What makes up a good antagonist? There are a variety of aspects that make a antagonist great. Incorporating certain key factors you’ll read about below can help develop your “bad guy” into a believable and workable villain. Just as in my article “Five Things Every Protagonist Needs,” I’ll explain what you can do to motivate and make your villain credible. Some other good articles to reference are “25 Things You Should Know About Antagonists” by Chuck Wendig and “6 Ways To Better Bad Guys” by Laura Disilverio. Both have comprehensive lists that are helpful for any writer. Here is my take, so let’s begin!
1. Every Villain Is Human
Both Wendig and Disilverio both start off their articles with this very important factor: Bad guys are people too. I couldn’t agree more. If you thought a villain never had hurt feelings, you’re sadly mistaken. Most antagonists are bad because of something so catastrophic happened to them that it led them to become the villain they are. They have feelings, cares, wants, desires, and dreams just like a protagonist. The difference is how they perceive and handle things that sets them apart from their better counterparts. It’s their choices that led them down their destined character path. Whether it’s a jealous cheerleader, an evil stepmonster, a sinister warlord or a possessed demon, the humanity of the antagonist should always be present in some form to allow the reader to identity with their struggle.
2. No Wimps Allowed
How fun is it to read about a super awesome protag who can scale mountains, rescue damsels, and cook a 10-course meal without an antagonist that can rival his greatness? Not too much fun, I tell you. I want a rival that can hold a candle to any good guy for the duration of the story I’m reading. If the villain is wimpy, there is essentially no struggle since the protag can overcome anything the antag throws at them. Make sure while writing your bad guy that they are a clear competitor to your good guy.
3. A Sense Of Boundaries
Writing a villain can be really fun. But don’t let your antag go to overboard. I’m talking about reining in their badness when the situation applies. Okay, true, some bad guys can be over the top devilish. They are bad guys, after all. The finesse is knowing how bad they can truly be to make it work in your story. For instance a mustache twirling, muhahahahaha-laughing, black hat wearing killer isn’t going to carry the proper tone in a modern-day suspense than it would in, say, a campy crime drama. It just doesn’t fit. Make sure your bad guy fits the tone of your story.
4. Knowing When To Shut Up
I know you’ve all read one of these books where the villain spills the beans in a massive verbal dump around the arc of the story and explains everything they did and why they did it to the reader. Sigh. So boring. It reminds me of Scooby-Doo when the bad guy either explains why they kidnapped Old Man Clemens or lets one of the gang do it for them. It’s the “I would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids” speech that writers seem to like to insert into their work. I like the method of using bread crumbs to lead the reader to the reasons villains act the way they do. Meaning, bits and pieces of the story come together as the arc draws to a crest. Don’t tell the reader, let them figure it out.
5. Give Them A Break
Even bad guys need a little redemption. It can be big or small, but the reader needs to feel for the villain, no matter how bad they are. Call it a moment of clarity for the antag that the reader gets to witness. It’s important because it lets the reader know that the villain can fall—not just by the protagonist’s doing, but by their own faults—and they can see it for themselves. And hand in hand with this concept is understanding that the villain can always win. Their redemption could be a positive thing. They may not win in the typical sense, but in the emotional sense, you see them grow.
Those are some key traits every antagonist can use. Check out Wendig and Disilverio’s articles as well for more insight. I hope this helps and let us know how you like your evil masterminds.