Monday, February 28, 2011

The antagonist - Kill it with fire!

Back faster than usual this week because I'm taking a break from school. In case you're wondering, I should be sorting out law books right now. Well... ignoring that...

I decided to quit moaning about my own life and get back to some writing talk. So, my new topic (still on characters, though) is the antagonist.

What is the antagonist?

You know, he's that evil guy/girl giving your protagonist hell for some reason or another. A being of pure evil with crooked teeth, a hump and claws for hands. Well, at least that's what they used to be.

Now a days, antagonists come in many shapes and sizes. From giant brown eyes perched on top of dubious towers, to sexy vampires or kick-ass women. And it's all good. Having just one sort of villain with one sort of motivation is really boring and kinda predictable.

So let's build one for ourselves.

Step 1 - Why do you need him?

I know what you're going to say. In a battle of good versus evil, there must be some evil to challenge good. Not exactly. The new trend is the enemy inside the protagonist. Or the evil in the form of a friend. Or the evil surroundings that makes life harder for everyone (I'd like to see you kill an earthquake off with fire :p)
So,basically,  not all books/stories need an antagonist. And never, ever create on just for an outer conflict. You know why? Because they won't deliver.
My personal advice on this one: Don't create an antagonist just to prove how smart the protagonist is. That's no challenge and it pisses the reader off most of the time. The antagonist is someone you fear. Don't make him too stupid to live. His reason to be is to create tension, make him almost win (or win) and keep the reader guessing.

Step 2 - Who is he?

So you decided you needed one. Great. Now, who is he and why does he want to shoot/stab/kill your protagonist or make his life living hell?
Will you go for the jealous ex friend, a long forgotten relative in it for the inheritance or a crazed crime boss? Whoever you chose, remember motivation. If your antagonist doesn't have a reason for being a baddie, he's not valid.
The pure evil argument - okay, that works too, especially in fantasy where you can explain that by a genetic malfunction (he didn't come out as a fairy, he came out as a troll - sucks for him. Kill it with fire!), but don't forget to give him/it a goal, a purpose for using his/her evilness. What's his/her motivation? World domination? Money? Something else entirely?
So here's what you have to do: Who is he, what is he to the good guys, why is he evil, what is his major plan and how will getting rid of the protags help him achieve it?
Or maybe getting rid of the protags is his major plan (like in my case) - but give him a decent reason for it.

Step 3 - Superpowers?

Okay, so you have your baddie with a motivation - what's his superpower? He must have something others don't which will help him achieve all this. Maybe he has an army of street rats  or gangsters or monkeys trained to pickpocket. Or an army of orcs at that. Or any other creature.
Then again, maybe he can shoot laser out his... well, you know what I mean. He has to have something that makes him a valid threat.

Step 4 - Kryptonite?

You made this total badass with an army. Why won't he win? What's his weakness? Is he overconfident and makes mistakes (that's my personal fave - cocky villains should be killed with fire), is he basing everything on someone who betrays them. Does he end up being the good guy? (also personal fave, but tough to work and make believable). Or maybe he just plain won't grow while the hero trains his butt off to increase his power. Then again, maybe the hero has friends and two heads (or more) are always better than one.
So take your pick and make it something good.

Step 5 - What do I do with him?

So you now have your fully fledged villain. Make him throw rocks and create tension for your good guys, then give him a grand finale that will satisfy every reader possible. You could have him win and get away with it if you made him likable enough. Or you could kill it with fire and everyone lives happily ever after. It's all up to you.

My antagonists

And I'm referring to the main ones, (because I tend to write many henchmen), all share a common trait - and I've just noticed this after I wrote my second antagonist - they're not as bad as they first seem.

Sure, they both want to kill the MCs for some reason:
In Vlad's case, Hunters are his natural enemies, and when two of them start hunting him down, of course he wants to kill them. After they escape, they hurt his huge, evil ego, so of course he'd want to go after them and kill them personally. Will he make it? Maybe, maybe not.
In Snitch Gravel's (don't cringe, it's not his real name, but if I wrote down his real name, the whole series would blow up) case, he wants to kill the MCs as a two headed revenge plan: against their parents and the agency they work for. So he's killing two rabbits with one stone (or was it two birds?). And, when the brats escape, of course he'd get pissed and want to kill them even more.

I tend to make my antagonists smart.
Vlad is decently brained - he's a born leader and a very cerebral man... well, vampire, I guess. If it weren't for his overconfidence, he would have won the game. But being cocky is his kryptonite as is playing God. That will be his undoing.
Snitch Gravel - is a genius. I mean, really a genius, though he might not seem so - he could singlehandedly out think any of the good guys (who, in themselves are pretty smart too). His weakness? His conflicting feelings which get him to make conflicting decisions and end up failing to kill anyone. I know what you're going to say - what, the villain has feelings? - well, yes, and in this case a lot of them. So Snitch Gravel ends up testing the good guys to see when they'll snap.

Which brings me to my next point - my antagonists have feelings:
Vlad loved his long-dead brother and it still hurts sometimes that he ended up smearing his brother's name with vampire legends.
Snitch Gravel has a lot of trauma in his past, memories he tries to block out an ignore. It's kinda what motivates him to keep being an evil prick. But it's also what throws him off at times. And - big shocker- he actually feels pretty bad when he does bad things.

My villains aren't pure evil - because no one in their right mind is:
Vlad: Sure, he kills people and Hunters - but that's because he's a vampire. And he kills other vampires sometimes if they don't fall into his world order - but it's an occupational hazard of being an evil creature. He would be admirable if he could get along with humans, but, this way, he's just a normal vampire. Who's to blame a wolf for eating sheep?
Snitch Gravel: is not a drug dealer, weapons seller or prostitute -whatever you do with them. He gets his money from legit business and has a ton of it.  It's true that he lets his henchmen dive into all of the above and doesn't care where the weapons come from as long as they do. That doesn't make him better, but he never does the evil with his own hand - he has others doing it for him. And it's not to keep the suit clean - he's not a public figure and could kick anyone's butt in hand-to-hand combat- no one even knew he was still alive for 20 years - it's because of his slightly double personality - the good guy and the evil bastard battling inside him. The evil bastard wins.

So there you have it! I like to write pretty complex villains - because it's more fun and creates more tension if the reader has some sympathy for the bad guy as well.  And I personally love to read about well developed evils.

So, who's your antagonist and what's their motivation?


  1. Hi Stephanie *waves* lovely to meet you :) This is a great post, and I love the examples you've given from your own manuscripts. My antagonist holds a soft spot in my heart. She starts off good(ish) and gets steadily nastier as time goes on. But she definitely has a motivation ;)

    "Snitch Gravel" love it!!!



  2. I love love love your breakdown of the Antagonist here! Excellent post!!

  3. Hi Rach! *waves back* Nice to meet you too :) Glad you liked the post. I do try. And your antagonist seems exactly my type :) Except mine go from evil to... not so evil - so it's a reverse process.

    @Katie - Lol, thanks. I love dissecting too :p

  4. Hey Steph! Good post :) I love antagonists, a lot of times more than protags *rolls eyes* :P

  5. I think you realise by now that I enjoy thoughtful analysis, and this was good!

    Talking about baddies' weaknesses, I loved the wry poke in "The Incredibles" at baddies' tendency to get caught out by their insistence on explaining their nefarious plans instead of just killing the protag while they had the chance.

  6. @ Anna - yeah, me to. Well, at least more than some of the protags :p

    @Ian - Glad you enjoyed it. And yes, I agree with the explaining of the plan - it was funny when they pointed it out. And it's true for a lot of cartoon and comic book villains :p

    Thank you both for posting. :)

  7. Love it Steph! Your villains are so well-rounded. I'm quite impressed and can learn a thing or two from these pointers!



Show me the love :)