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 get started!
A strong narrative “requires that the Adversary be an actual person,” and it’s essential for you as the writer to know who they are and where they came from (Edson 57). This may be information that only you know; past experiences, traumas, or victories this individual had in their life before the story you’re writing. But these elements help add dimension to your antagonist. These aspects can assist you in deciding how the antagonist approaches problems, makes decisions, and how they react to a variety of situations.
You don’t have to travel back to when they were born, but if there are events in the antagonist’s childhood that explain why they are the way they are, then jotting those moments down can be helpful.
By giving your antagonist a past, you lift them out of the realm of a one-dimensional villain. There’s something in their background that affected them to the point that they have decided that your protagonist is their current opponent. The person who’s preventing them from getting what they want.
Taking the time to think through a bullet-pointed timeline of the antagonist’s life can also come in handy if they need to explain themselves at any point during the story. There has to be some legitimate reason – in their mind – why they are doing what they’re doing. Having those moments decided ahead of time gives you a story from their past to utilize.
In Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos has a moment like this with Doctor Strange.
In this brief conversation, Thanos reveals aspects of his backstory that inform his quest to acquire the Infinity Stones and eliminate half of all life in the universe. Notice how Thanos perceives himself versus how Doctor Strange perceives Thanos and his plan.
What’s My Motivation?
What is the reason the antagonist is doing what they’re doing? Why do they oppose the hero and their goals? Something happened in the antagonist’s life, either in the past or currently, that has driven them to the point where they must stop the main character at all costs. It could be something the protagonist did to them (Changing Lanes). It could be a plan the antagonist had in place that the protagonist tries to stop (Die Hard). No matter what it is, the antagonist must be motivated in their actions against the hero. There has to be a WHY!
While they can have the motivation to stop the main character, there has to be something larger in the antagonist’s world that they want to achieve. This is the element that the protagonist’s actions are preventing.
What motivates them? Greed? Power? Revenge? Those are fine motivations. But suppose we don’t know why they are motivated toward these goals. In that case, the character lacks any real weight, dimension, or interesting qualities.
Let’s look at Syndrome from The Incredibles. When he was younger and went by the name Buddy (aka Incrediboy), he wanted to help Mr. Incredible. Instead, he was told to “fly home.”
This rejection by his favorite superhero motivated Buddy to become Syndrome. His backstory influenced his motivation to transform into a supervillain determined to exterminate all superheroes from existence except himself. His final goal and motivation are given in the video below:
Notice that Syndrome and Thanos both have motivations based on past events that influence their behavior and goals in the present. This is why taking the time to create a backstory for your antagonist can often assist you in crafting a strong motivation for them as the opposition in your story.
We’re getting started! I’ll be back on Wednesday as we continue to explore antagonists all month! See you then!
Edson, Eric. The Story Solution. Michael Wiese Productions, 2011.