Don’t we all love a good baddie?
As much as we love endearing, likable main characters, I believe it’s their opposition force, their antagonist that can make a story richer.
A good antagonist has their own agenda and backstory and should do everything in their power to prevent your protagonist from accomplishing their goal. Perhaps, your main character’s opposition is a simple one: the nosy neighbor. Or maybe the opposing force is more complex like say, the Communists. I’d like to suggest that the more fully developed your antagonist, the more interesting the whole story can become.
When you have a strong antagonist, you can:
Clarify the true purpose of the protagonist: In some ways, this is all about contrast. The lights colors look lighter when the darkness is around them. The best oppositional forces are equally balanced. You don’t want things to go too easily for either force. The contrast you create on one side will reflect the desires of the other.
Reveal the personality and quirks of the protagonist: Some antagonists work so thoroughly that more of the nuances of the main character comes out. Done well, this intrigues the reader and gets them to turn the next page.
Reflect real-life conflicts: I remember reading a novel by Elizabeth Berg right after a difficult stay with an emotional abuser. I couldn’t articulate my feelings about the trip, but I remember that the book itself spoke to me. It was through the antagonist’s persona, that I could more clearly how bad this person was for me.
Create a negative reaction for the reader: You want your reader to root for the right person. By developing events and reactions for your antagonist, your reader may grow in hatred, dislike, contempt, pity or disgust. This all adds to the emotional journey and reader’s experience.
“You couldn’t have strength without weakness, you couldn’t have light without dark, you couldn’t have love without loss”
― Jodi Picoult,
Reveal another point of view: Naturally, the antagonist’s goal should be in opposition to the protagonist’s goal. But to make this even richer, the antagonist could also reveal the consequences of the protagonist “winning.” What’s really at stake? What is the antagonist really afraid of? The best antagonist’s are just as fully developed as the other characters. The more we know about your dark force, the better.
Play dirty: One of the things I love about writing antagonists is that I get to be evil during the character’s composition. I get to say all of the snarky things. I get to take revenge. I get to do the things I would never do in real life. The more audacious, provocative, and shocking your antagonist is, the more devoted your reader will be to your poor, poor protagonist who has to put up with it. And boy, is it fun to write!
Hide Your Secrets: Your protagonist shouldn’t know everything, shouldn’t have every tool, shouldn’t have all the pieces to the puzzle. Your antagonist is the perfect place to hide a few key solutions to the problems that the protagonist is trying to solve. As the protagonist gets each critical piece, make sure his success is because of the antagonist’s pride, carelessness, greed, lust, or bad judgment.
Have a satisfying ending: The ending isn’t all just about whether or not the good guy rides off into the sunset. The ending could also be the final fate of the antagonist, the consequences of his failure, and what happens next. The end is the end of two parallel stories. Make sure each side is satisfying.
Ask these questions of your antagonist in developing them:
- How does your antagonist really feel about the main character? Sure they hate them, but why?
- What “evil” habits does your antagonist demonstrate? Are they chronic liars? Do they create drama? Do they manipulate others? Do they gossip? Do they have superior technology? Do they use The Force in unpredictable ways?
- What weaknesses of the protagonist does the antagonist exploit to use to his advantage?
- What does your antagonist do when they don’t get what they want?
- What is the absolute worst thing that could happen to your antagonist? Can your protagonist be involved in that happening?
Good stories have two forces: one going one way and one going the other. Of course your story is about the protagonist, the force that you want your readers to cheer for. But the other force, the antagonist, is just as important, and arguably just as interesting.
Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement and community.