Craft Dynamic Antagonists Your Readers Will Love—in Just 3 Steps!

Recently, I stumbled across a discovery: there’s nothing like dynamic antagonists to get readers hooked to a story.

Sure, talking about evil characters can seem a little old-fashioned in today’s literature, which loves flawed protagonists and antagonists with a heart. And there are certainly a few good novels without a real villain. But if your story is falling flat, it may be missing an antagonistic force, something that opposes the protagonist and his goal, and which helps move the plot along in a dynamic way.

More important, still, is this plain truth: writing about dynamic antagonists is fun. Reading about them is even more fun.

How to Draw Inspiration From Fairy Tale Antagonists

If you need more proof of the compelling, memorable nature of villains, think of the stories that have survived throughout time, passed orally from generation to generation before being written down. Fairy tales are so memorable in part because of their frightening villains. Snow White, Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, and the myriad other tales made famous by the Grimm Brothers, Perrault, and others, all feature villains with a simple, one-dimensional reason for acting the way they do: often it’s jealousy or–in the case of Little Red Riding Hood–hunger. In the end, though, these primal urges are not really important. The villains’ evil nature is the main take-away.

Johnny Depp Big Bad Wolf Into the Woods

You can read more about story structure in fairy tales, as explained by Kurt Vonnegut, here. While Vonnegut examined other aspects of fairy tales as well, I find that their story structure can really be boiled down to the following.

The Fairy Tale Formula

  • An innocent protagonist.
  • Her all-consuming goal.
  • A villain who thwarts her.

We see the fairy tale recycled in a lot of modern-day story structure.

How to Use Antagonists in the Three-Act Structure

  • Act 1. The problem is introduced through exposition.

  • Act 2. The protagonist faces mounting obstacles/antagonist forces as he tries to resolve the problem.

  • Act 3. The obstacles rise to a climax. The protagonist finally resolves it, leading to the denouement.

How to Craft Your Villain

So now that we know how important antagonists are to the plot, just how, exactly, does one write a memorable villain?

1. Give Villains Character Traits Opposite to the Hero’s

For example, if the protagonist is generous, the villain should be selfish. This will help the plot too, creating a natural tension between the two characters.

2. Always Give Villains a Reason

Even if this is a more or less one-dimensional reason (e.g., the aforementioned jealousy or hunger), readers should understand the motivation if you want your story to be believable.

3. Refrain From Indulging in Too Much Cliché

Unless you want us to laugh, your villain should not have a thick mustache, speak with an unexplained accent, or use “evil” jargon: “Muahaha.”

He also should not be a Nazi. That trend needs to die.

Three Different Villains for Three Different Genres

Here are different villain archetypes commonly seen in different literary age groups.

Children’s Fiction: The 100% Evil Villain

The protagonist might not know about the evil villain from the beginning, but the reader does. Even in a mystery novel, we have a pretty good idea who the bad guy is. Much of the fun of reading for children is in the enjoyable predictability and in seeing an innocent protagonist, whose flaws only make him more likable, pitted against the bad guy.

Lord Voldemort Harry Potter Ralph Fiennes

Young Adult Fiction: The Changeable Villain

Often, the villain is known from the beginning, but there’s room for change and reform. Since Young Adult fiction tends to have a good deal of internal conflict as well as external conflict, we sometimes get the chance, eventually, to see the reasoning behind a villain’s actions, which makes him less of a threat. However, this does not happen until he’s been established as the antagonist for some time.

Hunger Games Mockingjay President Snow Donald Sutherland

Adult Fiction: The Three-Dimensional Villain

Regardless of the genre, villains tend to be more three-dimensional in adult fiction. All characters have shades of good and bad, and rather than paint them as black and white, authors writing more realistic prose can choose to oppose ambiguous characters as a way to advance the plot without taking a moral stance.

Great Expectations Miss Havisham Helena Bonham Carter

The Three Steps to Writing Dynamic Antagonists and Plots

1. Figure out your protagonist’s main goal.

2. Create an antagonist who has a reason prevent your protagonist from reaching his goal.

3. Don’t worry if your plot is simple. The best plots often are. It’s the world you build around it that will give it color and depth.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Do you usually include villainous antagonists in your story? Why or why not? Tell me in the comments!

Craft Dynamic Antagonists Your Readers Will Love in Just 3 Steps

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About Bessie Blue | @vintagebooklife

Bessie Blue is a freelance writer and French translator currently finishing a middle-grade novel. She blogs about writing and old children’s books at Vintage Book Life.

Comments

  1. In my first novel, the antagonist is mostly villainous with a few good character traits, and he has a reason for being bad, both in his backstory and in the story.

    However, in my work in progress (A MILLION CLOSED EYES, about a grandmother who joins a conspiracy of women who kill pedophiles but ends up fighting the justice system to save her granddaughter), there is no single villain; the villain is the flawed justice system and the flawed humans in it. I have a main plot (the grandmother is the protag) and a subplot (her brother is the protag), and the same overall villain…always the justice system.

    I want both protags to get to the point where they’re feeling overwhelmed by all the screw-ups, i.e., a building crescendo of problems in both cases. I think it’s going to be a huge challenge to get it right.

    Do you happen to know of any stories where there is no single villain, and in fact, no villain who is more important than the others?

    • My two cents: Personalize the system by people. As you said, there are flawed humans in it. Give them a face. A prosecutor, for example, who believes in the system; although flawed, it is still better than chaos or street justice, no?

      I despise pedophiles but I am against killing them. I am against death penalty but understand the craving for gut level justice.

      We both could have a good argument about the case. Imagine it and but the arguments in the mouth of one persons who serve the system.

      The police is the guy who gives you a speeding ticket, not an anonymous mass.

      • Absolutely. My challenge is to create situations where the people/faces in the system create FAILS because they turn a blind eye to the real issue.

        It’s easy to come up with situations where the individual in the system is greedy, ambitious, drunk, lazy, politically motivated, distracted, overworked, and a host of other motivations (or lack thereof), but I want their failures to relate to the major theme of book, as represented in its title, A MILLION CLOSED EYES. So far, it’s working, but I’m worried I’ll run into something that doesn’t fit. We’ll see

  2. You know, funny as it sounds. My antagonist both makes me like him and feel almost sorry for him and at the same time, scares me haft to death. I’m not sure I planed for him to be that way, but I like it. It makes him interesting. Is this weird?

    • Madeline T says:

      It’s not weird, you’ve managed to strike the perfect balance of those traits in your character. I sometimes have trouble with this myself, sometimes making the villain too likable, sometimes not making his motivations believable enough. But to have your readers feeling sorry for him makes it easier to like him until he does something really evil and then his inner turmoil over what he’s just done starts the pity cycle all over again. I love writing characters like that.

    • I agree with Madeline! I like being drawn to villains, and I think a book is most memorable when the villain is somewhat relatable. Understanding both the protagonist and the villain means that the conflict will be all the more powerful and intricate.

  3. robert easterbrook says:

    In answer to your question, yes. But only one, so far. I wrote a story a couple years back with a villainous character, who did lots of nasty things. It seemed appropriate for him to be villainous, given the story – I don’t think the story would have lived without his villainy. It would not have been the same, or as dramatic and intense.

    What I have tended to do is pit characters against each other, at some level, because they think they’re on the right track, the right side, or are do the thing right thing. They get into trouble, dig themselves a hole, as it were, and don’t know how wrong they are until it’s too late. They can’t get out of the hole they’ve dug themselves and suffer according. That sounds a bit sadistic, doesn’t it? 😉

  4. I write young adult novels so I tend to use a villainous antagonist in most of my stories. I have had one book where the villain changes and becomes good and another where the villain stays evil until the end. I like the ability to change the villain with young adult fiction.

  5. Louis Wilberger says:

    I treat my villains much the same as the protagonists. In my current novel my villain Randy wants to get out of his hum drum job and be a writer but doesn’t want to pay his dues. The easy way out for him is to push a friend who has a finished manuscript in front of a car and Publish it as his own. He figures once he’s published, he can get ghosts to keep him in the money. The author’s sister doesn’t see it quite that way and goes after him. Hence two worlds collide.

  6. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Bessie!

  7. spacechampion says:

    Perhaps a static antagonist is ok when the contagonist is dynamic?

  8. I write for YA, but I definitely started with almost a one-dimensional sort of villian, closer to fairy tale bad guy. But with each book in the series the various villains with increase by increments in dimension and purpose. I like to think the books will grow with the readers. 🙂

  9. Isabelle says:

    My protagonist is the antagonist. Split personality disorder. Hard to write, but so much fun.

    • robert easterbrook says:

      Yeah, in my second novel, Reciprocity, there was no antagonist in the beginning, so much as a guy being nudged toward the brink. He got a nudge toward villainy through a series of events. They turned him from a reasonable guy to a seether, full of conempt and bad intentions. When he went over the edge, he knew fullwell what he’d done and how it had changed him. I found it a bit tough turning a ‘good guy’ into a bad guy. I found I had to provide a backstory that was the eventual catalyst – without the backstory, it probably wouldn’t have worked.

  10. thomas h cullen says:

    Like everything in life, how a villain gets evaluated will vary..

    Take Johnny Depp, for instance, in his part as “the Wolf”; to my perception, the part may be surface, perhaps hardly ground-breaking, nor distinct – however, notwithstanding these perceptions, I can still “value” the part, because of my knowledge of Depp’s having had to act the part out; the same with the lines, spoken by the Wolf – in the context of fiction, and in cinematic history, they’re perhaps not particularly entertaining.. however, once again there’s the point of the behind-the-scenes merit, in which real people have had to create those lines in the first place.

    I won’t judge the Wolf, or the Witch, because I judge “Into the Woods”: a capitalist product, in requirement of too many needs to serve its capitalist environment.

  11. What a great article. Thank you!

    I’m a big believer in the basic concept of good versus evil (even total good versus total evil). I’m also a big fan of epic fiction.

    I have grown tired of the philosophy that all villains must have some good in them (and that all protagonists must be seriously flawed). While that’s true in most fiction, it is most certainly not true for all fiction (where is the good in Sauron from Lord of the Rings?).

    So this article is refreshing to me as a writer. It tells me not only that I’m on track with some of my villains but shows me what types of stories to write to present the types of villains that offer the most challenge to my protagonists.

    My thanks to Bessie for writing the article and to K.M. for presenting it.

    Best wishes,

    Carrie

  12. Thanks a lot! I am right now having troubles with my villain in my WIP. I think this will help. It´s a trend now, but I don´t think all villains should be redeemed.

    Hugs,

    M.

    • Madeline T says:

      I agree. I like bringing them to the edge of redemption, but then crushing that hope, leading them to reject the change required for redemption and they end up worse than they were to start with. Negative character arcs have been somewhat ignored in recent pop culture.

  13. In a fantasy story I’ve been working on, the villain is without a heart (almost like psychopathic) and was born that way – completely evil. Do you think that this will discourage readers from relating to her or lessen her overall effect as a villain? It’s definitely been a challenge to write a character who doesn’t even understand love.

    • Madeline T says:

      Maybe show her confusion at seeing those traits in others. Her inability to feel does make her difficult to relate to, but not difficult to pity if you play it right.

    • “the villain is without a heart”

      Then there is a terrible emptiness inside her. Not having emotions excludes one from productive relationships with others: no friends, no lovers.

      Your villain may not have emotions but she can observe that she lacks something others have; that she is different up to the point of being an outcast.

      This leads to pain. Pain causes rage. Rage makes one hurt people.

      If Evil comes from a wound, even an utterly evil character may be fascinating.

  14. Madeline T says:

    I like to write antagonists who force the protagonist to see that the world really isn’t as black and white as the protagonist thinks it is. Although it’s a fine line to walk. I sometimes have trouble when writing “evil” characters whose motivations can be justified by their own twisted sense of right and wrong even when their actions are deplorable. Sometimes it seems like false suspense leading to an anticlimactic and unfulfilling conclusion. Any suggestions on how to realistically keep the excitement when the real point of the story is to get the protag (and by extension, the reader) to really THINK about their convictions and to maybe change the way they see the world and other people?

    • One good example I’ve found about this is Regina, from Once Upon A Time. She is, in fact, a very very evil person. Sometimes, it looks like the good guys start to lose perspective and forget that she is a person, just like them. But her relationship with her son definitely brings her to life and reminds the characters that she is human too.

  15. Perfectly timed post. I’m creating a bad guy for my third Shig Sato mystery and these are all points worth remembering. My protagonist is trying to adjust to life after losing his wife and his forced retirement. He doesn’t like being a private investigator, but is beginning to accept it. It seems trouble finds him and he falls back on his skills as a police inspector. My antagonist’s main characteristics are violence and greed – opposites of the protagonist. This post serves as a reminder to keep things simple. And it’s a good to me reminded of the fairy tales. So much ‘good’ evil!

  16. Almost all my Antagonists are fueled by jealously. My antag. The Commander? He was jealous of everyone else’s powers. Kandy? He was jealous of the money and comfort that came with being king. Even though both of those examples went crazy, they still are powerful influence over my protagonists. They show the stark opposite of what my protag. is now, but also a shadow of what my protag. COULD be. I think that’s a powerful thing.

  17. I agree 100% the Nazi thing needs to die. Another thing that should die is villains based off Nazis who are trying to commit a holocaust against some other race. (It’s not that the plot is a bad one, just that it’s been done so many times with little originality.)
    I like to have a few relatable villains who often see the error in their ways, but I normally have at least one pure evil one that dies. I write YA sci-fi and I feel like it’s a bit of a downer ending if the hero doesn’t get to face a villain in some sort of fight to the death.
    One thing I did in a recent book was based some of the villains off a TV show “hero” I despised. I think an original way of getting decent villains may be to find heroes in any form, be it TV, books, or history, then ask yourself, “What would happen if I was writing the story from the POV of the guy the hero is opposing?” In some cases, the heroes might need to be made a lot more villainous for the trick to work, but in other cases, it might not take too much change.

    • robert easterbrook says:

      You haven’t read my book Reciprocity, have you? 😉

      • No. What’s it about?

        • robert easterbrook says:

          Simply put, revenge. Except while revenge is a motivating factor, one that has historical roots, the person exacting revenge does so on behalf of his culture, not for himself. So he believes. He believes he is justified, regardless of the method used, and regardless of the moral issue it raises. While he sees the immediate effects of revenge, the thing promised centuries ago, something his culture has wanted for a long time, he doesn’t seem to see all the pain and suffering that will ensue. To avoid the blowback, he ops for the oldest honorary trick in the book. The whirlwind that follows shifts his culture onto a new an different path, one unimagined.

  18. I just wrote a short story and I struggled with the villain because he was truly villainous. He didn’t really have a good reason for doing what he was doing. He was just a sociopath. I struggled because I usually try to write villains that see themselves as the protagonist of their own story, and this one didn’t fit that mold at all. He was genuinely a bad guy with no redemptive qualities.

    Loved this post, especially the mention of fairy tales. I’ve been a fan of Once Upon a Time for a long time, and it’s ironic that the show has taken the approach of reducing the genuine badness of the villains, often turning them into good guys. The show is popular, but it’s really started to feel like there’s no real villain, which weakens its storytelling value in my mind.

    Great tips for creating great villains.

  19. In my first novel, Cut From Strong Cloth, the antagonist appears throughout the story, but is unnamed and only at the end does the reader and the protagonist find out who the villain is. But in my second novel, Unraveling the Curtain, the antagonist shows up quickly in the story in his vile glory and it is up to the protagonist to thwart him in the end.
    Two very different approaches!

  20. Joe Long says:

    I was thinking, “Do I really have a villain in my WIP?” and I realized it’s the father, and the first draft so far hasn’t given him nearly enough voice. I have to go back and add scenes to show the interaction between the protagonist and his father with dumping data.

    The main character is a smart, somewhat nerdy, but very shy college student, who laments his lack of a social life, when finally a girl comes his way.

    Dad is the villain, without trying to be evil. He wants what’s best for his son, but can never express it in a positive way. Even praise is delivered as criticism. Comments like “Why can’t you do this all the time?” which mentally wear down the son. As Dad strives to push his son to success, there’s no room for entertainment (sports, girls) – that’s just a waste of time that doesn’t bring home an income. The anxieties, the shyness, are a fear of failure, which comes from his treatment by his father.

  21. For the majority of my story, my antagonist is more of a collection of people. In my story-world, there are witches, vampires, etc. There are also the hunters, humans who hunt the supernaturals. In the beginning of my story, my main character (one of the hunters) finds out she is actually a witch.

    At the middle of my story, the antagonist is more fully introduced. The antagonist has always been these supernatural beings, but now it’s been discovered that they’re actively searching for and killing hunters after the murder of a very influential member of the supernatural royalty.

    Towards the climax, a more concrete antagonist is introduced in the form of my main character’s father (whom she’s never met).

    Do you think this could work?

Trackbacks

  1. […] If you need more proof of the compelling, memorable nature of villains, think of the stories that have survived throughout time, passed orally from generation to generation before being written down. Fairy tales are so memorable in part because of their frightening villains. Snow White, Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, and the myriad other tales made famous by the Grimm Brothers, Perrault, and others, all feature villains with a simple, one-dimensional reason for acting the way they do: often it’s jealousy or–in the case of Little Red Riding …read more […]

  2. […] Craft Dynamic Antagonists Your Readers Will Love—in Just 3 Steps! – Helping Writers Become A…. […]

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