What Makes a Great Antagonist?

One of my favourite things about writing and creating stories is throwing a good antagonist in the mix. This is because it’s not always the protagonists that bring the story to life– a good antagonist that genuinely frustrates you or makes you sympathize with them can build the story, too. When the characters go out to deal with the bad guy, you want the reader to be interested in the protagonist’s adventure, don’t you? At least for me, if I don’t care about the antagonist, the main characters lose a bit of their charm, too.

If it’s so important, then, what makes a good antagonist? Personally, I find that it depends on the type of story you’re trying to tell. Since I write dark fantasy with magic and plenty of killing– right and wrong are skewed and so is our perception of the antagonist.

There are a couple things that work, in my experience, to bring out some really interesting antagonists. For one, I like stories where the antagonist isn’t necessarily “evil”. They’re a person (or a collection of people with a similar mind) that think, act, and believe differently than the protagonist. And sometimes, instead of making them some crazies that want to kill everyone for no discernable reason (aka people who are obviously crazy and you have no reason not to fight against them), having the antagonists be people who just don’t agree with the protagonist can be exciting. It can make you think: Why don’t they agree? If the protagonists are so good, why doesn’t everyone follow them? Even better, sometimes a well-crafted dissenting party that you’re supposed to be against can win you, the reader, over to their side and have you thinking that maybe the protagonists aren’t right after all.

Sometimes, it’s a matter of perspective.

I think one of the best ways to make a good antagonist is to make your story more grey than black and white. When even your antagonists have to consider the moral consequences of their actions, you know you’re making something more than “this guy is good and this guy is bad”.

An example of this, in my own writing, is that there are essentially three different antagonists. One of them is a “player” in the other two’s game and becomes a separate antagonist later because she doesn’t align with either the protagonists or the other antagonists. She fights against everyone, and not just to save her own skin– she’s doing it for what she thinks is right. She doesn’t want to rule or control the world, but instead has her own list of reasons. This character isn’t the purest of people, but the reasons why she fights might even be reasonable to sway you to her side.

That’s not to say that an antagonist that is obviously evil can’t be exciting to read about, but I think there are a lot more variables that you need to get right with if you want to be successful doing this.

Ask yourself things like…

Why is this person “purely evil”?

Does this character still have enough traits to be interesting, even if my readers can’t really sympathize with them?

There are, of course, many other questions you could ask yourself while building an antagonist, but that should be a good start.

What kind of antagonists do you enjoy reading about the most? What kind do you like to write about?

~Erynn

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