Better antagonists create better protagonists. Our novels revolve around these characters. Without strong adversaries, our heroes have nobody to test them. Great antagonists force them to learn about their weaknesses and to realise their strengths.
If the antagonist exists to make or break the protagonist, it follows that we need to create a worthy character for this role. Two-dimensional villains are not good enough. If they are weak, our protagonists will easily find ways to beat them and we will bore our readers.
By crafting a worthy adversary who is able to push the protagonist’s buttons, we write better stories. Readers want us to show them antagonists who are as interesting and as nuanced as they are dangerous.
How do we do this?
- Make them complex. Our antagonists should be the most complex characters in our books. They expose our protagonists’ fears and weaknesses, and they are a constant source of conflict. Shallow, obvious antagonists are tedious for both readers and writers.
- Make them ambitious but not obvious. Nakedly ambitious people are too predictable. Their aggression often defeats them because their actions force us to reveal their true nature too early in a story.
- Make them enjoy their work. We spend most of our lives working so a successful antagonist who is happy at work would be much more dangerous than somebody who hates what he or she does.
- Make them curious. People who never stop learning are dangerous. They will out-think and outwit us. This quality gives them the depth and the ability to surprise and shock us. A lazy antagonist is boring.
- Allow them to explore the world. Let them travel. Expose them to different ways of life and different world views. They can use this knowledge at unexpected moments.
- Unleash their creativity. Let them paint or draw or write. Creative people look at problems differently. They are more likely to find ways to beat the odds and to get themselves out of difficult situations. Examples: Tom Ripley from The Talented Mr Ripley paints and gardens; Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair sings, acts, and plays the piano.
- Make them fit in. Even if they don’t really, and even if they are loners, their ability to adjust to their surroundings and make allies makes them stronger.
- Make them care about the details. The devil is in them, after all. People who notice things can use them to their advantage.
- Allow them to be flexible. They should know when losing a battle will allow them to win a war. They should be able to take no for an answer, and to deal with setbacks.
- Create them first. Taking our antagonists seriously and creating these characters before we create our heroes will stimulate our imagination. It gives us a unique perspective, which will add depth and texture to our storytelling.
Antagonists drive our protagonists because they create the impetus for them to act. They force them to change and to want something different. This is what makes their lives interesting and this is why readers read novels. They are too important to be shallow.
‘You don’t really understand an antagonist until you understand why he’s a protagonist in his own version of the world.’ ~John Rogers