Writing a Strong Antagonist

The antagonist, the villain, the bad guy of your story is the main person standing the way of your protagonist reaching his goal. Of course, your story may have the main conflict be the environment, natural disaster, or within the protagonist’s mind. However, if the chief conflict in your story is a person, it’s important to remember that that character is just like every other character. He has his ambitions, goals, dreams, fears, regrets, secrets, and beliefs, but most importantly, he thinks what he is doing is right—for himself, for his friends, for his family, for those around him. He views himself simply as the misunderstood hero of a story but won’t complain or voice his opposition. He does what he needs to do, and no one will stop him. He may take advantage of his reputation to do what he deems is right even if no one else sees it.

At least, that’s how antagonists should be considered. Too often they’re cast as a cardboard villain. The only reason for their existence is to hinder the hero from reaching his goal. Usually their motives are revenge or world domination.

This is shallow.

It usually happens this way because the writer is so focused on finding out everything there is to know of the hero that they never even think about learning all they can of the villain. However, each character should be created equal, and the author should set aside time to ask the antagonist, “Why are you doing this?” If you ask this of your villain, be completely non-judgmental, openminded, and sincere. Yes, you know they’re going to be wrong, but you need understand that they don’t think they are. They may surprise you.

Now, some writers won’t ask their villain this question because they don’t really want to know the answer. Why? Because they’re afraid the real motive behind all this might change the face of the story as they know it. They really want the hero to be the good guy, but what if the villain isn’t absolutely wrong? What if he has some really good points although his solution may be wrong? What if he makes the hero look weak, shallow, and selfish? Writers may shy away from this because they don’t want to accept the possibility their protagonist isn’t perfect, but what makes the hero a stronger character is a stronger and more concrete villain.

Now though, for a fun exercise that could confuse your villain and maybe even add immediate depth to him, don’t have your hero shout at the antagonist, “You’re wrong! You’re evil!” But rather, have your protagonist pause and look at the villain from another point of view and then say, “You know what? You are actually really intelligent. I can respect that. Doesn’t mean I agree with you, but I can respect where you’re coming from.” This would totally throw your villain for a loop because they may be trying so very hard to show everyone their mean self, and when that suddenly doesn’t work, they falter and stumble a bit. They’re caught off guard. It’s easy for them to live up to the expectations of being cruel or such. If someone says, “You’re so mean!” The villain will merely laugh, “Bwhahahaha! You think this is mean? I will show you MEAN!” and goes to an extreme. However, if the comment is, “You’re quite intelligent,” the villain will automatically want to say, “I will show you INTELLIGENT….” but then pause and realize that makes absolutely no sense. Or even, “I realize it now. You’re doing what you think is right. You’re just misunderstood,” and the villain, “I’ll show you MISUNDERSTOOD!!” As you can see, it simply doesn’t have the some effect, but it is fun to do. Never know what would come out of it.

Now though, it is true that in real life some really bad people do horrible things for absolutely no reason whatsoever. They may be mentally mad or something. You want your story to be real, and that is real, so why not write a villain who just simply doesn’t care? This is entirely up to you and whatever you deem best for your story. However, don’t use this as an excuse not to explore all angles of your antagonist because you may never know what you will discover when you start looking there.

If your antagonist has some really good points, it forces you to develop your protagonist’s view to counter him. So, when you take the time to develop the villain of your story, you are actually investing in your protagonist, and you learn much of both of them! This is better for your story.

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Be Original

What to write? Sometimes we are so full of ideas that we have absolutely no idea what to write. They’re all stray ideas which don’t fit together like pieces of a puzzle, and this is frustrating! So you finally take one idea and try to wring it for all its worth. Now, you can come up with a good story like this, but here is something to keep in mind when you’re trying to craft a story with stray pieces of an idea:

  1. Is the main idea or the way the story unfolds cliché?
  2. If yes, how can you make it different?

Surprisingly, a lot of stories (films, shows, and books) ignore how unoriginal their story is almost as if hoping no one will notice, or at the very least we’re not tired of the same old storyline. Should we, as writers, settle for this? No—not if we can think for a moment longer on the plot and create a unique twist on an old element.

For instance, there is a new TV show that’s going to start up sometime next month called ‘Galavant’. It looks absolutely cheesy, full of clichés, completely predictable, but hilarious at the same time. It starts off as your typical king-steals-man’s-woman-to-marry-her-and-man-goes-to-rescue-her plot, but in the trailer there is this little twist that made me laugh because it’s about time someone did it!

Galavant: (in front of the king’s court on the day of the king’s wedding)“You can offer her great fame. You can offer her great fortune, but only I can offer her great love, and that is what she chooses.”

Woman: “Actually…I’m going to go with the fame and fortune.”

Galvant’s face drops with disbelief.

Sure, it’s not much, but it’s taking a cliché and bashing it against the rocks. I don’t know how the show will play out, but this is a simple example of taking something old and making it new again. There are a lot of parody and satire skits that do just this, and it’s what makes them funny, but you can make something new again without always being humorous. It can still have the dark, dramatic atmosphere if that is what you want your story to have.

When you’re thinking of what to write, don’t rely on the charm and wit of your characters or the vast vividness of your settings or the complex systems and worlds and creatures you’ve created to enchant your readers. If the basic plot is ‘good guy fights bad guy and good guy wins and gets the girl’, or ‘hero discovers they’re the savior of the city/kingdom/world/galaxy/universe and must fight all evil but first must train and eventually defeats the villain’, this is predictable. You might write it well and completely draw in many readers, but aren’t you the least bit curious how much better it could have been if you had just taken a moment to make it different? Take the seed of your idea and contemplate it deeply. What will make it stand out in a crowd? What will make it so unique?

I once co-wrote a story, and the basic principle was this: peasant girl discovers she has inherited an entire kingdom after her father died, and now she must learn the cultures of royalty at the hand of a prince from a neighboring land. Initially, it appears to be the same old story where a commoner suddenly rises to power, and you may predict, “Well, she’s obviously going to fall in love with the prince, and they’ll live happily ever after.” But that is far from what happens. She falls in love with someone else only to be rejected by him, and at that time the kingdom has been attacked. She has no time to entertain love but rather focuses on the defense of her kingdom, and as such she morphs into a true queen, and things get much more complicated from there. The story doesn’t have a happy ending either, and it goes on to have a much darker sequel. This is just an example.

So, when you’re contemplating your next story, think it through, imagine how it will unfold, and if you run across the usual cliché, then do the opposite of what’s expected (or at least something different). Don’t settle for the routine but venture to be distinct. If you want to stand out in the crowd, don’t run with the crowd.