Creating Memorable Characters: Antagonists
Like memorable protagonists, creating memorable antagonists is critical to your story–at least if you want to tell a good story. 😉
The key to crafting a good villain is all how 3-dimensional he/she is–the villain isn’t simply bad to be bad. He’s bad for a reason, and readers need to understand what that reason is. Why does this person/creature choose to do what most of the world views as wrong?
On top of that, a 3-D villain will be somewhat sympathetic and possibly even a little heroic—he’s just on the “wrong side of the battle”. And we, the readers, understand why he’s bad, so although we may not agree with him, we do feel a bit sorry for him.
That said, Ilana makes a VERY compelling point in the comments about the villain not always being sympathetic–about the true “evil” many villains have.
A compelling antagonist,like a compelling protagonist, has a desperate need and will do whatever it takes to achieve this goal.
More importantly, he has an understandable reason for wanting his goal. It may be a terrible reason and one we can’t sympathize with (such as a love of seeing someone else’s pain), but there IS a reason there (thanks again to Ilana for pointing this out).
For example, in the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, we start to see why Voldemort went from being a boy named Tom Riddle to a power-hungry, hateful monster…and we actually feel bad for the kid. We understand how he evolved into the Dark Lord, and we almost wish he would just throw in the towel and redeem himself. But alas, he does not.
Heck, even Professor Snape (who is an antagonist, but not a villain) has one heck of a backstory to explain his nasty behavior.
Now don’t get me wrong: sometimes, wanting World Domination for the sake of World Domination can work for a villain (see Star Wars or Lord of the Rings). But more often than not, if there’s a believable reason for the villain to want World Domination (see Harry Potter or The Native Star by M.K. Hobson), it will add a wonderful dimension to your story.
One of my favorite villains is from Sherwood Smith’s Inda. In this story, the heir to throne is a bully who makes his younger brother’s life a complete, tortuous hell. But there’s a reason he does this: he has an incapacitating stutter, he’s not good at reading or studying, and he is jealous of his younger brother’s scholarly skills. The King, their father, often praises the younger brother and not the bully. We know now why the bully wants to constantly make his younger brother look bad, why he hates scholarly people, and why he prefers to use his fists rather than his voice to make a point. We feel bad for the bully, even if we don’t want him to win.
For more info on writing compelling villains, be sure to check out this post from Savannah J. Foley as well as this post from Vanessa Di Gregorio.
ALSO, don’t forget about Pub(lishing) Crawl! We introduced Jodi Meadows on Monday, Erin Bowman on Tuesday, and Rachel Seigel today! Plus, their giveaways are open and running–as is one of mine!
Now you tell me: what do YOU think makes for a good villain or antagonist?
January 11, 2012 @ 2:09 pm
I LOVE Jerry. Especially Colin Farrell as Jerry. 😀
I think the best kind of villains are ones that protagonists can see a little of themselves in. Basically, the villain becomes someone the protagonist COULD become if given the villain’s background or circumstance. Harry Potter certainly had some of the same potential that Voldemort had as a young wizard. It’s easy for readers to see what kind of path could have led him to the same end, and that’s what makes them compelling as foils to one another.
January 11, 2012 @ 5:03 pm
Too true–FOILS is the right word to use here. In SS&D, the villain and one of the antagonists come from similar backgrounds, and both made bad decisions based on those histories–but the antagonist at least has a chance for redemption (a la Snape) while the villain is totally irredeemable! 😀
January 11, 2012 @ 3:50 pm
Hi! I’ve never posted before, but I’ve been reading your blog for a while and I love all your points and observations. But I disagree with you about villains, and I feel very strongly about villains in general, so I had to post.
“The key to crafting a good villain is all how 3-dimensional he/she is–the villain isn’t simply bad to be bad. He’s bad for a reason, and readers need to understand what that reason is. Why does this person/creature choose to do what most of the world views as wrong?
On top of that, a 3-D villain will be somewhat sympathetic and possibly even a little heroic—he’s just on the “wrong side of the battle”. And we, the readers, understand why he’s bad, so although we may not agree with him, we do feel a bit sorry for him.”
While I think understanding a villains motives *can* make a 3-D villain, and has for many books, I think it is a mistake to assume that the reader has to understand what is driving the villain to behave the way they do in order for the villain to be convincing. I’ve heard a lot of people say this, and in general it’s better than a cackling villain, but I completely disagree. And I disagree because there *are* people who want to hurt other people simply because they enjoy giving pain. There *are* people who set out to destroy other people simply because they enjoy harming someone to that extent. There *are* people who have no morals, as we would understand them. And these people cannot change. I know. I’ve met some.
I also think it’s dangerous to assume that the only reason a person would do a bad thing is as a reaction to an experience they had. That comes close to stating that because of their experience, their actions are justified. But what a person chooses to do says a lot for who they are, and if a man was viciously abused by his mother for a number of years, and then decides to murder his mother and all other mothers, his decision speaks for something deeply broken inside him that no one can fix. Most people do not decide to kill all mothers because their mother abused them. That is not a rational response, nor is it a response that most people can understand on a deep level (I hope), even as one might sympathize with his experience of abuse. Yet it is exactly this type of motive that often makes the best villains. Or look at your example of Tom Riddle. I could certainly sympathize with Tom Riddle the little boy. No one should have to experience that. But Harry also had a similar set of experiences as a child and did not choose to kill the Dursleys and start a group that walked around killing and torturing people. Tom Riddle’s life choices stemmed more from *who he was*, from enjoying other people’s pain, from a complete lack of empathy and an inability to understand morals, than it did from his childhood experiences. Nothing made him the way he was. He *was* the way that he was. I think what makes a convincing villain is merely that they have a developed personality, no more, no less. That they are a person, even if they love killing, or torturing, or reveling in another person’s emotional pain or seeking incredible power. That they can be cheerful in disposition or grumpy or shy or calm, that they have hobbies and frustrations and joys and sorrows and a developed life outside their villainous activities. That they are a person, and not a plot device. And yes, some will be as you have described, and follow that saying “One man’s hero is another man’s terrorist.” I like these villains, too. I think they can lead to a lot of interesting complications. But other villains, convincing villains, will just be evil. Some people are just evil, and a sane person would make themselves crazy trying to understand why they are the way that they are.
January 11, 2012 @ 5:01 pm
Hi Ilana! Thanks so much for de-lurking to put me in my place. 😉
Honestly, you make such a good point–something that perhaps I instinctively knew but didn’t think to add (or perhaps didn’t actually know at all). A villain IS all about his/her choice–Harry and Tom had similar situations, but Tom made a choice to indulge his dark sides. A serial killer villain DOES enjoy pain, and that’s what motivates him.
I think what I need to add to emphasize what I mean about the villain being on the wrong side of the battle is that many villains THINK what he/she does is “right” (such as the bully character from INDA). These are the villains I *personally* enjoy most–the villains I almost sympathize with. Voldemort truly believes in his right to rule, in his megalomania, and in his superiority. Does that make sense?
Anyway, you make such a good point, I’ll be sure link to it in the post. Thanks!!
January 12, 2012 @ 10:16 pm
I’m so flattered that you linked my comment! (and I wasn’t trying to put you in your place at all). And I definitely agree that villains *think* they are in the right – or at the very least know that they are doing something morally wrong, but for whatever reason do not care because their goals are more important to them. I also think I might share your tastes – I love villains I can sympathize with. Although I also like villains who are simply evil, but are recognizably people and not caricatures.
I completely agree about the choices! I think choices are such fascinating things to think about in characters and in people, because they often stem from the character of the individual, which is why a person’s choices can reveal so much about them. That’s why I love it when a character makes a difficult decision, because it reveals so much about them.
January 14, 2012 @ 7:06 pm
So, SO true Ilana–a character reveals him/herself by the choices they make. That’s how we show (not tell!) the reader who a character truly is, you know? And it’s also how we show a character’s arc: the choice he/she makes at the end is not a choice he/she could have made at the book’s beginning. (Of course, this is assuming the character even has an arc–I suppose many antagonists start bad and stay bad. ;))
January 11, 2012 @ 4:24 pm
Yep. Exactly. I want to understand villains. Heck, I want to sympathize with their plight just a little, even if they still remain “evil” in my mind.
January 11, 2012 @ 5:02 pm
Kinda like your antagonist in your WIP–at least the more minor antagonist. I actually liked him a lot…and I totally wished he’d just made a different choice.
Lori M. Lee
January 11, 2012 @ 5:12 pm
Great post. I absolutely love villains who I can understand and sympathize with (and especially the ones where I’m not sure if I want them to lose! lol).
Also, YOU’VE READ INDA! <33333333 Goodness I love that book and I adore Inda.
January 14, 2012 @ 7:07 pm
I KNOW, LORI!! That whole series–sigh. It is epic, epic, EPIC. Do you have a favorite character? Or book in the series?
Lori M. Lee
January 15, 2012 @ 12:11 am
Inda is my favorite person in the whole series. I would follow him into battle xD But I loved Evred too. The scope and breadth of that series just blows my mind. What about you? 😀
January 15, 2012 @ 1:48 pm
Sponge!! He’s so adorable in the first books…and then grows so believably into a king.
I adore Inda too, but I think my favorite might be Savarend (Fox). He’s just so conflicted, but grows for the better.
Oh, and I love almost all of the female characters. Sherwood Smith really knows how to write a heroine.
January 11, 2012 @ 5:23 pm
I think having a villain or antagonist be at least semi-understandable can really make the difference between a good story and a great one. Because as a reader when you hit that point and think “Oh my God, I get it,” that’s when the story really takes life. Like your Snape reference…as soon as we understood where he was coming from, he morphed from the “bad guy” to someone we grieved for and with, and maybe even forgave him for being so awful to Harry. Great post, Sooz!
January 14, 2012 @ 7:08 pm
Oh poor Snape…
Did you see the latest HP movie? I was BAWLING MY EYES OUT when Snape died. Seriously, snotty, body-shaking tears…right in the movie theater. 🙂
January 15, 2012 @ 4:52 pm
I saw it twice in theaters and completely lost it both times. SO SAD.
January 11, 2012 @ 5:40 pm
I think coming up with the villain is one of the best parts of plotting a new novel. Thinking of some of my WIPs and just planned stuff, I think all of my villains have different motives, and they’re all a lot of fun for me–one is a demon just out to feed, one like to “collect” nice things (that are usually alive), one wants to rule over the entire ocean but is also in love with my MC, one is acting out of duty, one because they love someone who can’t love them back…heck, sometimes I think I like my villains better than my protagonists!
January 14, 2012 @ 7:09 pm
Hahaha–I TOTALLY know what you mean, Arianna! My antagonists are easily as fun to write as my protagonists–especially because (like yours) they all have different reasons and different arcs. 😀
January 11, 2012 @ 8:22 pm
I agree that, thought it might not always be the rule of thumb, you need to have a little background on villains in order to – well, not necessarily like them, but at least understand them a bit more.
One villain I thought was well-written recently is in Daughter of the Flames by Zoe Marriott: the heroine’s own uncle (something I could never really imagine to begin with, as my uncles have always been there for me). At first it just seemed to me that, “Whoa, this guy is harsh to be trying to murder his own niece,” but when the truth comes out – and I won’t reveal it to spoil the whole story for anyone else – you can actually see how he got that way.
The whole antagonist issue is one that I’m struggling with in my current WIP. The girl’s main force of opposition is actually the new world she’s been thrown into; it’s different than the strait-laced society that has taught her that suppressing her emotions and staying low is the only way to survive. I’m not sure if I’m just going by trends, though, but it appears that internal conflicts are no longer enough in YA…or is that just me?
January 14, 2012 @ 7:11 pm
Um…you make an interesting point about internal conflicts no longer being enough. It REALLY depends on you genre in YA. Obviously, an internal conflict is not enough for dystopian or fantasy or paranormal, but IT does still work in more character-driven stories (like contemporary or literary YA).
And you know, I’ve never even heard of DAUGHTER OF THE FLAMES, but it’s totally going on my TBR pile now!! 😀
January 11, 2012 @ 8:23 pm
Also, I love the points of view expressed in Ilana’s comment.
January 12, 2012 @ 3:33 pm
Black Cape, all the way.
Well, that, and I think a good antagonist villain is someone who thinks they are doing the right thing. I think it’s all the more terrifying when your villain is fighting for a cause they truly think will make the world better, except their mind is twisted and they can’t see their ideas are flawed– which makes the reader question if they really are right or not. (I’m kind of thinking Fablehaven here, but I’m not sure if its the best example…)
But I’m still going with the black cape idea. And some kind of creepy pet. *nods* Yes, creepy pet is necessary.
You’re posts are always inspiring, Sooz!
January 14, 2012 @ 7:14 pm
HAHAHA–creepy pet is TOTALLY necesssary (a Mr. Bigglesworth + Dr. Evil, if you please).
But I totally agree, Mer–my fave villains are the ones who really think they’re right because you know there’s *maybe* a small chance for redemption (and oh, I love a villain who redeems him/herself. Darth Vader, anyone?).
January 12, 2012 @ 9:54 pm
I loved this one (OK…I love all of your posts)! I was recently discussing with a friend the fact that I wanted to write a sitcom that would highlight the underlying comedy in an incredibly poisoned work environment. Naturally, it includes a couple ‘villains’. The term ‘villain’ seems strong in the context of the sitcom in question, but by any stretch of the imagination, the villains that I want to write about are really, REALLY mean! Given my strong belief that the audience needs to be able to relate to and like all characters, I worried that they would take away from the enjoyment of the show if people hated them too much. Your post has helped me re-frame my idea and I will focus on developing back stories that help us understand (and maybe even empathize with…ok, that’s a stretch!!) their nasty behaviour!!
January 14, 2012 @ 7:16 pm
That’s definitely what you need–a backstory to explain the character’s behavior. You don’t *always* need it, certainly, but it does add nice depth to the story. 😀
My sister used to HATE playing Barbies with me because the “mean girls” couldn’t just be mean to Skipper without a reason!
January 13, 2012 @ 4:13 am
I think the one of the best villains are the ones that aren’t in it for financial gain or simply power, but for a deeper reason. The ones that, as evil as there are, you can’t believe you feel a twinge when you think about them sometimes because if something specific didn’t happen that changed them, they might not be the villain, but an everyday person or even the one you’re rooting for.
Another type are the ones that were always going to be bad. Like the villain in Taking Lives. They’re just “different” and have been all their lives. They either spend their lives fighting some dark urge or completely give into it. Going to the movies with friends or spending time with loves ones makes people happy, but inflicting pain on other is what makes these types happy. And that freaks me out, but is an interesting character in a movie or book because you don’t figure it’s them until you have the proof shoved in your face. And even then, you still don’t want to believe it.
January 14, 2012 @ 7:17 pm
Such a good point, Petra! Those super creepy villains are the ones you don’t quite see coming–and with whom you absolutely cannot identify. Those antagonists work especially well in horror movies (and cheesy 1960s spy flicks. ;)).
January 16, 2012 @ 6:17 pm
What an excellent post! I love a good villain! I love it when an author creates a villain I can sympathize with, but even more, I think my favorites are the villains I can admire or like in some way. The kind of villain who makes my head get all twisted around.
Like, ok, this may sound weird, but take Humbert from Lolita. He is, beyond a doubt, a completely heinous man, but I also can’t help liking him. He’s funny, smart, and a heck of a wordsmith. He, in his twisted up mind, actually in some way cares for Lolita. Half the time I was reading the book I was cursing him because he’s beyond despicable…but I was also rooting for him. A part of me wanted Lolita to quit running from him. I wanted her mother to get out of the way. I wanted Humbert to win. Awful, I know! See what I mean about getting my head twisted around?
Octavian in Stephanie Dray’s Cleopatra Selene series is another example of a villain I HATE, but also love. He’s brilliant, but he uses his genius to commit such cruel and horrible acts. His positive trait of intelligence also makes him a worthy and entertaining villain. He’s so smart that when reading, I actually believe he has a good chance of winning in the end. The main character really needs to WORK to out-maneuver him, and sometimes she loses a battle.
The other part of a good villain, I think, is a good hero. A villain can be perfectly written, but without a hero to care about, their actions fall flat for me. When they commit an atrocity, I want to LOATHE them both because what they did was objectively awful, but also because THEY HURT MY FRIEND! I want to rage at them for messing with the characters I love. Professor Umbridge is so awful, not only because she is evil, but because her actions are destroying something precious (Hogwarts).
Oops, sorry for babbling! 🙂
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October 23, 2014 @ 12:48 pm
Is making a female villian vain a cliche?