The Portrait Of The Antagonist As A Human Being

The Portrait Of The Antagonist As A Human Being


Steel Magnolias is a story about a group of women, but focuses on M’Lynn, who is the protagonist and Shelby, her daughter. Shelby is the antagonist, because she wants to have a baby. What mother doesn’t want her happily married, financially secure daughter to have a baby? Well, the mother of a Type 1 diabetic, that’s who. Even though she is an over-bearing mother, she only wants what is best for her child. No axe-wielding psychopath here.

Although, we like those too. In The Silence of the Lambs, it’s tempting to peg Hannibal as the antagonist, because he is such an all-consuming character, but the antagonist is Buffalo Bill. He kills women and Clarice’s goal is to stop him. By definition, Hannibal fits the role of the friend character, because he shares the same goal as Clarice, but we’ll agree he’s not her friend. Don’t let the definition or the name of the character-type fool you. Think of the function of the character.  This can also change during the story. Once Hannibal escapes, his capture becomes the new goal.

In Star Wars, Darth Vader is the Antagonist. In Guess How Much I love You, Big Nut Brown Hare is the antagonist. In The Lucky One by Nicholas Sparks, the ex-husband is the antagonist. They all oppose the protagonist’s goal.

Sometimes your protagonist finds himself fighting a system, consider for example, writing a story set during World War 2. Who will the antagonist be? It’s obvious that your protagonist will come up against the Nazis. Hitler was the biggest evil of the time, but very few Jewish people came into direct contact with him.

In The Book Thief, Hitler is Liesl’s sworn enemy, but he is personified in the characters that present the Nazi ideal, for example, Hans Hubermann Jnr, Frau Dille, Franz Deutscher and Viktor Chemmel.

In Schindler’s List, the antagonist is Amon Goeth, the sadistic camp commandant. Although they are fighting a system, it still works best if your protagonist is in physical contact/fight/conflict with the antagonist. We need a final show down.

Your antagonist can also have minions, as in his very own army. Voldemort has Death Eaters and Dementors, Sauron has the Nazgul and Darth Vader has Stormtroopers. Those are the characters who do their bidding, but if you can, let the main battle take place between the hero and the villain. Even in Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone, Voldemort is present in the end, even if he is on the back of Quirrel’s head.

You should spend as much time getting to know your antagonist as you spend getting to know your protagonist. They are as important. Your protagonist is only as good as your antagonist. Your antagonist should have his or her own motivations for wanting to stop the protagonist. Be careful of creating a character that exists solely to oppose your protagonist. Your characters should be so well developed that you should be able to flip the story around. You should be able to tell the story equally well from your antagonist’s point of view.

You can try to write a few major scenes in the opposite character’s viewpoint and draw up the same list of internal and external changes for your protagonist as you have for your antagonist.

Read more about The Awesome Foursome Fictional Characters

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This article has 0 comments

  1. Adrian Pepperdine

    I have often heard the phrase “your protagonist is only as good as your antagonist” or similar derivatives of it.

    But for some reason I don’t often hear it the other way around. I have come across stories where the villain feels more fleshed out than the somewhat bland hero…but admittedly, I don’t think those stories stayed with me very long.

    So, does it also hold true that your antagonist is only as good as your protagonist?

  2. Ron Erkert

    With regards to Star Wars, I would argue that Vader fits the role of Nemesis rather than Antagonist. Even though he never appears in the first movie (episode IV), Palpatine is the real Antagonist who is manipulating Vader’s actions behind the scenes as is more obvious in later movies.

  3. Mia Botha

    Hello Adrian and Ron, I love your questions. I am going to answer them in a blog post in the upcoming weeks.

    Short answer Adrian: Yes, but we love stories where the underdog triumphs. Think of Rocky. Little guy beats big guy. Make your antagonist strong. Both must be well-rounded and complete though.

    Short answer Ron: You can argue that, but don’t get too caught up in the ‘names’ of the character types. I’ll explain more in a few weeks.

    Happy writing.

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