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.
The Arc of the Antagonist
Once you’ve established where they came from and their motivations, you have to decide where the antagonist is in their life when they enter your story. Much like the protagonist, they are doing something else before they come across their current situation and are determined to reach a goal by the end of the story.
Both characters, of course, are out to prevent the other from achieving their primary goal. And, like the protagonist, the antagonist should be “as complex and as valuable as the hero” (Truby 89). So, while your main focus when writing your story should be on your hero and their actions, motivations, goals, and arc from start to finish, it’s also essential to give time to the antagonist and see what’s going on with them as the story unfolds.
After all, if they are human, they are experiencing emotions, feelings, setbacks, and victories, too. For readers to connect with the antagonist on some level, we have to be given insights into them as the story unfolds.
Look at Scar’s arc in The Lion King. His backstory – being second-born and having a nephew in line for the throne – motivates his desire to wipe out Mufasa (and Simba, too) so he can become king of Pride Rock. And his plan actually works! But he’s an ineffective leader. Once Simba returns from his self-imposed exile, Scar must face the consequences of his actions and is ultimately vanquished.
When it comes to “[a] novel, play, or any type of writing, really is a crisis from beginning to end growing to its necessary conclusion” (Egri 117). Giving readers a strong hero is important, but the opposition has to be equally as compelling and interesting to keep the story moving. You want to keep the audience in suspense, unsure how that hero will defeat their adversary or if evil will win in the end.
Think about other films or books where the antagonist has a strong story arc. These are usually the ones we remember best and have become a part of pop culture.
The Elevated Antagonist
What makes us like a villain? What makes them intriguing to us? What aspects of who they are can make us sad to see them go?
They aren’t just cookie-cutter, boilerplate bad guys. There’s something more to them. Something about them that connects with the audience. They make us laugh. They have a way of speaking or emoting that captivates us. We know they are the antagonist of the movie or book, and we know that we should be rooting against them. But when they’re around, we can’t look away.
The antagonist’s stance is “powerful and compelling, but ultimately wrong,” but that doesn’t mean they have to be a one-dimensional character (Truby 90). Finding ways to draw the audience into their world and humanizing them is a great way to give this character something more.
As you develop their backstory, jot down other activities they enjoy. Do they cook? Garden? Play board games? Do they enjoy dad jokes? Puns? One-liners? These are all things that can influence who they are and give readers a stronger sense of who they are as people.
The villain in your story “can only be humanized by making them vulnerable” (Vogler 74). Maybe they’re lonely and long for love, friendship, or happiness. Could you give us a relatable connection to them? It can still inform their actions and motivations even if it’s not mentioned outright.
Who are some antagonists that you have connected with and why?
There’s more to come! Antagonist April continues on Friday and all month long. See you then!
Egri, Lajos. The Art of Dramatic Writing. Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Truby, John. The Anatomy of Story. Faber and Faber, 2007.
Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Michael Wiese Productions, 1998.