25 Things You Should Know About Antagonists

1. Real People With People Problems

Antagonists are just people. Er, unless they’re insane sex-bots, sentient washing machines, serial killer dinosaurs, or hyper-intelligent window treatments. But even then, we need to treat them like people. People with wants, needs, fears, motivations. People with families and friends and their own enemies. They’re full-blooded, full-bodied characters. They’re not single-minded villains twirling greasy mustaches.

2. Meaning, They’re Not Just Fuel For The Plot Engine

Character is the driver. Plot is the getaway car. Character drives plot; plot does not drive character. The antagonist isn’t just here as a rock in the stream diverting the plot-churned waters — he does not exist in service to a sequence of events but rather, he exists to change them, sway them, turn them to a sequence he wants — a sequence that stands in opposition to the protagonist. For opposition is key.

3. Like I Just Said, Opposition Is Key

Jeez, weren’t you paying attention? EYES ON ME, SOLDIER. Anyway. The antagonist opposes the protagonist. Theirs are clashing motivations. They possess needs and wants that exist in defiance of one another. The protagonist wants to free the slaves; the antagonist wants to keep them and the power they provide. The protagonist wants to rescue the hostages; the antagonist wants to keep the hostages, or worse, kill ‘em. The protagonist wants a chalupa; the antagonist has stolen ALL THE CHALUPAS. The antagonist can oppose the main character directly, seeking to undo her efforts; or the antagonist can oppose her indirectly, coming at the story at an oblique angle (but still clashing with our protagonist character). But the point is the same no matter how you slice it: the antagonist stands in the way of the protagonist’s goals.

4. I Like Kittens, You Punch Kittens, Now We Fight!

The antagonist is the foil of the protagonist in the very fabric of his character, too — theirs are contrasting personas. At the simplest level, this is heroism versus villainy, but can (and should) go deeper than that. The protagonist is a drunk; the antagonist is a proponent of clean living. The protagonist is a rational woman; the antagonist is a religious zealot. The protagonist likes Batman, PBS, and whiskey. The antagonist likes Spider-Man, telenovelas, and Zima. Character traits existing in disharmony. Thesis, antithesis.

5. Like Krishna, Except A Total Jerkoff

The antagonist is the avatar of conflict. He causes it. His character embodies it. The antagonist is there to push and pull the sequence of events into an arrangement that pleases him. He makes trouble for the protagonist. He is the one upping the stakes. He is the one changing the game and making it harder.

6. Antagonists Think They’re The Protagonists

The antagonist is the hero in his own story. In fact, your story’s protagonist is the antagonist’s antagonist. BOOM DID I BLOW YOUR MIND? People who do bad things often justify their own actions as being somehow positive — Hitler wasn’t just a troll on an international scale. He thought he was the savior of mankind and that his deeply shitty agenda was justified. This isn’t to say that the antagonist’s desires must be noble (“I had to kill all those people to save the orphanage!”), only that he will have convinced himself of his own nobility. The antagonist thinks he’s right. And doing the right thing. Even when it’s awful.

7. Evil For The Sake Of Evil Is Yawntastic, Snoretacular

Antagonists who do evil just to do evil are basically big fucking cartoons. They’re Snidely Whiplash. They’re Cobra Commander. They’re Pageant Moms, Nancy Grace, Rush Limbaugh. In other words: boring, unbelievable, and totally untenable. Give them motivations beyond “being the biggest dick I can be.” Yes, you can in certain modes and stories get away with this (see: Batman’s Joker, or nearly any killer in slasher films), but it’s hard, and it puts an even greater weight on the shoulders of the protagonist.

8. The Motivations Of Awful People

Antagonists must possess believable motivations. And a motivation is the thing we tell ourselves — right? A racist doesn’t act just because he thinks people of other races should experience pain. Racism is far more deeply rooted and often glossed over with justifications — they don’t need to be good motivations or healthy ones, but we need to believe in them. Or, at least, we need to believe that the antagonist believes them. Ask yourself: what does the antagonist tell himself? How does he sleep at night?

9. Black Hats, White Hats, Can’t We All Just Get Along?

All villains are antagonists. But not all antagonists are villains. “Villain” is a perfectly suitable character type in many genre stories: the serial killer, the evil wizard, the twinkly-dick vampire, whatever. But real life doesn’t always offer up “bad guys” (though we’d sure like to see it that way, ahemcoughcough DICKCHENEY hackwheeze). Antagonists can (and often should) fall into that gray zone instead of the bullshit black-and-white dichotomy. Want an example? In First Blood, John Rambo is the protagonist and Sheriff Teasle is the antagonist — but Teasle’s not a “bad guy.” Wrong in a lot of ways, but not villainous.

10. Nemeses And Arch-Enemies

Earlier I referenced antagonists that oppose the protagonist directly — as in, the antagonist has a real firm boner when it comes to fucking with the protagonist (“I peed on your bed, kicked over your houseplants, and skunked all your beer! Ha ha ha, eat a dick, Dave! Again I am triumphant!”). An antagonist of this nature is, of course, a nemesis or arch-enemy of the protagonist.

11. Vivisect Your Favorite Antagonists In Pop Culture

You want to know what goes into a good antagonist, look no further than the stories and pop culture properties you love dearly. Why is Hannibal Lecter a great antagonist? Is he? What about Darth Vader, Voldemort, Khan, Gollum, Norman Bates, Hans Gruber, Annie Wilkes, Prince Zuko, Marlo Stanfield, the Cobra Kai Sensei John Kreese, the monkey from Monkey Shines, or Rob Schneider?

12. Now Look To Your Own Life

Turn now from pop culture and instead look to your own life. Identify your own personal antagonists. Then realize that these are infinitely more complex and sympathetic than you find in a lot of fiction. Our parents are often our antagonists through our teenage years; but they don’t start that way and they often don’t end that way. And oh what a powerful and valuable lesson that is. Now, take it one step further: try to see if you’ve ever been somebody’s antagonist. Surely you have? Your parents probably saw you as one. A teacher, maybe. A forgotten friend. A bullied kid. A sibling. Bring what you discover there into your storytelling. Find the complexity within the antagonist; we don’t need sympathy for the antagonists necessarily, but we demand empathy. If we cannot understand them, then we will not believe in them. More on that soon.

13. Write From Within The Enemy Camp

Write from the antagonist’s point-of-view. Maybe this is something that goes into the story itself, or maybe it’s just an exercise betwixt you and yourownself. But you gotta get all up in them guts, son. You have to wear the antagonist’s skin and use his mind like a helmet. Unpleasant, perhaps, but necessary.

14. Holding Hands With Monsters

We need to sit with the antagonist, too — as the audience, we may not need to, erm, “get all up in them guts,” but we do need time spent with the antagonist for them to bloom as a fully-formed figure in our mind. Give us time with the antagonist away from the main character so that we can see who they are, what they want, why they do what they do. Force us to babysit the monster.

15. Over-Powered Is Under-Interesting

God-like uber-antagonists who never lose and who know everything there is to know and who are forever one step ahead of the game are just as dull as a protagonist who features the same over-powered qualities. (Worse, an antagonist of this particular caliber must often be trumped on a technicality.) It’s called “a game of cat-and-mouse,” not “a game where the mouse goes up against an orbital laser built by Jesus.” Though, now that I say that out loud, I’m pretty sure my next book will prominently feature a Jesus-built orbital laser. Dibs! DIBS. I called dibs. Get away from that idea or I’ll stab you with a barbecue fork.

16. (But We Won’t Buy “Under-Powered,” Either)

The antagonist has to be a real challenge, just the same. Weak-kneed noodle-spined dumb-fuck antagonists need not apply. Give the protagonist something to do. A believable foe goes a long way, especially one that has some advantage over our main character — we want to worry that the antagonist can’t be beaten. Not because he’s a hyper-powered god-like genius, but because he’s just that much smarter, stronger, and more capable than our hero. Lack of antagonistic power means a lack of tension. So, uhh, don’t do that.

17. Still Abide By The Rules And Laws Of The Storyworld

The protagonist must work within the storyworld — the antagonist must, too. All the characters are chained to the world you create. The antagonist may exploit the storyworld, may circumvent the rules in some fashion, but it is not in ignorance of those rules as much as a character-driven contravention of them.

18. Chatty Cathy Clip Your Strings

“Ahh, Mister James Q. Clark Kent Bondwalker, Jr. — now that I have you dangling over a pit of a starveling toddlers covered in the bloody marrow-jam of the bones of their gummed-to-death opponents, let me bore you with the the entire breadth and depth of my plan! I will share for you my motivations, my weaknesses, and give for you a glimpse of my end-game. Do I expect you to talk, Mister Bondwalker? No. I expect you to die. And, failing that, I expect you to use my confession against me at a later date because that’s what the Villain Manual suggests is most likely to happen.” Get done with chatty tell-don’t-show antagonists. No more villains who over-share expository details. Ugh.

19. Freak Me Out By Forcing Me To Emotionally Connect

Once, just once, put me on the same page as the antagonist. He can be vile as fuck — a kitten-kicker, a baby-puncher, a drives-too-slow-in-the-left-lane, ejaculates-in-coin-return-slots kind of dude. But then, make me connect with him: something he does, something he believes, should be something I would do, something I believe. Or connect me to his past — help me understand why he jizzes on public phones and karate-chops puppies. Empathy is powerful stuff. Connect me to the protagonist and I identify with his struggle. Connect me with the antagonist and I identify — even if in a fleeting way — with his villainy.

20. Antagapalooza

Worth noting: just as you can have multiple main characters, you can have multiple antagonists. An ensemble of opponents works — it just requires balance to make sure they all get enough story-time.

21. Arctagonist

The antagonist can have an arc. Should have an arc, actually. An antagonist doesn’t start at Point A and end at Point A. He changes and grows (or sometimes shrinks), same as the protagonist. Don’t assume the antagonist needs to be a static, unswerving face of conflict — have his character shift with changing conditions, have his madness deepen, his hatred or pain worsen, his zealotry catch like a grease-fire.

21. Ideas And Institutions And Other Non-Charactery Antagonists

An antagonist needn’t actually be a character — an antagonist can be an idea (“racism”), an institution (“the CIA”), a natural force (“Another Paul Blart movie”). Zombies probably count as this sort of antagonist — they’re relatively faceless and on par with a hurricane or disease. Just the same, antagonism always deserves the face of some character — a character championing an idea (dragon-wizard poo-bah of the KKK!), working for the institution (callous field agent!), or complicating the natural force (Kevin James!).

23. The “Kick The Cat” Moment

In Blake Snyder’s books, he speaks of giving the hero a “Save the Cat” moment — meaning, we get to rally behind the protagonist early on as we get to see just what he’s capable of because, y’know, he rescues the cat from the tree (metaphorically). Antagonists need the reverse: one requires a “Kick the Cat” moment (see also: “Detonate the Puppy,” “Machine Gun the Dolphin,” or “Force the Baby Seal to Watch a Marathon of the Real Houswives of Fucking Anywhere Ever” moment). We need to see just why the antagonist is the antagonist — show us an act that reveals for us the depths of his trouble-making, his hatred, his perversion of the ethical laws and social mores of man.

24. Let The Antagonist Win

Let the antagonist win. Maybe not at the end, but periodically, throughout. Let him break Batman’s back, or kill a hostage, or take all the toilet paper off the roll and *crash of thunder* fail to replace it.

25. Love To Hate, Hate To Love

If you ignore everything else I wrote here (and for all I know, you will, you sonofabitch) then at least absorb this with your squirming storytelling cilia: the biggest and best test of an antagonist is that I want to a) love to hate them and/or b) hate to love them. Do either or both and it’s a major win. If you make me love them and I feel uncomfortable about that? You win. If you make me despise them and I love despising them the way a dog loves to roll around in roadkill? You win again. I hate that I love Hans Gruber. I love that I hate every Nazi in every Indiana Jones movie. For fuck’s sake, make me feel something.


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72 comments

  • Number 12 just blew my mind. I think I just hit some repressed memories and need to get serious help.

    And how do you feel about stories where the antagonist isn’t necessarily a character but an environment or force of nature? Do you think these can hold up, or does that not count as an antagonist at all?

  • Here’s a question for you Chuck,

    So in a series I’m working on, the FINAL antagonist could possibly violate rule 15, or at least comes close to violating it. In this case he is physically (or I guess you could say sci-fi-magically) powerful, but I mitigate that by making him have mental and emotional weaknesses and constraining him within society. He may be able to level a city, for example, but if he doesn’t know the city or he doesn’t want the bad press that leveling the city would bring, he’s powerless.

    Another issue is that he’s present from the beginning of the series. For a long time he’s supposed to play the part of mentor to the protagonist, but when he flips the script it follows logically that the two of them would face off. This would result in a super-dead protagonist way too early, so I fix THAT by giving the antagonist a far bigger problem than the protagonist to deal with, meanwhile sending subordinates to do the job.

    Are these believable fixes/acceptable “rule” breaking/motivations in your opinion?

    Thanks!

  • One of my favourite authors (until the last few books, of course, they were rubbish) is Guy Gavriel Kay who writes fantasy stuff; and in “The Lions of Al-Rassan” he does a wonderful shitty annoying thing — he has main characters on opposing sides of the conflict. Each person has heroic aspects and faults, some people are more obviously “good guys” and “bad guys”, but Kay gets you to love people on both sides of the story and then throws them against each other so you don’t know who to root for. Bastard!

  • Thanks, this one has actually really helped me. My antagonist is currently far too ‘evil for the sake of it’ and obvious, so I know in the rewrites I need to do some serious work into character.

  • I’m conscious that antagonists are my weak point – I tend to go too far in the opposite direction from “evil for evil’s sake” and have a lot of empathy for them! Also, in my first book, I felt that knowing who the villain was too soon would mean a lot of spoilers, as well as a lot of infodumping – I wanted the reader to discover the enemy’s covert agenda along with the hero.

    However the subject of killer villains (pun intended) is something I’m trying to address in future projects…

  • Strangely enough, I have no problem writing antagonists. I follow a lot of your points here, especially in making their beliefs, wants and goals. They all have depth, character, struggles, strengths and weaknesses that define them as people first and bad guys second. My problem was protagonists. I can’t write one that doesn’t sound too good to be true and two dimensional. So I started looking at it from a new angle; write them as antagonists. It’s the only way my hero seems real because hey no one is perfect.

  • I’m writing a romance novel, and I know that my antagonist is a “force” but I’m not sure it’s definable, or if there’s actually only one antagonistic force keeping the lovers apart, but several. I think that’s okay, but should it be? (Feeling insecure this morning.)

  • An excellent example of the protagonist / antagonist relationship that covers a lot of these points is Ray banks’ novel SATURDAY’S CHILD.

    He alternates between the protagonist’s and antagonist’s points of view and they have such distinct voices that you never lose track.

    It’s clear which is which but the lines between protagonist and antagonist get very blurry. It gets into the antagonist’s head as much as the protagonist’s and even though there are moments where you an sympathize with the antagonist, it’s more that you get a really good view into what makes him such a monster.

    It’s less sympathy and more understanding.

  • I just want to say that this:

    “Though, now that I say that out loud, I’m pretty sure my next book will prominently feature a Jesus-built orbital laser. Dibs! DIBS. I called dibs. Get away from that idea or I’ll stab you with a barbecue fork.”

    pretty much made me glad I wasn’t drinking anything at the time because I started laughing out loud in the middle of work.

    Fantastic, funny list, as always. :-)

  • Jesus is going to be mad when he finds out you’ve been using his orbital laser to cook hot dogs. Again. And use tongs instead, while you’re at it. Barbecue forks poke holes and let the tasty juices out.

  • #6: Antagonists think they’re the protagonists.

    I was thinking of examples where the antagonists actually ARE the protagonists, and the first thing to come to my mind was Frank Grimes from The Simpsons. Seriously, how terrible a person is Homer Simpson?

    Also, Walter White.

  • I recently got the novel I am working on appraised by a freelance editor. She said she preferred the antogonist to the protagonist. I can’t work out if that’s a good thing or not.

  • @Tom Sharp – is it possible that your antagonist is just more interesting than the protagonist? If so, what can you do to make the protagonist more interesting? A little more complex, more conflicted? Does the protagonist reveal any faults or weaknesses?

    As to whether it’s a good thing that your reviewing editor preferred the antagonist to the protagonist, I’d say it’s a good thing if you can figure out what you’re doing in your writing that made that character work better on some level.

  • Thank-you for adding Prince Zuko in your list of examples in #11! His story arc is one of the best examples of well-paced character development I have ever seen.

    Fleshing out antagonist characters is probably my favorite thing to do when writing any story.

  • Hey Chuck,

    Thanks for this post my man, this was really helpful. I’m working on an epic fantasy thing, and my protagonist is technically the antagonist, as far as the rest of the storyworld is concerned. This was really helpful in pointing out some things to keep in mind as I begin to write him and the world he occupies. Guess the question becomes, how do I write a sympathetic character, who, while our pov protagonist, is actually known as the antagonist? Something to keep in mind, I suppose.

    Thanks again, godspeed!

  • Question:
    What if your antagonist exists purely to be a douchebag and cause pain, but in doing so, turns one or more of the protagonists into his (and her) own antagonist? Legit? Or do I have to start all over again? Again :-)

  • There is a local restaurant that has hundreds of thousands of dollar bills stapled to the walls and ceiling. The ones on the ceiling are stapled on a short end, so the rest of the bill hangs down, softly undulating in the breeze. The lighting is low. They serve booze. I inevitably get drunk and paranoid that the restaurant is in fact digesting me with it’s sinister green cilia.

  • More good shit, Chuck — thanks. After reading this, I got a bit worried about my current effort, and then concluded that the antagonist is time…or a lost potential future.

    Or I could be fucked up and not really get the whole antagonist thing. But I think I’m good for now.

    If I have to destroy the story to save it, I will.

  • @#7, Not that a good story couldn’t be told about the Cobra Commander, or Rush Limbaugh, or the Cobra Commander fighting Rush Limbaugh on the back of a giant Iguanodon… next flash fiction?

  • #15 Underpoweredis more interesting…. Look at the two top Comic Book villains; The Joker and Lex Luthor. No powers. Average Joe Lex Luthor has been outwitting the all-powerful Superman for decades.

  • @Tom Sharp-
    That’s kind of my fear. In my current work, the Antagonist is just fucking awesome. The protagonist is rather…milquetoast. I”m still on first draft, so I can fix that. But don”t let it get you down.
    Maybe–oh, hell, this is a great idea–maybe the Protagonist needs to step up his game. Get his hands dirty. Get angry. Cross the line. Sink to the Antagonist’s level–even a little.
    I think it’ll work for mine. I hope it works for yours. I’m glad we had this talk.

  • Heh, I have to admit I do learn a lot from this blog.

    The truth is I’m in fact an immature 17 year old kid dreaming big at the moments, but reading your blog, Chuck, has helped me develop so much more than I’ve ever imagined. I thank you for that.

    And yes I know in the past I’ve sent you hopelessly immature and unacceptable content before, but I am just immature at heart, sorry. Although yes I’ve grown a lot since I last commented here I will, for my own good resist commenting here unless it’s 100% useful, so I bid you Adoo for now and I will hope I can learn much more from this blog in the future.

    I wish you further success in your writing career and I hope to see more gems from you in the future.

  • But something more on-topic. When making major characters I try to treat them all like they could be a main charcter in another book, not just some undevelped flat charceters you see for two seconds. Although a story requires a lot of them, too, the main “core” characters (typically including the hero, his family, and of course, the villain) that a novel spends most of its time focusing on I feel like should receive almost equal development, second to only th main charcter, as, well you can’t have help but develop him or her more than everyone else. I’m experimenting with this new littleidea of mine where I have a book focus on multiple main characters, both on opposite sides of a war, both looking simply to further their own gains, and neither really that much better than the other. Because in real life there really are very few bad guys that do bad simply because they feel like it. They all have their own agenda and merely want the best for themselves. And honestly with America, the supposedly “good” guys in the world doing horrific things in our long history, you can’t help but think who, if anyone, really is the “good” guys in the world.

  • Concerning #!@… Except for the drill sergeants in basic (necessary), and some drunk rednecks after I moved from NY to NC as a teenager, I don’t think I have ever had any antagonists. There was that one guy in Panama City (Central America not Florida) who, while I was walking from the casino to the bordello, wanted to deposit a knife in my gut and withdraw my wallet (they have different kinds of atm down there), but I don’t think he had anything against me personally (btw, I kept my wallet and still have his knife).

    Of course, I have always wanted, and hoped for, something more than an antagonist… a nemesis or an arch enemy but that has never materialized. I mean there was that time in west Philly back in the early ’80s when I was running numbers for an Irish group of gentlemen. Things kind of went badly and they somehow got it in their heads that I had something to do with it (completely unfounded, I assure you) so I went and spent four or seven months in the SE of England and Brittany in France.

    Other than that, I can’t say I have had much experience with antagonists unless you move to the metaphorical realm in which case Death does keep trying to kill me but after falling off a mountain (sort of, there was one last tree before the precipice), being buried underwater, having a parachute collapse above me, and being shot at by a different red neck while water skying he has given up and is waiting for me to die a slow death of boredom.

    This has inspired me. I think I’ll go out and get into an argument this evening. Hegel’s foolishness is always a great place to start. All I read is fiction and I have worked my whole life to create a good story. My youth and agility are gone and all I have now are wit and experience. Live life until you can’t do it anymore!

  • Well, you were right! Number 6 most definitely DID BLOW MY MIND!! :) )

    This is one of the best posts I’ve seen in a long time. Incredible! Thanks for the amazing info! It’s remarkable how much you managed to fit in only 25 points! Some people would have spread this same info into an entire book! ;)

  • Fantastic post. I have seen versions before. I’m trying to figure out what my WIP needs and I think it is what Kristen Lamb suggested I do and I see you’ve got it here. I need to write from the POV from my antagonist a bit. She is tough — critical and judgmental towards her daughter and sometimes toward her grandchildren. I have to make her meaner. And that will force the protagonist to get stronger faster. Or something to happen faster. I have to kill some backstory for sure.

    Thnk you. This is painful stuff, but it needs to be done.

  • I’m really bummed out because I thought of the Jesus orbital laser, like, a week ago, all on my own, but now that I see you’ve penned my thought AND claimed dibs (twice) I am compelled to inform you that you, sir, have become my authortorial antagonist. I am duly conflicted, however, because I LOVE what you write—so now you’ve accomplished #25, too. You are a cruel genius, Mr. Wendig. I respect you and I fear your power. So let’s find a quiet resolution: you stop nipping at my dreams and I’ll continue writing until somebody notices. Yes, it’s a win-win for me, because, er, I’m the protagonist in this paragraph. MG

  • Antagonists are my real bane! This blog entry helped me think some thing through. Thanks a lot! I think it really helped! :D I got to jotting some stuff down and it got my juices flowing. Maybe I worked some stuff out. Maybe, until I get scared again. Isn’t that sort of funny. I’m scared of my antagonist, and I haven’t even written him yet. lol

  • This was incredibly funny and enlightening. I’m currently trying to make the antagonist the person the main character is trying to protect.

  • There i was searching for a way to make my antagonist better…that is, as soon as i could think up one…and by George, thanks to you I’m overflowing with ideas. You’ve saved my camp NaNoWriMo word count and my sanity. I am not worthy!

  • You. I like you.

    This was a terribly entertaining and informative read. Now I’m off to twirl my moustachio, adjust my monocle and get my writing glands juicy.

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