It’s Antagonist April, and all this month, I’ll be doing a deep dive into those characters that give our heroes and main characters opposition to their goals. This week, we’ll discuss developing a compelling antagonist for your story.
Let’s Talk About the Opposition to the Opposition
After all, without this individual, the antagonist would have free reign to create chaos and do whatever they want. And while that’s fine in theory, the protagonist exists to give the antagonist some pushback against what they want to achieve. This, in turn, creates conflict, increasing the story’s stakes.
Both characters need to have something to lose if they fail. The back and forth between the two should lead to an escalation in the stakes, and this escalation helps to propel the story forward.
“For the actions of the main character to be experienced as heroic, you need a very powerful antagonist. The more powerful the antagonist, the greater the likelihood that the main character will be perceived as heroic” (Dancyger & Rush 60). Let’s talk about a familiar movie: Die Hard.
When John McClane enters Nakatomi Plaza, he’s an unarmed NYPD cop just there to visit his ex-wife during a Christmas party. Little does he know that Hans Gruber and his goons are on their way to disrupt and wreak havoc throughout the building.
McClane is outnumbered but slowly takes out the opposition, goon by goon. But Gruber has the upper hand all the way to the climax when he has McClane’s wife at gunpoint, and stakes are escalated to a fever pitch.
Die Hard shows us that it’s okay – in fact, important – that your antagonist be stronger and more resourceful than the hero. Suppose they begin their conflict at the same level, or the protagonist has the upper hand from the start. In that case, it can drain any potential conflict or drama from the story. So, knock that hero off his pedestal. Have him wrongly accused of murder (The Fugitive), have them captured by terrorists and seriously injured (Iron Man), or send them to law school where they’re ostracized and an outsider (Legally Blonde).
At the same time, make sure the antagonist has the upper hand. They have all the tools, resources, and people to cause problems for the main character. Make the hero work for their goal, and allow the antagonist to enjoy their time, making the hero suffer.
I’ve said this in past posts, but it’s worth repeating: you must have fun and enjoy the process. Writing can be challenging, but creating a compelling narrative with strong characters should be an enjoyable experience.
Creating and developing a worthy opponent for your hero can be a cathartic experience. Most antagonists play by their own rules and moral code, so you can have a great time making them as eccentric and evil as you wish. This is the time to get it out on the page and explore this character’s many dimensions.
What can you bring to your antagonist that will make your hero fight harder than they ever have? What can you create that will make readers perk up even more when the antagonist appears?
If you are having issues and problems with your antagonist, you may want to look at their relationship with the protagonist and figure out how to mold the opposition into a character that really gets under the hero’s skin. One thing to think about as you create this important character is that “[a]ttacking the hero’s weakness is the central purpose of the opponent” (Truby 95).
Play around, enjoy the process, and have fun creating this key character in your story!
Week #2 Wrap-Up
This week we explored ways to develop a strong antagonist for your story. We discussed crafting a backstory for the character to give them depth and events in their past that could influence their current actions. We discussed their motivations within your story and talked about why they oppose the protagonist.
Then we discussed crafting an arc for your antagonist and ways you can elevate this character from a one-dimensional villain to a person with substance and nuance.
And finally, we discussed how this character’s role is to make life hard for the hero.
Once again, I’ve enjoyed sharing my thoughts and insights on antagonists, and I look forward to sharing more with you in the coming weeks.
Starting Monday, we’ll look at Case Studies focused on three movie antagonists. See you then!
Dancyger, Ken & Jeff Rush. Alternative Scriptwriting. Focal Press, 2007.
Truby, John. The Anatomy of Story. Faber and Faber, 2007.