Today’s post is part of a two-post collaboration with the wonderful Benet Stoen. She approached me a couple of weeks ago to combine our minds on the age old protagonist/antagonist challenge. Plenty of people offer advice on how an antagonist should be credible, or how a protagonist shouldn’t be perfect. So if you’d like to see what I have to say about writing a worthy antagonist, read on! And if you would like to read up on how to write a protagonist (which I strongly suggest you do because the author is amazing) click here for Benet’s post! You should also take the time to check out her blog while you’re there.
#1 Give them purpose
Nobody likes an antagonist who just slays people for no apparent reason. Their purpose can be evil, unforgivable, and sometimes the best can be the most realistic. While Lord Voldemort is a murderer, torturer, child-killing, magical horror story, Gaston (of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast) is just a bully. He doesn’t murder or persecute openly, he merely defends his society’s values and feeds into fears and prejudices that already exist. He is terrifying because he represents very real terrors; sexism and ignorance. Taking from that, Voldemort manages to persecute and rage war on a minority that he deems impure – sound familiar? So long as your baddie has a reason for being bad, he’ll be very good at it.
#2 Keep it subtle
Your antagonist doesn’t have to be there from the beginning. They don’t even need to be evil for the entire story. The more obvious the antagonist, the harder the work is for yourself. This might sound an odd idea but if you consider for a moment, that your antagonist isn’t marching round waving a weapon and rounding up innocents for execution, or sending your protagonist threats, you have a good percentage of the story on the back burner. They can even be a complete mystery; messages and threats from an unknown identity. Or they could be someone very close to the protagonist and nobody has a clue. If your reader has to figure them out and reaches this conclusion before the protagonist does, well you can see where I’m going with this.
#3 Forget black vs white
Make your antagonist forgivable. If their morals are even minutely defensible or their actions blur the lines between good and evil, your reader won’t know what to do. Gone are the days when we had one really bad person who was threatening the life of our favourite good person. You can give them rules. Perhaps they have a rule against harming children, or they don’t believe in murdering someone they are hosting for dinner. Make it so that they are that little bit more human than you first thought. At the end of this list I will offer you my favourite contemporary example of an antagonist.
#4 Keep it simple
Do they really need to own an entire organisation, or rule a whole kingdom? Do they have to have that tragic backstory or that ancient feud with the ancestors of the protagonist? Or can they just be one simple being who is the sole obstacle to the protagonist’s hopes, dreams, and survival? Ask yourself why they are in the way. It may have a long prologue to it but it will most likely come down to one event, one emotion, and one reason. Don’t underestimate your reader’s own powers. They don’t need you to explain and justify your choices.
#5 Draw from experience
At the beginning of this, I cited two antagonists who reflect real evil in our own world. Dig deep and find what scares you the most about other people. Is it their ability to lie and deceive? Is it the lightning-fast reflex of defending someone they love, regardless of harming another? Does manipulation or the power of charisma cause you to fear for indoctrination? Whatever it is, use it. The one thing we can all write expertly is our emotions. I would also take care in producing a protagonist who does not reflect your antagonist. Their fears should be augmented by the protagonist, their actions might even be justified or supported by them. Laila from my novel is terrified of her past and her own actions, just as much as she grows to fear her antagonist.
Niklaus Michaelson – A Case Study
Those of you who have watched the TV series The Vampire Diaries, will be aware of a character called Klaus. He was so utterly terrifying and brilliant that he deserved his own spin-off series The Originals, which did actually finish last week *sob*. When we meet Klaus, he is a vengeful psychopath who will kill just about anyone who gets in his way, including his two siblings Rebekkah and Elijah who have stood at his side for over 1000 years (see above; vampires). To avoid spoilers, let’s just say Klaus’ goal is to gain a special kind of power. To do this, he murders friends and allies of the protagonist, Elena Gilbert. He tears apart her teenage relationship with vampire Stefan Salvatore and otherwise goes about making everybody hate him. As one of the Originals, he can’t be killed and eventually escapes into his spin-off series (long story). In his spin-off series, he finds out he has impregnated a young girl and will eventually become a father. All of a sudden, we see Klaus in a different light. As he fights to take back his self-proclaimed kingdom of New Orleans, Klaus is only ever murdering, torturing, and otherwise destroying those who wish to harm his family. His brother, sister, and the mother of his unborn child become the focus of his pursuits. While he will betray and hurt them, he would never kill them. Ultimately we learn that his abusive father and vengeful mother made him into someone whose worse fear is being abandoned. Therefore, we suddenly feel for Klaus. We understand his traumatic childhood and begin to root for the man we hated previously. We are excited and warmed at the prospect of him becoming a father, and his equally dubious siblings become part of a family viewers adored and supported. Don’t overestimate him, however, he does manage to hurt and betray the majority of those who love him but he is always forgiven. His motive is only ever doing what he feels is the best thing to protect and empower his loved ones. So tell me, do you think he is all evil? And would you be bored with that kind of antagonist?
Don’t forget to check out Benet’s post and let us know what you think!