Ways to Make Readers Loathe Your Antagonist

10 Ways to Make Readers Loathe Your Antagonist

Your story’s antagonist will make or break the book.

What’s that? What about the protagonist, you say? Well, yeah, he’s kinda important too. But without a worthy opponent, he’s not going to have much of anything to do except sit around and admire his hero hairdo. As important as it is to create lovable, relatable, fascinating protagonists, it’s every bit as important to create antagonists who can stand in your character’s way, prevent him from reaching his goals, and, as a result, create conflict.

Just as your good guy doesn’t have to be a perfect person, there’s also no rule that says your bad guy has to be heinous. In fact, shades of gray are almost always going to make him that much more interesting a character. The only true qualifier for an antagonist is that he be an obstacle interfering with the protagonist’s pursuit of his story goal. As such, the antagonist could be a nice little old lady, a sick child, or a virtuous social reformer. An antagonist doesn’t even have to be a person.

But, with that said, it’s also true that most readers enjoy an entirely loathable bad guy just as much as they do a lovable good guy. Today, let’s consider a few of the traits that take your antagonist’s shiver factor up a notch—or ten!

1. The Cruel Antagonist

Nasty bad guys who are nasty just because they can be are always going to be scary. We all fear pain (physical, mental, or emotional), so the thought of someone who not only doesn’t mind inflicting pain, but even wants to do it is downright despicable.

Example: William Tavington in Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot

2. The Hypocritical Antagonist

Hypocrisy is loathsome. It’s one thing to bad and be proud of it. It’s another level of “eww” to be bad and pretend you’re really a saint. This façade can be something the antagonist honestly believes in or a pose for the sake of respectability.

Example: William Dorrit in Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit

3. The Relatable Antagonist

Sometimes the scariest, most loathsome thing about a person is how much they remind us of ourselves. When readers are able to glimpse even the smallest bit of themselves in the motives or actions of an otherwise horrific person, it will make their reactions to him that much stronger.

Example: Commodus in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator

4. The Arrogant Antagonist

Bad guys who hold all the cards—and know they hold all the cards—and want to rub the protagonist’s nose in that fact—are just plain obnoxious. Bad enough that they stand in the protagonist’s way, but do they really have to be so smug about it? Yes. Yes, they do.

Example: President Snow in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games

5. The Domineering Antagonist

A close cousin to arrogance is dominance. When an antagonist holds power over the protagonist and abuses that power in a way the protagonist can’t easily resist, he becomes not only obnoxious, but rightfully scary. Domineering antagonists come in all flavors, but often their most chilling manifestation is as a family member.

Example: Countess Rodmilla de Ghent in Andy Tennant’s Ever After

6. The Frightening Antagonist

Some of the best antagonists are those whom we don’t so much hate as fear. Serial killers, freaks, psychos—yep, they all have the potential to be visceral and powerful antagonists. As Carmine Falcone puts it in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins: “You always fear what you don’t understand.”

Example: Darth Vader in George Lucas’s Star Wars

 7. The Imperturbable Antagonist

Bad guys who are so bad that nothing ruffles their feathers may occasionally walk the line of being boring. But when their authors pull it off, these bad guys can be infuriatingly, terrifyingly inhuman. Even though they undoubtedly have their weaknesses, they seem unstoppable.

Example: Frank in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West

8. The Skilled Antagonist

Presumably, your hero is pretty awesome in his own right. As such, he’s going to need an antagonist who can go toe to toe with him—someone who’s maybe even a little better than he is. Readers respect skill, even when they don’t like the guy wielding it. Skill is intriguing and, when used for evil, sobering.

Example: Syndrome in Brad Bird’s The Incredibles

9. The Insane Antagonist

Insanity means unpredictability. Unpredictable evil is always gonna be hard to resist. It puts the protagonist at a disadvantage, both because it does the unexpected and because it goes places the protagonist, in his sanity, would never dream of. As such, it make for one downright scary antagonist.

Example: The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight

10. The Traitorous Antagonist

What hurts worse than a friend or family member who suddenly turns against us? Hate is often just love flipped on its head. A loved character who goes rogue can often become one of the most hatable of all bad guys.

Example: Nizam in Mike Newell’s Prince of Persia

Mix and match these traits until you come up with a bad guy that gives even you goosebumps!

Tell me your opinion: Which category does your bad guy fall into?

10 Ways to Make Readers Loathe Your Antagonist

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Good post, but how about another category? The Apathetic Antagonist.

    This is the type of antagonist that does not concern himself/herself with the notion of right or wrong, that does not see his/her actions as malicious and/or loathsome, nor pure hearted and/or selfless. They concern themselves solely with their goal at any expense no matter the cost. These Antagonists are usually considered to be neutral.

    Examples that fall into this category are:

    Boba Fett (Star wars): Only concerned with earning credits.Is not guided by morals, simply his own ambitions.
    Dr Manhattan (Watchmen): Displeased with humanity, he takes the objective route in determining the betterment of mankind.
    Tyler Durden (Fight Club): Wants to make a statement to the public at large, even if it means killing others or causing damage to property in order to get his way.

  2. Ralph Powers says

    There’s also the antagonist who feels that what they’re doing IS the right thing to do, they’re not exactly insane but not all the cards are in the deck as far as reality and consequences are concerned.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Those people are scary. They think they’re doing the right thing, but their ignorance only makes their conviction more dangerous.

      • Exactly, and one of my minor characters is just that kind of an antagonist… but not to the primary character… he’s got his own problems with someone else that suddenly decided to have a vendetta against him, for no real particular reason other than it’s “sport”. The antagonist is a marine sniper.
        The “convinced of his own rightness” is a major general in charge of a nuclear weapon.
        Hows that for scary.

  3. Would the antagonist have to be deplorable? Or could he even be likeable? I have a really good feeling about an antagonist who outright refuses to kill. I wouldn’t really see him as an “evil” guy, just someone who opposes the protagonist. Ambiguity is a good thing, but I’m not sure if this is going a bit far.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Certainly. Many fine antagonists are anything but hatable. And in that case, the points in this post definitely wouldn’t apply.

  4. One way i liked to approach an antagonist is the way other people look at him/her…In fact one quote i thought of to describe the antagonist is this
    “Donald Gallant is crazy in a way that makes crazy look sane”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sounds like Jack Sparrow. 🙂 It’s always nice when we can put even a small positive slant on an antagonist. Keeps things real.

      • Thank you, but I must ask.Since my antagonist does not really appear until the second half of the story, do you think that a buildup to him would make the impact more thematic?And do you think that making the antagonist “funny” while doing atrocious things make him/her more interesting?. For instance, my main antagonist likes to play golf and uses holes that he also uses to imprison his victims….(among other things he does to them)
        (sorry for the long post i just love to ask questions)

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          The antagonist needs to be at least foreshadowed in the first quarter of the book. Other than that, when he actually appears in person depends entirely on the pacing and plot requirements of your own story.

          And, yes, a “funny” antagonist can become very engaging. The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight is a great example.

  5. One last point, The main thing i wanted to etch in with my antagonist is that, if you were to see him on the street, you would think him as just a normal guy…Do you think this would be effective in making him a good bad guy and viable since he is the leader of a mercenary organization in post-apocalyptic south american amazon?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s a great approach. The idea that evil somehow stands out from the crowd is a false one propagated by fiction. Some of the most evil people in history have blended right in.

  6. I like mixing and matching my antagonist traits as well and it’s hard for me not to. The descriptions for each of the villains in this article are helpful; sometimes even as a writer, I have moments where I confuse my antagonist’s goals in my head and I need to remember what kind she/he is.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      A book is such a lengthy endeavor that it *is* easy to lose track of even small details sometimes.

  7. The antagonist in my book, “Joshua’s Island,” is definitely #1. The Cruel Antagonist. My book deals with bullies, and while in real life, some bullies do what they do simply because they are lashing out, others do it because their sense of right and wrong is completely skewed (or worse, totally absent). The two primary bullies in my book, a boy and a girl, inflict cruelty because of the sense of power it gives them.

  8. Natsumi Imso says

    One character I hate so much (please don’t mind my English, it’s not my first language!) is Steve Leopard/Leonard in The Saga of Darren Shan.
    You can’t help HATING AND DETESTING HIS CRUELNESS AND EVIL.
    He knows the truth but refuses to believe in it and literally makes his life for revenge! Since nine years old when he thinks he has been betrayed but instead he has been saved by his best friend who becomes a vampire which was basically his DREAM!
    So for eighteen years he’s been craving revenge…..
    Since the age of Nine……
    You so HAVE to HATE HATE HATE HATE HATE HATE HATE HATE HATE him…..if he were alive and real….he wouldn’t last for a moment with me in sight!!!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hah! This is *exactly* the kind of response authors want to inspire in reaction to their villains!

  9. Kelly D. Holmes says

    I’m finding that in my current novel my two protagonists (one main and one secondary/object) sometimes have a different antagonist at different times, though they share the hurdles/consequences together. The antagonists are more or less a series of people who drive the secondary protagonist to ruin and eventual redemption, the last part of which the main protagonist assists in. How would I keep the multiple-antagonist plot from creating too much conflict within the story? Is there ever really such a thing in the first place?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      First thing to do would be to make sure that each of these antagonistic characters is essential to the plot. If you can streamline them by deleting or combining any of them, that’s usually a good step to take.

  10. What do you think about mixing and matching these different antagonists?
    Such as a Cruel/Imperturbable antagonist?

  11. Great post!! One big problem is that many/most of these antagonist types have already been grossly overused and misused. Our challenge is to make our antagonist actually human – a legitimate character, not just a “type”. And I would warn almost any young writer away from using the insane antagonist, unless they’re knowledgeable about his specific type of insanity and have a good reason to include an insane villain.

    I lean toward the traitorous antagonist as my personal favorite. I find lots of room to expand this villain into a believable human with real motivations such as fear or greed. The traitor also presumably has a connection with the protagonist or his cause, which creates all kinds of fascinating emotions and complications. For example, in one of my stories, two men plot to overthrow an evil government, but one of them turns informer because he is afraid of capture and not prepared to face torture/death.

    Anyway, this is a great summary that I will absolutely keep in mind as I write!

  12. Christy Moceri says

    My book has a few antagonists (you could argue that the real antagonist of my story is “the war,” so what the characters really are combating is an ideology shared by many.) One is a violent, immature youth hell-bent on making his mark in history, probably in the ”Cruel” or ”Crusader” category. I’m struggling, in particular, to make the youth into a fully realized human because the acts he commits against the female protagonist are so vile. I’d like to portray him as a bit naive, not fully understanding how the world works, and sort of stumbling onto his sadistic side by way of a unique alignment of events. Ideally, and I know this is kind of gross, his pivotal scene shows him exploring sadism for the first time. And the whole time you’re thinking, “But this is just a stupid kid.” But it is difficult to reflect all of that complexity when he appears in only two scenes in the novel.

    One person who does antagonists exceptionally well is Lois McMasters Bujold in her Vorkosigan Saga series. In her series, you will find everything from the most well-meaning people wreaking destruction to the most vile and sadistic humans imaginable. In her masterpiece Mirror Dance, she somehow manages to make Mark Vorkosigan into both an antagonist and a protagonist at the same time. You hurt when he is wronged, cringe with every misguided move he makes, watch his character pushed to the absolute moral limit, and ask yourself if there is any chance of redemption. Bujold’s wide array of antagonists is reflective of reality because evil acts do exist on such a spectrum, so it hits on a very personal level.

  13. I typically have a number of antagonists, but the one I have in mind (while he definitely has strong elements of cruelty and domineering) would be best classified as a jealous antagonist. He sees the protagonist’s success and rapid ascendance as a result of it as a threat to his own position, and so uses his power and influence to hinder the protagonist in an increasingly aggressive way as the story develops. This, combined with his other abuses of power, I find makes him my protagonist’s most personal enemy despite not being the principle antagonist of the story, and technically fighting for the same side as the protagonist. What are your thoughts on this category?

  14. Florence Oladokun says

    my antagonist fits 3 categories
    arrogant,Domineering and Traitorous, is this possible
    how can i fit my person.
    The discussion and explanation is helpful

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