Three Secrets of Three-Dimensional Antagonists

Three Secrets of Three-Dimensional Antagonists

He saunters through the fog with a black cape flapping about his heels, shoulders back, chin tucked so he can fix you with a sinister glare. When his eyes catch yours, you can’t help but shudder at the complete lack of compassion or humanity in his gaze. His chuckle sets your skin crawling, and your brain sends panicked signals to your limbs: run, run, run.

But something holds you back. A tickle at the back of your mind won’t let you quite believe. Haven’t you met this fellow before—at least a dozen times? And aren’t black capes and maniacal laughs a little passé? Does this embodiment of senseless, delighted evil represent dimensional antagonists–or will it be nothing more than a host of clichéd villains?

Dimensional Antagonists–or Melodramatic Clowns?

Sometimes those villains we grew up with—the ones who twirled their curly mustaches, smiled “evilly” to show off a gold tooth, or wore black cowboy hats—like to worm their way out of our memories and crawl onto the page to take up residence in our stories.

 Snidely Whiplash Tying Nell to the Railroad Tracks in Dudley Do-Right

But when that happens, we run the risk of creating a robotic villain who exists solely to resist the hero–or, worse, as some sort of twisted villainous clown whose ineptitude provides nearly as much comic relief as opposition.

3 Tips for Three-Dimensional Antagonists

I think it’s fair to assume y’all want to create well-rounded three-dimensional antagonists—instead of cartoon cutouts of villains. Here are a few tips:

1. Stop Using the Word “Villain”

I know it’s hard not to think to think of our antagonists as villains. It’s hard not to paint a portrait in black ink without a shred of light to offer contrast. It’s easy to think of excuses for why we should call them villains. After all, don’t they behave like a downright, black-hearted bad guy all the time, and isn’t the author supposed to be on the protagonist’s side?

But then this quote comes to mind:

Every villain is a hero in his own mind.–Tom Hiddleston

Loki Riding Chitauri Avengers Climax Tom Hiddleston

Which brings us to tip number two.

2. Discover Why Your “Villain” Thinks He Is the Hero

He does. Honestly. Fervently. Devoutly. Your antagonist believes he is in the right and the hero is in the wrong, and nothing is going to stop him from achieving his goal. (He does have a goal other than stopping the hero, right?)

Once you discover why your antagonist thinks he should be the protagonist, you will understand his motives for acting the way he does, and perhaps even stumble across some decisions that you never would have expected him to make otherwise.

3. The Villain Is in the Details

When I first started writing my fantasy Orphan’s Song, I plugged in your typical baddie to serve as my main antagonist. Carhartan was harsh, cold, and deadly, and oh didn’t you just love to hate him! But as I dug further into my own revisions, I started playing with his character a little bit more. Added a hint of the tragic, a need for success, a tinge of honor (albeit twisted and misguided).

But he still felt just a tad stiff.

It bothered me to no end.

Until I started revising a scene later in the book where he’s sitting on a hummock of grass in the middle of the wilderness, ragged and travel-stained. An image instantly popped into my head: Aragorn the Ranger as he appears in the movie version of The Fellowship of the Ring.

Viggo Mortensen Aragorn Pipe

No! That wasn’t what I wanted. Carhartan was my villain. Aragorn the Ranger is a very awesome hero. But I followed my gut instinct, bit the bullet, and plopped a pipe into Carhartan’s hand.

Such a tiny, seemingly inconsequential detail, but it instantly humanized Carhartan in my mind. I went back and inserted the pipe into key scenes, and it added the level of reality to Carhartan that had been missing.

As I thought about antagonists and those little details that make them human, another one that sprang to mind was Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl and the apple that he so wanted to eat and enjoy.

Barbossa Apple Pirates of the Caribbean Black Pearl

Even in the midst of all his reprehensible actions, you can’t help catching sight of that apple and feeling sorry for him—if only for a moment.

Humanize Your Antagonist

When you round it up and add it together, these three tips all aim toward the same thing: humanizing your antagonist. Once you plant these little hints of humanity in your antagonist’s character, you can use them to evoke a twinge of sympathy in the reader, even if your antagonist earns (and deserves) hatred the rest of the time. There is nothing like conflicting emotions to capture readers’ attention and create a memorable antagonist who will stand the test of time. (Though a winning smile and cutting wit can’t hurt either. *Ahem, Loki.*)

Tell me your opinion: What are some details that helped you create dimensional antagonists? Do you have a favorite tip on writing three-dimensional antagonists?

3 Secrets of 3-Dimensional Antagonists

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About Gillian Bronte Adams | @theSongkeeper

Gillian Bronte Adams is a sword-wielding, horse-riding, coffee-loving speculative fiction author from the great state of Texas. During the day, she manages the equestrian program at a youth camp. But at night, she kicks off her boots and spurs, pulls out her trusty laptop, and transforms into a novelist. Orphan’s Song, the first book in her fantasy trilogy The Songkeeper Chronicles, is now available. Hang out with Gillian on Twitter or Facebook, where she loves chatting about all things related to fantasy, books, villains, and adventures.


  1. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Gillian!

  2. I’m actually really struggling with this right now, so your post is timely. I’m working on my first novel, and I’m discovering that my antagonist is largely… absent. I’m winding up for the final confrontation and no one even knows he’s the bad guy. I definitely have some work to do to get him fleshed out and humanized. I suppose, as they say, you can’t edit a blank page.

    • I’m glad it was helpful, Molly! Sometimes you can’t have your antagonist on center stage throughout the novel – it really depends on the story – but you should know what he’s doing behind the scenes at any given point, and that should help shape the course of your story as your antagonist works to accomplish his goal in opposition to your protagonist!

  3. great thoughts!

    Because I write mysteries, I struggle with making my antags 3D because we typically don’t see them through their own eyes. Writing one novel (which I hope to publish in 2015) where I have multiple scenes from my antag’s POV has helped some, but still it’s a struggle. Even if you don’t intend to keep the scenes, writing a couple scenes (or more!) from your antag’s POV could help humanize them. 🙂

    • Liberty, that’s a great idea! One of the best writing visuals I’ve ever seen was where it showed backstory and character building as an iceberg. All that you see in the novel is the tip poking out of the water, but there’s a whole lot more going on underneath. So taking the time to get to really know your antagonist – even if it means writing scenes you know won’t make it into the novel – is well worth it.

  4. Barbosa is a great example because he is such an interesting “villain.” I enjoyed his character and rooted for him many times. I was happy when he reappeared in subsequent movies, especially as he was more of an ally than adversary (a shift that felt natural, since we knew so much about his motivations).

    I have a bully in my MG mystery I might need to humanize a bit. Maybe I can show why he feels he has to torture the other campers? Thanks for bringing this up, this is something I am going to have to think about now…

    • Hi Janelle! Yes, Barbosa is a fascinating one to study. He’s interesting in that a part of you wants to dislike him and really wants him to lose … but there’s another small part that can’t help liking him and hoping he’ll get his act straight and wind up on the “good side.” Though in Pirates, the “good side” tends to be a bit relative.

  5. Thanks for these great tips!
    I am still struggling with my current antagonist to get him “3D” and interesting.
    I think it can also help to develop a great backstory for your antagonist where you explain his motives or how he/she became so evil/mad or whatever.

  6. thomas h cullen says

    Good column, Gillian. Nothing you’ve expressed is wrong, on the contrary, it’s all expert.

    How about however this for a general philosophy? The more the story is convoluted, the more there then exists of the inevitable consequence of the things we hate: tropes and clichés.

    I never had to be concerned with humanising Krenok; the overall story had it going so good. Just by itself, Croyan’s goal and situation was such I’d been spared having to consider giving his antagonist a ‘character’ – at least one to be seen on the page.

    (Having just watched the trailer, I do wonder if The Force Awakens will be able to function according to this principle – not needing to give its antagonist substantial three-dimensionality, for sheer reason of its possessing such a strong plot.)

    • Hi Thomas! Thanks for taking the time to share your philosophy on crafting antagonists. I haven’t seen the trailer for The Force Awakens yet, but I’m definitely looking forward to seeing it.

      • thomas h cullen says

        You can go round in circles, over and over, wondering about the topic’s validity.

        It comes all down to ‘story’, in the end. People are people, in fact not being what story should be geared around:

        Situations! The intriguing, entertaining, emotionally involving kinds of situation that people find themselves part of (and how they deal and respond to it – compared to you) is what good fiction always is about.

  7. I have two main antags, and neither of them is a single person. The biggest isn’t a person at all. My MC is an alien whose mother was abducted, brought to Earth, and died in childbirth. The MC needs to find his homeworld, but no one knows where it is (or aren’t telling), so LACK OF INFORMATION is antag #1.

    The other major antag is a consequence of the culture in the ungoverned and un-policed frontiers of space. The MC’s planet was targeted by slavers (and then butchers). Participants in this operation may be involved due to simple economic pressure: they need the money, and survival trumps the demands of their conscience. LOTS of spread in the possibilities.

  8. For Newel (an antagonist in one of my stories), I did two main things:
    1. I wrote his backstory, which helped me to understand how he became who he is.
    2. I gave him a real personality — flaws that I myself have faced — but that he followed in the wrong direction.

    This was a great post, Gillian. I loved the way you used details (such as a pipe) to help create a human character as your antagonist.

    • Giving your antagonist realistic positive and negative traits is a great way to humanize him or her. One of my favorite character development tips is to remember that your character’s greatest strength can also be their greatest weakness if taken too far… and that’s a great thing to keep in mind when developing your antagonist.

  9. My favorite point is the second one – the antagonist REALLY believes he/she is the hero. That point reminds me that stories, if they mean anything, always reflect human nature, and every. single. character. in our stories should be “human” (yes, even if they are a mythological creature). ….What I mean is that they should remind us of ourselves somehow, or they don’t really posses any aspect of personhood. And don’t we always believe we are right, even when we know we are wrong? 🙂 🙂 🙂

    • thomas h cullen says

      The principle is sound, however the disenchanting truth is that without many characters being more or less commonly unintelligent, and ‘conveniently simple-minded’, so many stories wouldn’t be able to exist.

      • I suppose it’s true that many “successful” stories DO get away with having simple-minded, one-dimension characters – even antagonists that are that way. Sometimes the public isn’t as picky as it ought to be. 🙂 It’s definitely easier to write a book when you don’t have to put so much work into each and every character. But I think authors ought to put that kind of effort at least into the antagonist, even if some of the lesser characters are flat.

        But I can’t think of any enduring classics that have a shallow one-dimensional character as their “bad guy” – can you?

        • thomas h cullen says

          Alien, Star Wars, Return of the Jedi, The Terminator, Predator, The Lord of The Rings, Twilight.

          This echo’s to an above reply. Great stories aren’t determined by character (everyone is the same). They’re determined by skilful narrative.

          So many sequels disappoint for this reason. They so often miss the point of why the original story existed in the first place:

          To tell of an intriguing situation, or fascinating set of processes of human interaction, after which an antagonist ‘loses’ their natural right to exist.

    • Very true, Amber! Unless your antagonist is the Joker, it’s doubtful he spends his nights dreaming of ways to watch the world burn. Generally there’s some other motivation. And even if he knows that what he’s doing is wrong, he probably has thought up some way to justify it.

      • Yup – someone like the Joker is a whole new realm….yet even he has his human elements, doesn’t he? 🙂 I really enjoyed what you had to say in your article – thanks for sharing it!

  10. Thanks for this post. I was recently bothered by my antagonist. I had humanized his sidekick but not the main “baddie”.

  11. Like this post suggests, I like for the positive motivation behind my antagonists actions. The relatable situation that may have caused him or her to do what they do. I often create my antagonists first.

  12. I’ve been think about this blog ever since I read it. It really hits home. Thanks!

  13. Thanks for reminding me to look for the good in the antagonist.

  14. I like to add a “save the cat” moment to my villains and antagonists where he or she performs a deed that may come across as a random act of kindness, but actually demonstrates his/her empathy. An antagonist/villain who was devastated by the loss of a loved one, may share a bonding moment with the protagonist who had also lost a loved one. To add conflict, maybe the protagonist was somehow directly, or indirectly, responsible for the antagonist’s great tragedy.

  15. Good read. My WIP features several forces, all different, that could be considered Antagonistic towards different characters within the story.

  16. Thanks for the advice! I’m struggling with that in one of my stories, mainly because my antagonist continues to be elusive and is working in the backdrop for most of the novel. Giving all antagonists a twist of humanity is always a good idea and it makes it much more interesting. No one wants to see the same, evil antagonist who bumbles around in a black cape. 🙂

  17. I learned to handle my antagonist (I never write villains, it’s boring ;-)) after reading one of my favourite books, Waylander, by David Gemmell. In the novel, Gemmell presents both sides of the story and every time he switches, you find yourself on the site of the character you’re reading about. So you know Waylander is the main character (thought kind of a shady one), but you still have the possibility to see his antagonist’s story from HIS point of view.

    In my current WIP my antagonist is one of my main characters’ brother. I was very happy when one of my friends and beta readers told me: I started off hating him, but then, as the story unfolded, I saw his personality and reasons and the way he was manipulated, the same way he manipulates other people and I kind of felt for him.

    Now that makes a writer happy 🙂

    • thomas h cullen says

      I share your inclination of thought. Though for me it goes further. In general, for my part, emphasis on an antagonist means lacking story.

      Krenok’s bare presence in The Representative is for this reason: the substance of the situation at its heart.

  18. Really good post! I used to have the stereotypical evil for evil’s sake villains, but when you give them some humanity it changes them. You want to hate the antagonist, but you want just enough humanity so the antagonist is believable since just because they chose the wrong side of the line in the sand of morality and immorality it doesn’t mean that they are deep inside human and have emotions. I believe I’ve heard the phrase that the antagonist thinks he or she is the hero before. That’s what really changed my perspective on villains.

    Stori Tori’s Blog

  19. My story has two physical antagonists, both of which have full back stories. I had intended for one of them to just be a general evil-for-evil’s-sake character, but when her back story suddenly came to me, her motivations were clearer and the story itself became much more interesting.

    One of my villains was going to be absent for most of the story and was only going to reveal herself at the very end, although she would have her own story arch on the process of her becoming a villain. I recently figured out a way that she could have a bigger role in the story while also giving me a chance for a major plot twist.

    Then, two of my main characters have such opposite viewpoints that they both see each other as villains even though they are ultimately on the same side.

    There are also a couple characters who have the best of intentions, but end up making huge mistakes and could almost be seen as antagonists for the problems that they cause for themselves and the other main characters.

    I really feel like I have made all of my characters complex and truly human. Part of the theme of my story is stories, so I have tried to make sure that each of the characters clearly sees themselves as the hero.

  20. Great post and equally helpful comments. Otis also funny how subjective the baddies can be,somebody reading my book(first one,currently in editing stage) told me my ‘villain(chick lit so he’s not the vilest out there;)) was too obvious with no shades of grey. I had thought I had given plenty of hints that he wasn’t just your typical woman hater that the protagonist seemed to be with for no rational reason. I’ve since reassessed him and hopefully made the story more realistic a a result.

  21. Great column! I tried the pipe thing a while back with one of my protagonists–he was coming off as flat and self-righteous and a little prissy and I couldn’t figure out what to do with him until for whatever reason I stuck a cigarette in his hand. Suddenly, boom! There he was in living color and all three dimensions. Since then that cigarette has become an important detail in several scenes, including a pivotal one. I thought the fact that it worked was just an accident at the time. Now I’ll go back and do this with my antagonist and my other protagonist. Thanks!

  22. Great article.

    Smoking seems to be a theme for baddies, as my antagonist (and the big bad boss) both do it, too, as well as a boozy whiskey habit.

    After starting out thoroughly disliking him, my antagonist seemed to come alive as his back story developed, which was amazing. Now my rather bland protagonists are even more noticeably dull! 🙁

    Suppose I should stop procrastinating and get editing! 😀

  23. If the protagonist falls in love with the antagonist, is the antagonist still an antagonist?

    Would the antagonist switch to taking the role of the love interest rather than staying as the antagonist/villain? The antagonist is still quite the villain, and is still bad in the same ways… but if the antagonist shows the smallest bit of positive feelings and care, would that ruin the antagonist completely even if it was very small?

    And if the antagonist changes its motives is it possible for them to switch into the anti-hero? Even if they haven’t changed completely, and still thinks like a villain?

    Would this character be an antagonist, anti-hero, or love interest in the end?

    • What you have to understand, is that the antagonist can also be a love interest. An antagonist is someone whose goal totally opposes to the protagonist’s. With that in mind, you could simply have an antagonist who also happens to be loved by the protagonist. Whether the antagonist changes his/her motivations though, depends entirely on the needs of your story. Hope this helped 🙂

  24. Eep! You have no idea how much I love you put Loki. Especially in Antagonist

    But also that he is a good example how complex and 3-dimensional antagonist he is. That in Loki’s mind, he believes what he is doing is right…unfortunately, he is sort of right how we humans ‘slaughter’ each other and that if Loki rules them, he’d be able to eradicate the problems such as poverty. I’m sure Loki is not THAT cruel. He’s just Loki.

    I have written two antagonist. One of them has an addicted personality and obssesed with this guy, while the other one was bound more to jealousy and that his motives and feelings were very much complex. I hope to accomplish much more 3 dimensional antagonist. Thank Loki for that


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