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. Fabulous post. Very helpful!

  2. I actually would say my current antagonist doesn’t fall into any of these categories, he/they fall into an 11th: the self-righteous antagonist. To be sure, elements of #1 and #6 are present, but this one feels that they have an obligation to do the bad things they do, and have no regrets in doing so.

    Generally, though, my antagonists fall into the #1/#6 categories, with a bit of the Skilled Antagonist thron in for good measure.

    Great, thoughtful post!

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Aw, yes, well spotted. I like to call these antagonists “Crusaders.” They may not even be “bad” guys; they’re just people who passionately believe in a cause that is opposed to the protagonist’s.

      • Precisely. 🙂

      • ohhhh! Very interesting! Can you give an example of A “Crusader” antagonist?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          St. John Rivers in Jane Eyre (although not technically a “bad” guy) comes to mind. Ultron in the second Avengers was a bit of a Crusader. The doctor in Maze Runner. Meryl Streep in Doubt.

          • In Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Jacob Marley is a Crusader. Scrooge at first wants to be left alone and count his money. So Marley is the antagonist.

            Then I think Scrooge gets with the program, and the antagonistic force is his own lifelong habits.

      • Christy Moceri says

        Magneto of the X-Men is a great example of a Crusader. He’s one of the most interesting villains of the Marvel Universe, in part because his pain and suffering (remember, he survived the Holocaust) drives his belief that he has a duty to protect mutants by any means necessary — even if it means stooping to the level of his oppressors. His goal and Professor X’s are essentially the same, they just differ in their methods. This results in times where they must collaborate to achieve a goal or where they find themselves on opposing sides. Throughout the history of the X-Men, Magneto has done everything from teach at the Jean Grey School to attempt to exterminate humans, concentration camp style. He is a wonderfully complex antagonist.

    • One of my favorite villains is of that kind. She also has mixtures of #3 and #10, which make her even more scary (or I hope it will) because she is very similar to the MC. Basically, she’s just on the other side of a political idea, and believes very strongly in it.

  3. The main conflict in my story doesn’t generate from antagonists, although there are plenty that haven’t been seen too much yet since I haven’t written far enough. I’m not entirely sure what categories they will fall into, if any, but I will say that hypocritical, frightening, skilled and arrogant antagonists tend to be my favorite. No matter what the main antagonist has to be dangerous. Cheesy and incompetent villains can be done right, but even then there has to be someone reigning over them who is a real threat. Good post!

    • K.M. Weiland says

      It’s important to note that an antagonist is anyone or any*thing* that stands in the way of your protagonist accomplishing his goal. What I’ve detailed here is pretty much exclusive to “bad” guys. But your story definitely doesn’t have to go that route. Sometimes a hero can even be his own antagonist.

      • I realize that all stories don’t have to have people for antagonists. I even read one of your older posts centering on that subject soon after I read this (I liked that one too by the way). For the context of my story the antagonists are still technically important, they’re just not the main source of the conflict. Too put it more clearly, I guess the conflict between the protagonists and the antagonists would be considered more of a sub-conflict compared to the primary one which isn’t a person or animal. In general, I really admire how many different angles you delve into when it comes to writing. Thanks a lot!

  4. My character is very similar to Liberty’s. Someone who believes wholeheartedly that what they are doing is for the greater good, but ultimately is cruel and domineering.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      The majority of bad guys *should* believe what they’re doing is for the best. Agent Smith is one of my all-time favorite antagonists. He’s extremely hatable, but he’s also relatable because he’s coming after the protagonist out of a deep-seated belief in his own paradigm.

  5. Oh, awesome post! I would add the villan who would do whatever it takes to get what he wants because he has nothing to lose :O
    Thanks, I´ll have this in mind! Loved the mention of the joker, that´s the reason I think he is a fabulous character 😉
    Hugs,
    M.

  6. Wow. I loved this article, it finally put into words what I’ve always wanted to know about antagonistic qualities. Thanks!

    One question: Is it ever a problem to have most or even all of these traits in one character? Is that too confusing/frustrating for the reader? My antagonist, (An intergalactic Princess) meets almost all of the types you listed above. (Except traitorous and insane.)

    What are your thoughts?

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Complicated bad guys are never a bad thing, so long as we’re able to pull it off. So, I’d say, “no.” Definitely no good reason you can’t create a very awesome bad guy by throwing most of these traits into the blender.

  7. I have a relatable antagonist. He’s a man who is a victim of horrifying experiments and modification that enhanced him to superhuman levels, but erased his memories and identity. As he’s sought to find them out, some have details have returned, namely that he’s married, and has a son, but because of all the changes, they no longer recognize him, and he could no longer be a good husband or father, so he has to stay apart from them as he sets out to restore justice in the world.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Great example. Antagonists are always going to be the hero of their stories – and that’s exactly what you’ve presented here.

    • Your antagonist sounds awesome. In fact, he seems more like a protagonist than an antagonist to me. Even though I don’t know anything else about your story, I think I would be tempted to read it for that reason alone. Keep up the good work!

      • Thank you, and I assure you. He is not a protagonist. I forgot to mention on here that he uses bombings, shootings, abductions and faux executions, sabotage, and so on to achieve his ends. He’s a terrorist, really. So, I suppose he could also be a Crusader villain.

        • That certainly does change things a bit! The crusader/terrorist type villain seems to be used often, but their’s nothing wrong with attempting to write your own. It sounds like you’re on the right track for a deliciously complex villain and character all around.

  8. Terrific post. Very helpful. Thanks. My antagonist is a domineering antagonist, but I think he needs a little work.

  9. I enjoyed reading this list and thinking how much each category applied to the main antagonist in my debut fantasy novel, in progress. I think the categories that apply the most are Imperturbable and Skilled. Towards the end of the story, the antagonist proves also to be Cruel, Arrogant, Domineering and Traitorous. Frightening might apply, but the readers will have to confirm that. Some readers might even think some or all of the other categories apply too.

    There are other villains in my story, some working with or for the main antagonist, some at odds with the antagonist. Each of your categories applies to at least one of my tale’s villains.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      It’s fun to mix and match traits, especially when we have more than one antagonist to play around with.

      • If you ask me. My antagonist is not really a bad guy at all really, he’s just being controlled by an ancient force that no-one can control. But the thought of his name still gives me the shivers, and I created him!

  10. Oooooo – I think the ones that got my creative juices flowing the most are “relateable”, “skilled”, and “traitorous”….especially relateable. I never really thought about it before, but when I see something of myself in a bad guy, all of the sudden he’s REAL. ….and that makes him so much scarier. 🙂

  11. My antagonist falls into a different category, lets call it The Unaware Antagonist.

    He doesn’t know he is the ‘bad guy’, he thinks he is the good guy, punishing the wicked or traitorous deviants, even if one is his own sister. He is like this simply because of belief. He has full belief in his cause and what he does and is doing and doesn’t consider himself wrong because his eyes haven’t been opened yet and that is what his sister is trying to do.

    You could also name this category of antagonist ‘The devout believer, antagonist’ because belief can be dangerous in many forms and is something people can relate to, think of this antagonist as an eye opener. He could be the sort of villain who makes people think ‘i believe, but am i really like him’ because unfortunately i have met many people like this. You see this role being portrayed by pious villains and leaders.

    Thank for the article, informative and helpful and thanks for reading unto this point.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      As I mentioned in a previous comment, I like to call this type of antagonist the “Crusader.” In truth, the vast majority of bad guys need to believe they’re really the good guys. Bad guys are the heroes of their own stories, and as such they need to passionately believe in what they’re doing, for whatever reason.

  12. Great post, Katie! My bad guy falls between a couple of them because he’s two different people. He’s bad as both characters, but in different ways. This makes him difficult and fascinating to write. 🙂

  13. My antagonist, the oldest brother of a royal family, starts out as a self righteous and arrogant person really committed to the “traditional values” of his culture which is slowly developing an Egyptian-like “the king is a god” outlook. As the story progresses he moves towards cruelty and in the third act as the antagonist, his youngest sister, slowly begins to “win” he goes slowly insane. I’m not entirely sure I can pull it off but as you often state in both your wonderful books (shameless flattery there, they are very good books) a character arc is more interesting than a static character.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      And you raise an awesome point in that powerful antagonist characters need strong arcs, just as much as do strong protagonists. Often, those two arcs are mirror images of one another.

  14. I hadn’t really thought about all the personality types that could apply here before, but as I was reading through them, I kept thinking, yes! As a reader, I really want to hate the antagonist. Sometimes I’m okay if I don’t. It’s also interesting if the parallel lines that are drawn make us realize that we have similar traits to the antagonist, but I love it when an author goes out there enough in making these deplorable people that I admire how much I love to hate their characters. I feel like that is good writing.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Loving good guys is fun. So is hating bad guys. We want to make our readers *feel* something, whether that emotion is good or bad.

  15. Firstly, I’m impressed that you reply all your comments.
    This was really helpful. For now my antagonist falls under skilled, cruel and relatable.
    Cheers 🙂

  16. I’m kind of partial to handsome, likeable and charming antagonists, in the Hitchcock mold, so much that they’re almost more appealing than the nominal hero. In fact didn’t Hitchcock say something like a movie is only as good as its villain. I guess these kind of antagonists might be seen as a variation of #’s 3, 7 and 8 : skilled, relatable and imperturbable.

  17. My favorite antagonists to write are always the hypocritical types. After all, lies and deception are associated with wrongdoing, and I see hypocrisy as an elaborate lie. So elaborate, in fact, that sometimes a hypocrite lies to themselves, especially the ones who really believe what they preach, even if they don’t necessarily practice it. But, domineering antagonists are a close second, since there’s a bit of betrayal when someone whose authority the protagonist and those around the protagonist trusts decides to abuse that power.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Oh, I agree. Hypocritical antagonists get my goat like no other type of baddie!

      • Do to character development in the story the main villein has become all of these at once: 1. The Cruel Antagonist, 2. The Hypocritical Antagonist, 6. The Frightening Antagonist. Hes gone from a frightened lackey getting smacked up the side of his head to a lonesome evil necromancer . :3 Bad guys are fun ^-^

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Layers are good! Antagonists rarely fit into just one of these categories, so it’s great to explore as many facets as possible.

          • darkocean says

            I was hoping that would be so. ^-^

            I’ve been revising my book again lately, and have found that I killed off an antagonist far to quickly, In fact from the comments i’ve gotten from cridics in cccircle. So that needs to be fixed for sure. doh! ugg hindsight.

  18. You’ve pretty much covered all the bases with these antagonist character types. Of course mixing types together in one person makes for even more complexity. The more complex the better, in my opinion.

    What can ramp the conflict up several notches is if the protagonist loves the antagonist. Maybe the feelings are reciprocated, maybe not. Throwing love between protagonist and antagonist (not just romantic love, but every other kind as well) into the mix makes everything take a new turn. The story’s resolution will be more complex as a result, because just defeating the ‘villain’ or antagonist won’t be enough.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Totally agree. I adore stories in which the protagonist and antagonist have a complicated love/hate relationship. Raises the stakes about a hundred percent.

  19. This totally helped me create my antagonist! It helped me.

  20. K.M., my bad guy does what he does because he fits a specific FBI profile, albeit with a few “quirks” I’ve added. He’s not lovable, since he’s insane (one of your cats), but he pretends to help my protag while plotting to have her. I’d call him very “in your face.” I’ve taken to heart your advice about him needing to have as much to lose as my protag. He wants her, desperately, but she’s committed to friendship and nothing more. Do you think he has as much to lose as she does?

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Desperation is always a sure sign of high personal stakes. It isn’t so much the size of a desire that raises the stakes as it is how much that desire matters to the person who wants it.

  21. Oh I just love inventing antagonists who you can’t suspect . They have to be very skilled to avoid detection until the last few pages. I don’t ever make them insane or unable to function in society since that would stick out too much. They are never driven by the need to just do evil. There is always a plan and a certain lack of barriers when it comes to doing bad stuff. Also if my proganist knows how their opponant is I do still like to keep readers in the dark.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Sometimes the most “normal” antagonists are the most compelling, simply because they’re the most relatable.

      • Well I find that a pure evil and insane character limits me because you don’t have to wonder what they will do, they will do the worst thing possible. So thats all kind of obvious and when they are relatable and “normal” there is still an element of surprise possible

  22. I don’t know what my many different story ideas’ antagonists may be classified as maybe the emotional, distraught king filled with blood lust and revenge could be the relatable antagonists because he has the sorts of motives people can almost, almost agree with but defiantly understand. Would it possibly make him scary that I keep him very human while he’s still murdering people without a care for their lives.

    While this may be one of my bad guys my favorite are always, ALWAYS the insane antagonists. I love, or more accurately loathe them, I just think they are really awesome.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      In my opinion, the most frightening bad guys are always those who are the most relatable – because they feel as if they could actually appear in our own lives.

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