Antagonists are intricate parts to many stories. They vary in types and kinds, too; you have cartoon-esque antagonists and the dark antagonists you never saw coming. You even have personified antagonists, like an internal conflict, a big bad corporation, or maybe a personified antagonist like the annoying neighbor next door in a romcom. In this post, we will discuss my key tips for writing a good antagonist that will leave your reader homicidal!
I have always enjoyed writing villains, and my strongest antagonists are featured in The Infidel Books–which have been endorsed by The Real Book Spy and NYT and USA Today bestseller Rip Rawlings. I’ve also had readers constantly email and message me over how much they hate and/or love my antagonists. Many people requested I give them my tips on writing such good baddies, so here we are!
Note: This article is directed toward a human or humanoid villain, though an antagonist can change definitions, as I mentioned. Also, I use the pronoun “he/they” regularly, but females can be killer antagonists, too, so this isn’t eliminated either gender and these tips can be used interchangeably.
UNDERSTAND YOUR ANTAGONIST’S BASICS
The first step to writing a good antagonist is understanding your antagonist. Obviously, he’ll have some bad goals, or even evil ones. Take time to understand what makes the character tick. Is your character a villain hidden in plain sight? Is your character the classic evil villain who has a black heart? Is your character the hero in his own mind, seeking to do the right thing, even though it’s the wrong thing?
If you have character sheets, or if you just write the bare basics for each character, do the same for your villain. Take note of their age, birth place, existing family members, backstory–any detail you’d write for a protagonist, do the same for the antagonist. This step is fairly crucial because your antagonist should be crucial to the story and the protagonist’s journey. If you don’t understand the villain, how can they be motivating your protagonist? So make your character notes and take time to better understand the basics of your villain. This is also helpful because any known details can sink into your writing without being incredibly telling
MAKE THEM MOTIVATED
Every character must have a goal in a novel. No matter your baddie’s goal, you need to make it strong.
Is your antagonist seeking power? Money? Control? Do they want fear? Love? Respect? Are they lazy, cowardly, or ambitious? Do they like getting dirty or do they prefer henchmen doing the dirty work? Is your villain focused on being wicked or are they the hero in their own mind? Do they have a sob-story background or did they grow up loved and turned bad for the wrong reasons?
Regardless of what his motivation is, ensure it is strong enough to drive the story and the protagonist. If the antagonist has a weak goal and little motivation, it won’t make for a satisfying read.
FORGE THEM A THREATENING PRESENCE
I read a lot of villains in novels that lack one thing–a threatening presence. This is often because a writer is worried “they can’t write a good villain” and skimp it all together, or the writer goes overboard with run-of-the-mill villain one-liners. Disney is known for “cartoon villains” that have no threatening presence whatsoever and are great examples of what NOT to do, but here’s a cartoon that has a GOOD example…
In Mulan, Shan-Yu runs across the village and finds the little girl’s doll. Instead of crushing it, he says, “The quickest way to the emperor is through that pass. Besides, the little girl will be missing her doll. We should return it to her.” Shan-Yu was one of my first experiences with a rather 3D villain. He was not recklessly boisterous or pompously cheesy, like many cartoon villains are. He was calculated, cold, brutal… His threats were in a thought-provoking way each time, instead of, “They’ll be sorry they ever crossed me!” He had a solid goal throughout the movie and never had to be cheesy about it. His threatening presence was solidified by his ability to make you shudder without him even mentioning a gory action outright.
Of course, not every threatening villain must be cold and controlled. Karim from Pursuit of Honor by Vince Flynn is more rash, hot-tempered, and quick to kill anyone who gets in his way without a second thought. Because of his brash personality, and because we see him kill a father and son slowly and without hesitation even though it could’ve been avoided, we understand his presence is threatening. Readers were left biting their nails because what if Karim turned on his own men, who were close to walking away from his cause?
Your antagonist, regardless of the type, must have a presence that does not leave your reader yawning. If your reader is invested in your protagonist, then your antagonist must be a threat to the protagonist, in order for your reader to care about the baddie’s presence. If you’re protagonist isn’t scared, your reader won’t be, either.
SHOW THE ANTAGONIST’S CONTROL THROUGHOUT THE STORY
Another huge tip is to weave the antagonist’s control over your characters–throughout the story. If your villain only gets mentioned two or three times and suddenly appears at the end of the book for a grand climax… readers won’t care.
If your antagonist is a ganglord, show throughout the story how much control they have over their allies, minions, police force, etc. If your antagonist has outwitted his opponents, maybe by hiding in plain sight, placing a mole, or maybe he has inside knowledge, show how he’s gained control because of his power and wits.
No matter the control the antagonist has, do not forget to include it. When bad guys have control and power, it complicates the story, leaving your protagonists with more trials and issues to question and overcome. This makes for a high-stakes, gripping read, because we know the bad guy has control and has a lot of motivation to do even more bad things. Too often, writers eliminate giving the antagonist a solid goal and control, because they fear he might make things too complicated or they can’t handle writing him. If your villain doesn’t challenge you, they won’t challenge your protagonists, so make sure he has enough control to be dangerous. This step is crucial.
MAKE THE ANTAGONIST DIFFICULT TO DEFEAT
The antagonist should not only show his control throughout the novel, but the baddie should win a few times, too. This will alert the readers that anything can happen and they’d best watch out. If the villain is easy to defeat, your reader will not be hooked and will have no reason to worry for the protagonist’s life and goals.
I have countless messages from readers and friends over how much they hate my lead antagonist for The Infidel Books. Why? Because the man has won–many times. He has control but wants more. He’s killed innocent lives and characters we know and loved. He’s calculated but ruthless. Overall, he isn’t easy to defeat, and no one has conquered him. Because he’s believable and also terrifying, my readers keep reading the series and keep telling me how much they hope he dies.
However, if the antagonist lacks motivation, power, motivation, or the reader never sees him gain a win or two… it will difficult to raise the stakes. This way, when your protagonist does win in the end (whether at the end of book one or the series), your reader has become invested, and was tense the whole time because your antagonist really had ’em going, there!
These are my basic tips on writing a killer villain! If you want MORE tips, tell me in the comments, I may write another post for this. If these tips helped, or you have tips of your own, let’s chat in the comments below!
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