Up Your Antagonist’s Ante

Everybody loves to hate the bad guy—but aren’t you ever curious about what makes him tick? Shining a light on the root cause of your antagonist’s bad behaviour or cracking his armour with a sliver of good can actually make him more compelling. Unless you have a specific reason to inflict a non-human adversary on your protagonist or create over-the-top comic book villain malevolence, your story will be more powerful if you make your antagonist relatable.

Your antagonist should be every bit as well developed as your protagonist. Start BEFORE he hits the pages of your novel by exploring his backstory. Write in first person so that you can slide right into your antagonist’s skin and get to know how he views the world. Here are a few points to consider:

  1. Woundedness often lies below the surface of bad behaviour. What happened to your antagonist to make him an adversary? Compelling incidents spark empathy in readers. Even a small sliver of compassion toward the story antagonist can inspire conflict between rooting for the good guy and wanting the bad guy to find his way—and that increases story tension. At the very least, letting readers know how your antagonist was wounded helps them to understand why he behaves the way he does. Consciously or unconsciously, readers always ask WHY.
  2. A truly convicted antagonist is a hero in his own eyes. A conviction that what he is doing is right empowers him to go to any lengths to gangster-539993get it. Consider religious fervour, for example, so deeply grounded in conviction that it becomes powerful and, if misguided, dangerous. In Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, the police inspector—Javert—holds an unwavering belief in the system of law that sends him on the ruthless pursuit of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who has transformed his life and helped many others.
  3. Give your antagonist a fatal flaw—the one characteristic that can bring him down. For example, everyone has something they are afraid of and does their best to avoid. What terrifies your antagonist? Let your protagonist use this fear against him.
  4. Don’t forget to add some good traits. Perhaps the antagonist is a passionate advocate for animals, or in love with one of your main character’s friends. A delightful sense of humour or incomparable charm increase an antagonist’s complexity, compounding the struggle the protagonist faces. In the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, Severus Snape is fascinatingly complicated, cold and sarcastic, but those qualities hide deep anguish and an undying love and loyalty toward Harry’s mother.
  5. Intelligent antagonists keep readers on the edge of their seats just waiting to discover how he will get around the protagonist’s advances.
  6. Sometimes the antagonist isn’t really a bad guy, but someone who wants or needs something so badly for a higher purpose that he’s willing to do anything to get it—even bad stuff. For example, if your main character needs to win the race in order to support his new born daughter and the antagonist needs to win the race to pay for his mother’s medical bills, both characters have compelling reasons to be first to the finish line.
  7. Even when the primary antagonist is non-human antagonist—like a particular setting, the weather, a ferocious beast or supernatural forces—the impact of that antagonist can be increased if you offer a parallel threat through a human character. For example, social injustice is personified in The Hunger Games through the character of President Snow. In The Help, Hilly Holbrook gives flesh and blood to racial bigotry.

Once you’ve figured out how to up your antagonist’s ante, ensure he exerts a powerful presence over your manuscript by adding notes about his or her POV to your outline or draft. If you don’t let yourself lose sight of his impact on your story, your readers won’t be able to put him out of mind either.

Deborah is the author of three books for young people and a wide array of non-fiction articles. She serves as the editorial director for Rebelight Publishing Inc. and the director of news services for Mennonite Church Canada.
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