Barrow of Downton Abbey plays an antagonistic role throughout the series but his experiences transform him and reveal him to be a more tragic figure by the end, although he does not lose his basic element of pride.
8. Give them a cause, avoid just because
An antagonist is a character first. Characters have reasonable motives. For a villain, they include, but should surely not be limited to, defeating the hero. Avoid clichés like world domination – even Thanos, whose actions altered the entire universe did not ultimately wish to rule it. An antagonistic character has to oppose the protagonist logically through conflicting goals, conflicting morality or a conflicting worldview. And in their heads, the antagonists are the heroes. To them, their motives and actions justified even if their logic is twisted. Killmonger believes that Wakanda has a responsibility to help (and establish Wakandan hegemony on) African population world over, but T’Challa believes in keeping Wakanda’s advances a secret. To achieve his goal, Killmonger has to become the ruler of Wakanda and this is where T’Challa, the new king, really becomes his enemy.
9. Make It Personal
Fulfilling an objective, no matter how impersonal and grand it is, requires motivation and determination. The matchless drive of many antagonists is often derived from something personal. We can take the example of Killmonger again – sure, he had the objective of improving the lives of African origin population world over – but his motivation would not hold the same weight if we did not see the death of his father at the hands of his uncle. This fact amplifies his hate towards his cousin, his remaining family at Wakanda and everyone who supported them.
10. Launch ‘em
Bad guys are active characters. They are executors of plans. They have tricks up their sleeves. They have secrets. They are usually a step ahead from the rest until the end. They are powerful – physically or mentally or both – and appear to be invincible even though they really aren’t. The challenge they pose to the protagonist must be a very real one. In fact, the more the balance of power is against the protagonist, the more interesting the battle can be.
11. Give Them a Presence
Introduce your antagonists early, don’t wait till the very end. Sure, they may actually make an appearance late. But establish their presence through other characters talking about them, references of them that continuously dot the life of the protagonist, and the effects of their actions. Lord Voldemort appears quite late in the first Harry Potter book but we are well aware of him and his terrorising ways since the very beginning.
12. Let Them Change the Game
Many writers use antagonists to drive home a point. Effective antagonists end up changing the protagonists fundamentally. Frodo Baggins carries permanent scars – literal and metaphorical after his quest. T’Challa also finds his views changed after facing Killmonger, and ends up revealing the existence of Wakanda to the world. Beyond the story, Killmonger embodies the idea of Pan-Africanism.
In conclusion, an outstanding antagonist is a powerful character in itself, with a distinct personality and clear motivations. They are heroes in their own heads and are written with as much care as the protagonist. Remember that there are various ways to introduce antagonism into a story, and a villain is only one of them. It can also come from within, inner struggles that torment the protagonist work well in every genre whether there is one main antagonistic character or not.
Who is your favourite bad guy and why? Let us know in the comments below!