What is the Antagonist in a Story?
Here’s the quick answer, the antagonist is the villain in the story. Other antagonist synonyms: the bad guy, the adversary, or the foe.
For those who’d like to dig deeper and learn more about writing antagonist characters, stick around and keep reading. We’ll look at examples of antagonists, where they fit in the story, what makes a good antagonist, as well as how to create a villain. Are you ready to get started?
Examples of Antagonists from Popular Stories
When you’re talking about villains, the ones that come to the top of my head quickly are Darth Vader, Cruella De Vil, Hannibal Lecter, and Voldemort. Who did you think of? They are generally big, almost larger than life in some books and movies, and often steal the show. When you mention Silence of the Lambs, most people will think of Anthony Hopkins’s portrayal of Hannibal Lecter, before Jodi Foster’s Clarice Starling. And both were AMAZING in their roles. But the villain is often spotlighted in their own right. Now, before we get carried away, let’s tackle something important.
Types of Antagonists
There is more than one type of antagonist. Did you know, the antagonist doesn’t have to be a person? What? No, I don’t mean they are an alien…though…that can be an option. What I mean is that, sometimes the antagonist can be something completely different, like the weather or a setting. It’s the thing or person that causes the greatest challenge to the protagonist.
Think about man against nature stories. Castaway. The Perfect Storm. Twister. Environment can be a cruel opponent.
Did you ever hear the expression, “You’re your own worst enemy” — think about that. Interesting, right? Man vs. Self. What about man against machine? That makes me think of War of the Worlds. Creepy. There’s that alien thing I mentioned earlier. Supernatural elements can be a challenge to your protagonist.
But for the sake of this article, we’re going to look at the most common antagonist — the bad guy. Gal. Person. Whatever you choose to call them, they are the thorn in your main character’s side. They intend to make things tough for your hero.
It usually comes down to a basic element. They have opposing views on something. Or they both want the same thing. Only one person can win. Think of a two dogs — then put one bone in between them. Only one can have it. It’s a rare dog that will share it with a smile.
How to Create a Good Villain
One of the ‘aha’ moments I had was when I read somewhere that the villain thinks he’s the hero of his own story. Yeah. Eye-opening. He/She thinks that your story is about them. They’re basking in the limelight, enjoying the attention, but let’s be honest, they want something. And they want it bad. Or at least they don’t want the hero to get it.
Do you have siblings? Last piece of cake. Well, if you can’t have it, you don’t want them to get it either. It’s not fair, the child in you cries out. Sure, as adults, we compromise (most times, unless it’s amazing cake), or we simply give in. But see, a villain won’t give in. No way. No how. In their eyes, they deserve that cake–or whatever goal they are chasing in the story.
I know. I’m hungry to now. Let me grab a snack, then I’ll keep writing. Sadly, there’s no cake in the house. I’ll have to settle for Goldfish Crackers and Diet Coke.
How to Write an Antagonist
Your antagonist is simply evil because you said so. I mean, sure, you get to create your bad guy, but without a good reason, they’ll fall flat and your readers won’t have reason to care.
What can you do to create a vibrant antagonist that rocks your story? The first thing you want to think about is who your villain is. For it to make the most sense in the story, it should be the character that causes the biggest challenge to your main character (protagonist/hero).
The push and pull will create natural conflict and help create believable tension.
Another important element is the reason your character acts the way they do. There needs to be motivation. In a massive, big-budget action thriller you might catch in a theater over the summer, the antagonist might be on a quest to rule the world. The character has massive plans. That’s a given.
But why do they want this?
Were they bullied as a child? Do they have beliefs that changed the way they see the world? Were they beaten down and now finally snapped? There should be a reason. If people don’t see the reason, it’s hard to understand why somebody would want to destroy the world. Maybe they were brainwashed by a cult. Maybe they have something to prove to themselves. Either way, what got them to that state of mind?
Not every antagonist is looking to rule the world. In a more intimate setting, it could be as simple as two brothers with an ax to grind. Here’s a simple scenario to follow. They both fell in love with the same one. One brother has to lose out. Now he has plans to sabotage his brother’s wedding day. He has a reason that readers can understand, he’s hurting and angry, and he’s now out for revenge.
An antagonist places hurdles in your hero’s path. In this case, they both want the same thing.
What if the Antagonist in the Story Isn’t a Person?
As I mentioned earlier, sometimes the antagonist of the story isn’t a person at all! Remember Jaws? A big, ole angry shark was the nemesis.
Have you ever watched Deadliest Catch on television? It’s “reality television”, but if you were to turn that into a story, think about how those waves and the crazy Bering Sea is the actual villain in those moments. One massive wave can capsize them or crush them all.
What about Tom and Jerry? Flashback, right? The cat and mouse cartoon is another example of the simple back and forth of a protagonist and antagonist go together. Tom the cat is chasing Jerry the mouse.
In books, you can’t not consider Harry Potter. That’s a series of stories that’s made a massive impact over the years. When my kids were young, they wanted to go see this new move out about a boy wizard. Who? I asked? I had no idea I’d be drawn into this world for years with an ongoing series of books and movies. How could you not love the varied cast of characters?
Think of the one that “shall not be named” — the build up was always there. This was a vital enemy that always lurked in the background. There was a reason.
Does Your Villain Have a Story?
When creating your antagonist’s back story, think about the why they act the way they do. What else should you consider when writing your bad guys?
- Your villain thinks they are the hero of their own story
- What do they want? Why don’t they already have it?
- How can they cause the most discomfort for your hero?
- Why can’t they simply be talked out of their anger or frustration?
- Are they working alone?
- What final outcome are they hoping for? Gaining something? Hurting somebody? Winning? Or simply causing the hero to lose?
When you take the time to answer these questions, it makes for a more well-rounded character that your readers will invest in.
Here are two books about writing villains that I recommend. Each has its own strengths. You won’t go wrong with either of them.
Rayne Hall has a great series of books that I adore. They are concise, to the point, and full of actionable tips. This one is a great choice.
Another great choice when it comes to writing villains, is this book by Sacha Black. It will be an instant favorite. It gives you a lot of things to think about and helps you pinpoint what you’ll want to consider.
So there you have it… now stop making excuses and get writing! Your book isn’t going to write itself.
If you’re still stuck, consider reading this article about theme, which might give you more direction with your story.