How to Write a Compelling Antagonist
A compelling antagonist makes a story great. They’re often as memorable as a protagonist is and connect viscerally with audiences. While a central conflict doesn’t require a human opponent, a strong villain gives a clear image of the challenges to come.
When a character fits into the universe of the story, they alter everything around them to match their being. A good antagonist will define the boundaries of the setting. A Darth Vader or a Big Brother or an Underground Man (technically a protagonist, but Dostoevsky doesn’t want us to like him) creates a space for an entire story to revolve around.
A common misconception is that because the antagonist typically only appears in a few scenes they should be distant. Sauron carried a whole trilogy from Mordor, after all.
But his servants appear at every turn and his malice shapes every conflict. While that may seem lazy at first, it serves a key purpose: coherence.
Money is not a motive.
The number one indicator of a bland antagonist is that they’re just after filthy lucre.
There are days when it seems like writers don’t understand economics: money is a means, not an end.
Now, that’s not to say that people don’t like money. It is a lever of power, and antagonists like power. But you need to remember that an antagonist without power is mediocre.
If your antagonist is really after money, they should have a reason to do so. If you don’t give them a good reason, they need to be complex and interesting for another reason.
The easiest example of a good antagonist only after money is Hans Gruber. This works only because of the scale of the story; we don’t need to know Gruber’s motivation because he’s opposed to John McClane because of an accident of circumstance.
The scale here is important because financial interest is just one part of Gruber’s life. We don’t get to see the rest because the action is taking place on a single night. He’s complex enough and charming enough that he remains interesting despite this flaw.
If your antagonist is just after money over a large-scale plot, they’re going to suck. The only exception to this rule is when they’re distant enough that their motivation is irrelevant, but that weakens the story considerably.
The first rule of a good villain is that they’re possessed by an idea. Maybe we all are, but antagonists are going to be dysfunctional in their pursuit. Iago wants power so much he’ll backstab Othello when he doesn’t get the promotion he wants. Claudius puts poison in his brother’s ear–or Hamlet will imagine that he does and embark on a rampage of revenge.
A compelling antagonist will pursue this in lieu of anything else. Barring self-preservation and the occasional break to rest (if they’re not an indomitable machine) they’re going to move in a single direction.
This is important for two reasons:
- Your audience cares about the direction a story goes and don’t like being jerked around. An inconsistent antagonist is confusing.
- Your conflicts between the protagonist and the antagonist will have a clear nexus, even if they’re not aware of it.
This is part organization, part characterization. It’s not important for us to see the Joker standing around the money he got after robbing the mob. It is important for us to see him light it on fire because he’s an agent of chaos, not a thief. Keeping scenes tied to the driving force makes a better story.
Likewise, the driving force is a tool. It’s a way of thought, a modus operandi. The antagonist that views the world through that lens knows exactly what they’ll do, in the same way that a protagonist develops a view of the world.
This doesn’t have to be complicated. You can write a philosophical novel that’s a grand conflict of ideas, like Dostoevsky’s Karamazov brothers. Or your antagonist can be after something less profound, like keeping their power in a particular domain.
If you make the driving force more complicated, it needs to be communicated clearly. The Unbearable Lightness of Being has a whole Communist regime as an antagonist. As a result, it has to focus on the experiences inside and out of the country and the depravations the citizenry suffers.
The Gray Antagonist
The gray antagonist is a figure whose goals aren’t antithetical to the protagonist, but who has an inexorable conflict with them.
This is a good antidote to the moustache-twirling villain, especially if your protagonist isn’t a pure and noble type themselves. The Expanse has good examples of this; most of the antagonists have a humanitarian goal corrupted by misunderstanding. Then there’s an additional level of corrupt power-seekers.
And, spoiler alert, there are also possibly extinct aliens beyond human comprehension. While their goals aren’t antagonistic by definition, they don’t have the health and wellbeing of humans in their plans.
The gray antagonist functions in the realm of moral action, but has a vice. They’re out for revenge, they want something they can’t have, they have a bad idea that they love more than sense.
These are all things that would fit in a flawed protagonist. They have a role in the story that goes beyond just having a simple enemy relationship.
These figures can convert to the protagonists’ side, but they can also go too far and become irredeemable. It’s important to think about how the gray antagonist functions carefully.
As with a regular antagonist, they have a driving force. The exception is that they haven’t decided that it’s above morality. That internal conflict humanizes them. As a result, they’re interesting characters and best fit in genres and styles where they can share a spotlight.
For instance, a Western might have a band of robbers working together, but one is the protagonist. This requires some careful writing, but either a flawed and charming protagonist or a rogue with a golden heart can take this role.
A gray antagonist could be someone like a corrupt lawman. They’re nominally on the side of justice, but they plan to take the robbers in for punishment and steal the money themselves.
The gray antagonist works better than just a regular antagonist because the protagonists are flawed. Someone like an Inspector Jalvert would be too axiomatic a force; he only plays his part well in Les Miserables because Jean Valjean is redeemed, so persecuting him for his past crimes is senseless.
A compelling antagonist needs a driving force. Money is not a strong motivator, though it may be a short-term goal for an antagonist as a means to an end.
When you want a compelling antagonist with a protagonist who is flawed, a gray antagonist–a nominally good character who breaks moral boundaries–may be a good fit.
Note: I may have forgotten that yesterday was Monday. My apologies.