Creating the antagonist everyone loves to hate
We’re writers and one issue we have, among many, includes creating a bad character—a character we don’t like—and developing them well. Anyone can create a mean person if they think of someone they don’t like, but instinct prevents us from making them realistic. We want the reader to hate them, end of story, so we sometimes become less objective and more subjective. This creates a flat character and, sometimes, an easy “win” for our perfect, angelic protagonist.
Why is he/she/it the antagonist? If not the antagonist, why the hate?
The person at work doesn’t hate you because you spilled coffee on them that one day, they hate you because you looked at them funny on your first day and the spilled coffee proved they had no reason to like you, or you remind them of their slut sister/brother. The evil overlord isn’t evil because he wants to take over the world, he’s evil because his father likes his brother better and he’s determined to prove him right, and your main character’s father is proud of him/her, so Mr. Evil Overlord wants to ruin that. And the reason Mr. Evil Overlord chose your main character to ruin is because the main character once humiliated him in front of his father.
Even those backgrounds are a bit underdeveloped, but you see a pattern. Each antagonist or hateful character has a purpose. Each antagonist is mean/bad/hateful/sadistic/etc. for a reason. People aren’t hateful for nothing. Even if one of the antagonists is as simple as the jerk at work, these questions need to be answered:
Why do you want people to hate a character?
What makes them deserving of hate?
How did they get to that point?
What makes them evil?
What is their goal in your story?
Above all: why do they need to exist in your story?
Create your character
Like your main character, your antagonist is essential to the story. This isn’t only if your antagonist is the main person trying to ruin your main character’s life. Make the character real, no matter who they are. Give them structure, style, eye color (if they have eyes), a preference, maybe a habit…something with which readers can relate, maybe even with an antagonist in their own life.
If a guy curses your main character for cutting in front of him in line, the reason is obvious, but the reason for his rude comments may not be. This is okay, but we need a purpose for the initial cursing. In other words, antagonists are not antagonists for the sake of being antagonists. There is a beginning, so keep that in mind. In this situation, sure, some people let words fly. He also might have just lost his job, and he’s lashing out in his hopeless moment. You never know.
Remember, your main character is your best friend
The antagonist is not the one we need to love, but they are the one we need to understand a little. Even if we don’t get to the backstory until the end or even at all, as the writer, it’s your job to love and hate them at the same time so it shows in your writing. Depending on the story, we may not ever know why said antagonist does what he/she/it does. Sometimes, that’s life, but we do need to know they’re not like that because that just happens to be the case.
Make sure your antagonist truly affects your main character in some way. Some antagonists—usually secondary or tertiary antagonists—don’t affect your MC for more than a second, but they do need to cause a reaction. For primary, and sometimes secondary, antagonists, the MC has to either share a want/need or disagree in some way; otherwise, there is no purpose for them to exist.
Sharing wants/needs with an antagonist
If your main character wants to win a track meet, maybe your antagonist wants the same thing. The reason can be obvious, or maybe the reason the antagonist wants to win is because he has never won a trophy in his life. There are many directions to go with this one shared desire, and sometimes that can lead to an excellent rivalry. If there is a common goal, you automatically have that rivalry and sometimes, your antagonist can be as decent of a person as your MC. Sometimes, your MC can be the antagonist! What a twist, right? But that will be a lesson learned at the end, perhaps, for your MC. The direction is up to you.
It’s common for the MC to be the favorite since the story is about them, so sharing a common goal will get you rooting for the MC ninety-eight percent of the time. That’s not a real statistic. Don’t quote me on that. Don’t be afraid to make your “antagonist” nice, sportsmanlike, or normal. Consider it and if it doesn’t work, make them whoever they need to be. Look at all your options, and choose which best serves the purpose of your book.
Disagreement: this means war!
Let’s go science fiction with this one. Your main character is a lonely farmer who clears land and starts to plow his field, and he happens upon a strange hole where a creature crawls out to steal his crops. The farmer’s goal is to save his crops, and this creature wants to feed her babies. They both have practical reasons that disagree with each other, but the farmer is the main character so he’s who we will root for. The creature ends up eating his cows, too, and farmers all throughout the county have to come together to destroy this beast whose babies start eating their crops, too.
If this creature was simply destroying crops, it wouldn’t really make sense. It would be a strange abomination that had to be destroyed, no questions asked. However, since the creature has a purpose behind the destruction (feeding babies), there is more than one conflict, and you have just improved the plot. Now there’s not only more of them, but you have the emotional addition in your story that will allow you to develop it further. And if those babies are something farmers need to kill, there is more at stake.
Let us relate
I’ve said this before, but it’s important to make your antagonist relatable. Don’t just give them the power to get in the way. Give them a purpose that might make the reader think about who they should root for. If you have a character with a goal and a reason behind the goal, you’ll have a solid character who keeps those pages flipping.
Your antagonist is a good guy, too
Many times, the antagonist will be the good guy in their own eyes. They have a goal, and they will better a population or themselves by reaching that goal. They have a story, too. You might not be telling their story, but keep in mind that sometimes, your antagonist doesn’t see through your eyes. They might not be evil, but they can still be the antagonist.
The Goals of Every Antagonist
My mind is in a thousand directions today, so I know I may need to sum this all up for it to make sense. Your protagonist has a purpose, so don’t sell your antagonist short. He/she/it needs a purpose, too. Consider the following when finding your antagonist’s purpose:
- motivation to reach a goal
- the desire to gain something
- the journey to prevent/avoid something
- flaws and “perfections”
Remember that your antagonist is an antagonist because he/she/it is in the way of the protagonist. If they have differing goals/desires, the antagonist will be trying to prevent the protagonist from winning.
Sometimes, your antagonist will have a hero complex, and they are the good guy in their eyes, as I mentioned earlier. They’ll think they know what’s best, but their view is construed. This sometimes makes for a great antagonist because they are equally as determined as the protagonist.
Think about what your novel needs. What kind of protagonist do you have? What conflicts will they face? What type of antagonist will stand in their way and prevent the protagonist from reaching their goal? Don’t just write for the sake of your hero. Write for the challenge, the journey, and the antagonist who will make it difficult to get to the end of the book.
Hopefully, you found some good tips that will help you develop a stronger antagonist. Every antagonist is a character and what makes them worth hating is giving them something you can’t hide. If they become alive in your writing, they’re alive in you, and you can make them something worth fighting against for your protagonist. An easy win is a kids’ coaster of emotions. Give your readers a wild ride.
Write for yourself, but edit for your reader.
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