Creating the perfect antagonist is as difficult as creating a protagonist. If you pick up a children’s book about superheroes, you will notice one thing about the antagonists in the book, there is usually no deep motivation behind their actions. Most times it is about “taking over the world”, which works for children but not for adults. Your antagonist must be multi-dimensional and his motivation must be believable to the reader. So since “taking over the world” doesn’t work for adults, how can you create the perfect antagonist?
- Give them a human side: Many people write antagonists as a device to move their plot forward. It is so clear the antagonist is in the story simply because the protagonist is there. This does not work. Flesh out your antagonist and give him or her a genuine motivation for doing what he or she does. Let your reader empathize with this evil character and come to the conclusion that if he was in the antagonist’s shoes, he will probably do the same thing. The best way to give your antagonist a genuine motivation is by giving him a history an everyday reader can relate to. A painful childhood, abusive parents, a mental illness, etc. However, if your antagonist is not human, try to give it a human touch.
- No one is purely evil: As stated earlier, this is for children. Many times, our villains become caricatures or just simply cliché. Pure evil is dull and predictable and this should not be how you write an antagonist. George RR Martin’s “A Song with Ice and Fire” books give us a classic villain test. There are a lot of Villains in these books, from the Night King to Cersei and Jamie Lannister to Little Finger and so on. But the villains the readers love the most? Cersei and Jamie of course. Why? Because they are the only two written from their point of view. The reader gets to see the world from their own eyes, and note that no one is evil in his own mind.
- Abstracts do not work: You might be tempted to make your antagonist a corporation or a company or some form of organization. Truth is, readers cannot relate to this. So what do you do? Give that entity a face. If it is an organization, the CEO can be the face or if it’s an evil secret society, the leader of that occult can be the face. George Orwell’s 1984 stresses the importance of having a face. The Insoc Party was obviously the antagonist in the story, but then there were Big Brother and others like O’Brian who represented the party.
- Don’t make your Antagonist a wimp: While the protagonist is the hero and will ‘win’ in the end, it is important to make your antagonist equally capable or even more capable than your hero in some areas. There is a lot of tension when the reader knows that his beloved hero can be outclassed by this villain, especially if your hero has flaws and the villain is superior in those areas. For instance, if your hero is impulsive, having a calculating genius as a villain will make for good reading.
- Give your mysterious Antagonist Proxies: If you are writing a book where the antagonist is a mysterious character, your reader should not know till a certain point. It is wise to give him proxies or pawns that the protagonist can deal with before he gets to the final battle. Also, creatively throw the readers off your scent by placing dummy villains here and there. For instance, if there is a secret killer in the village and no one knows who it is (even your reader), it is wise to keep the reader’s mind wandering by throwing clues in the wrong direction. Let your reader be convinced this killer is other people rather than the actual killer. This is difficult to do, but if properly done, could make a classic crime fiction.
- The antagonist is not always evil: Think of someone in your life who is holding you back from doing what you want to do because he or she feels they know better? They believe this decision to hold you back is for your good. This person is an antagonist. A husband that does not want his wife to work because he is protecting her, a parent choosing a career for their child despite their child wanting something else, etc. These antagonists love your main characters and their actions are not from a place of malice. That’s another superb quality you can give your antagonist.