Last week, I talked about the protagonist, the good guy, and what role they play in the story. This week, I’m going to talk about their adversary, the antagonist: the bad guy. Maybe it’s just me, but a good villain can make or break a novel for me. There is something deeply fascinating about a good villain, about seeing someone cross that line between right and wrong. In all honesty, the villain in my small child magician story is my favorite character in that project. And since I realized this, I’ve been thinking about why. What qualities does this villain have that intrigues me so much? What qualities make a villain in general a powerful opponent for your protagonist?
As I was pondering this, the first thing I realized is that the antagonist of a story doesn’t think they’re the antagonist. They view themselves as the protagonist of their story, and as a writer, this is how you should treat them. The antagonist has a goal and motivations behind that goal (usually apart from stopping the protagonist from succeeding, though that usually dovetails nicely with the overall plan), and in their mind, achieving that goal will accomplish something good, whether that’s just for themself or if it’s for the good of a country or world. In the broader framework of the story, the reader and the protagonist agree that the antagonist either has the wrong goal, or they’re going about it the wrong way, but the antagonist needs to believe that they’ve got the right of it, otherwise they can come off as corny.
So, just as a protagonist has a goal and motivation, an antagonist must also have a goal and motivation. And just as a protagonist must protag—take action to achieve their goal—the antagonist must antag—take action to achieve their own goal. And these goals, naturally, should come into conflict. Otherwise they wouldn’t be a protagonist and antagonist.
Another thing to consider for an antagonist is how powerful they are. They should be sufficiently powerful to pose a threat to the protagonist’s success. As your protagonist is trying and failing to achieve their goal (see my post on plot structures for examples), the antagonist is also trying, and they’re doing pretty well. This gives the protagonist room to grow. It also gives the villain a greater distance to fall, which in my own personal opinion is more fun.
There are other qualities that make a villain more villainous. For one thing, the mystery behind an antagonist can add a lot of suspense to the story—for example, I personally found Lord Voldemort a whole lot more frightening before he came back at the end of Goblet of Fire. For another, the lengths to which your antagonist will can also add to their character. But for me, the most important thing is that the antagonoist believes they are the good guy. For me, an antagonist who honestly believes they’re doing the right thing is always a stronger, more frightening, and more realistic villain.