By Brooke Thompson
You may have heard the saying “a story is only as good as its characters.” This statement is only half true. A story is only as good as its antagonist; therefore, you can’t have a good story without an antagonist.
While antagonists can be virtually anything – an element, monster, animal, or person – it is important to give them defining features, a motivation (no matter how trivial) that prevents the main character from achieving their goals, a way to be defeated, and, depending on the story, a backstory on why they became villains. Here is how to create an antagonist your readers are sure to love.
What Is An Antagonist?
The antagonist of the story is someone or something that is keeping the main character from their goal. In literature, there are four main types of antagonists:
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1. The Classic Villain
In many stories, the classic villain is the evil character of the story that is out to destroy the main character. They typically are defined by their ruthless behavior, unforgivable actions, a desire to control, and their ominous, sometimes elusive presence.
Some examples of villains from children’s and young adult literature are:
Tigerstar from Warriors – This cat is a great example of a villain. He was a once respected deputy of Thunderclan, when his desire for power corrupted him and made him go on a murdering spree. He is manipulative, heartless, and cruel – willing to kill his former friends and clanmates for the chance to become clan leader. Even after his exile, he stalks the protagonist Fireheart, leads a pack of dogs to ravage his former clan, and even forges an alliance with an enemy clan to gain control over the whole forest.
Victoria from Twilight – Victoria has an ominous presence in the first three Twilight books. She aims to kill Bella Swan so Edward would feel the same pain she felt when her mate James died. In New Moon, she sends her friend Laurent to murder Bella. However, when that doesn’t work, she creates an army of vampires in Eclipse to destroy Edward’s coven and kill Bella. She even manipulates a poor teenager into a relationship, so he can help her run her army and give her information about Forks. The fact she is hardly present in the books make her an ominous, terrifying character.
2. The Opposing Character
What separates an opposing character from a classic villain is the fact they serve as an obstacle in the protagonist’s path and are not out to destroy the protagonist. While opposing characters are normally bully type characters, they don’t have to necessarily be mean to the protagonist.
L from Death Note – L, a world-renowned detective, is trying to catch Kira. Light, who believes is doing the world a favor by punishing criminals with the death note, has to be extra careful in his behaviors when L accuses him of being Kira. The detective bugged Light’s room, agreed to placing him in a jail cell to supervise him, and even went as far to handcuff himself to Light to ensure he isn’t Kira.
Lisette from Bewitching – Lisette is Emma’s beautiful stepsister that gets everything she wants and tries to outshine Emma in every possible way. She uses her tragic backstory of her mother passing away to get a solo in choir, despite Emma working hard to get the role. Lisette spreads rumors about Emma to make sure she doesn’t have friends, and even goes as far as to steal her boyfriend.
3. An Inanimate Force
An inanimate force antagonist can be anything, like an organization, nature, society, or even technology. This type of antagonist shares the same characteristics as the classic villain, yet this type is especially scary since they have infinite resources, loyal subjects, and sometimes the classic villain leads the organization.
Some examples of inanimate forces in literature include:
The Capitol from the Hunger Games – The Capitol is an organization that controls Panem. Led by the classic villain of the story, President Snow, the Capitol makes all of Panem’s 12 districts force one boy and one girl to fight to the death in the Hunger Games. The Hunger Games serves three purposes: to force the districts to pay tribute for rebelling against the Capitol, to strike fear in its citizens to prevent any further rebellions, and to provide means of sick entertainment for the Capitol people.
The CCG from Tokyo Ghoul – The CCG (Commission of Counter Ghoul) is an organization that is responsible for hunting and disposing of ghouls. They are a major source of conflict throughout the Tokyo Ghoul series as they relentlessly hunt Kaneki and his friends and try to pin numerous crimes on them.
The internal antagonist is a flaw the protagonist is trying to overcome. While protagonists should have a flaw throughout the story, the internal antagonist should be the main conflict of the story. Depending on the story you are writing, whether the main character’s flaw is pride, fear, lack of trust, or even addiction, this trait should be the main antagonist of the story, causing the main character to sabotage themselves.
Examples of internal antagonists in literature are:
Addiction in Crank – When Kristina gets addicted to meth in the beginning of the novel, her entire persona changed. All her character motivations revolved around getting high or finding new sources of meth. She lost a majority of her friends, has a rocky relationship with her family, became a bad student, and even had a teenage pregnancy.
Pride in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes – This story serves as a backstory to The Hunger Games’s cruel President Snow. Snow allowed pride to dictate everything about his life – his mannerisms, speech, and social circle. His flaw got him in trouble throughout the story as he cared more about his reputation, which caused him to get expelled from school and be responsible for Lucy’s disappearance and his friend Sejanus’s death.
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How to Create an Antagonist – Your Villain as an Obstacle
Now that you know the four main types of antagonists, you can begin creating one. Once you have the type in mind, think about what makes your antagonist an obstacle for your character.
If you need help, think about what motivates your antagonist. Giving them a motivation will also help you figure out what defines them as an antagonist, which will eventually lead to how the protagonist can overcome them. We will explore more on these aspects below.
Your Antagonist’s Motivation
Giving your antagonist a motivation will really make your story stand out and make your readers love to hate your antagonist. If you are going for the classic villain or an opposing character type, make sure their motivations are strong.
Depending on the type of antagonist your character is, you can decide how explicit you want their reasoning to be.
Let’s look at the Other Mother from Coraline, for instance. She is an example of a classic villain. What makes her an amazing antagonist is the fact she comes off as a caring mother at first that wants to make Coraline happy. However, the readers see the change in the middle of the book when she is revealed to be a beldam (witch) that feeds off the souls of children.
Her character motivation is pretty terrifying, yet that’s what makes her a compelling character.
Look at Lisette from Bewitching. She’s the opposing character antagonist whose motivation for essentially ruining Emma’s life is jealousy. She is jealous that Emma still has her mom, has a good relationship with her dad, didn’t have to grow up poor, and is beautiful. Throughout the story, Lisette does everything in her power to ensure that Emma is miserable by making sure she stays unpopular, steals her boyfriend, and is always at Emma’s father’s side.
Lisette’s motivation is what made that story so interesting and made us root for Emma.
In a way, the inanimate force antagonists can have motivations, too. While their motivations are more implied to readers, they still can become fascinating villains.
Look at the Capitol from The Hunger Games. Its main motivation is to prevent the districts from rebelling against an oppressive system and create loyal subjects. This is especially evident in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes where Snow is doing everything in his power to look good for the Capitol’s leaders.
Your Antagonist’s Defining Features
A common complaint amongst readers is how some stories’ antagonists’ motivations do not make any sense or are weak. To ensure that doesn’t happen, deciding what defines your chosen antagonist as an obstacle will help majorly with their motivation.
First, think about what aspects about them make them an antagonist. Many writers give their antagonists tragic backstories to help define them.
Let’s look at Luke from Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. He is a classic villain whose tragic backstory is that the Oracle of Delphi cursed his mother with getting glimpses of the future. As a result, his mother went crazy. She abused and neglected Luke as a result.
Since Luke was the son of Hermes, he hardly heard from his dad and was constantly chased by monsters up until he found refuge at Camp Half-Blood – a summer camp for demigods. On his way to Camp Half-Blood, he watched his best friend Thalia get killed by monsters. The final straw was when he went on a quest to steal a golden apple when he got attacked by a dragon and failed his quest.
This backstory became the catalyst for him to join the titan Kronos’s forces, who offered him a permanent home, support, and to become the leader of his army.
This story defines Luke’s character as it shows that he came from a broken home, went through numerous traumatic experiences, and nobody seemed to care about him. When Kronos visited Luke in a dream inviting him to join him and providing him that support and praise he desperately craved, readers could understand why Luke did not hesitate to accept the titan’s offer.
Outside of a tragic backstory, there are other ways of defining an antagonist. If you have a classic villain or an opposing villain who has a more ominous presence in the story, giving them intimidating features or crude behaviors helps with that as well.
Look at Voldemort from Harry Potter. While in the Half-Blood Prince we understand why Voldemort became a villain, there are other aspects that make him a memorable antagonist.
For starters, his unbelievable power. He was able to cheat death because he split his soul seven times and placed them in objects called horcruxes. Next, his charm. He was able to convince hordes of wizards, creatures, and even humans to join his cause. He offered them positions of powers or manipulation to get him to join his side.
His hatred for mudbloods (wizards that did not come from wizarding families or are half wizard-half human) is what ultimately makes Voldemort a terrifying character. He aims to destroy all the mudbloods because his human father rejected him and he was bullied by the children at the orphanage.
Finally, his image. How J.K. Rowling describes him is disturbing. Voldemort has red eyes with slitted pupils, has pale white skin, is tall, and dresses in a flowy, black robe. That image alone is enough to send anyone running.
How the Protagonist Can Defeat the Villain
After you have given your antagonist a motivation and have defined them, now you must decide how your protagonist can defeat them. It’s imperative you give your antagonist a flaw or a weakness. Without a flaw, your protagonist will either overcome them with ease or have a difficult time defeating them (unless that is the point of the story).
Here are some examples of antagonists’ flaws or weaknesses.
In Warriors, Tigerstar’s flaw ambition was also his biggest weakness. He wanted so desperately to become leader that he allied himself with a dangerous clan leader who eventually murdered him. In Bewitching, Lisette’s jealousy led to her being publicly rejected by a celebrity who chose Emma over her.
Inanimate force and internal type antagonists can have weaknesses, too. In Tokyo Ghoul, the CCG’s weakness is that their knowledge on ghouls is limited. Ghouls blend into human society so well that it’s difficult to find a problematic one. In Crank, Kristina’s addiction was crippled by her eventual reconnection with her mother and having a baby.
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While it’s easy coming up with an antagonist, it may be tricky creating an antagonist that truly hinders the protagonist. Once you have learned how to create an antagonist, you may still find it difficult to create the perfect antagonist. However, by defining what makes them an antagonist, giving them a motivation, and giving them a weakness/flaw, you are on your way to creating a memorable antagonist that your audience will love to hate.