How to Properly Motivate Your Bad Guy

No character is more misunderstood than the bad guy. Even today, it’s far too easy for authors to slip into the remnants of the old melodrama stereotype—black cape, twirled mustache, trick laugh. He’s the bad guy just because… well, he’s bad. Isn’t that enough?

Definitely not enough.

Next to your protagonist, your antagonist is the single most important character in your story. Skimp on him, and the entire story—including the protagonist—will suffer as a result.

Now, it’s true not every story will require a “bad” guy. An antagonist doesn’t have to be bad.

Doesn’t even have to be human, come to that.

The antagonistic force is nothing more or less than an obstacle between your protagonist and his story goal.

But, as often as not, this character will be bad. He may be aligned only a little to the moral south of your protagonist, or he may be a dyed-in-the-wool, raving, slasher-scary psychotic killer.

Either way, it’s your job to make sure he’s still dimensional human being. This may or may not mean he’ll end up being sympathetic to readers in some way. What it does mean is that your bad guy must have realistic motivations for his actions.

Let’s take a quick look at how to motivate your bad guy—and how not to.

Why the Bad-Just-to-Be-Bad Antagonist Doesn’t Work

Bad guys are often conceived simply to give the protagonist someone to overcome—someone to run from or fight against. As archetypal black-hat figures, bad guys don’t always have to be complicated, but be wary of oversimplifying them.

When you create a bad guy who has no clear goal other than kill the good guy, and no clear motive other than just because I’m bad, several not-so-great things happen:

  • Your antagonist turns into a one-dimensional cardboard cutout.
  • Your antagonist lacks realism.
  • Your conflict lacks realism.

In short, you may think that in making your villain as evil as possible “just because,” you’re making him all the scarier and more impressive. But the result is exactly the opposite. The entire story and its thematic argument weakens.

Consider Gavin O’Connor’s western Jane Got a Gun, in which Ewan McGregor chews through the scenery as John Bishop, the villainous leader of a ruthless outlaw gang—who is dead-set on annihilating protagonist Jane and her husband Bill Hammond.

Ewan McGregory John Bishop Jane Got a Gun

Ewan McGregor squints devilishly, huffs cigar smoke at everybody, and twirls his period mustache–but the writers forgot the most important thing: you must motivate your bad guy. (Jane Got a Gun (2015), The Weinstein Company.)

On the surface, he has a nominal motivation: after he tried to force Jane and her daughter into prostitution, one of his men, the kindly Hammond, rescued Jane, shooting up Bishop’s brothel and killing several of his men in the process. Granted, such a thing would be a little galling to a businessman such as Bishop, but is it logically enough to cause him to obsessively hunt down Jane and Ham for the next six years?

The character is introduced in a supremely evil characteristic moment—garroting an innocent man to death, while trying to extract info about Jane.


But… why?

Ewan McGregory John Bishop Jane Got a Gun

He’s even got a reward out on these people. Putting his money where his mouth is but… why? (Jane Got a Gun (2015), The Weinstein Company.)

Why is he so obsessively, and ultimately self-destructively, determined to exact revenge on two people who were, at best, minor annoyances in his overall scheme?

Any number of suitable motivations might have been created to account for Bishop’s obsessive evil. Any one of them would have made him a far more compelling antagonist, and the conflict itself far more meaningful and realistic.

As it stands, he becomes a one-dimensional stereotype—a bad guy who is present in the story for no other reason than to simply be as bad as possible.

How to Properly Motivate Your Bad Guy

People never do things without reason. Good people can have bad reasons for their actions, just as bad people can have good reasons. At the very least, even the most wicked of men committing the most wicked of actions will almost always believe they are justified, on some level, for their deeds.

Your antagonist needs to have a motivation every bit as strong and compelling as your protagonist.

Ask yourself:

  • What’s your antagonist’s backstory?
  • What good reason does he have to initially engage in the conflict with the protagonist?
  • What good reason does he have to continue to engage in the conflict with the protagonist?

Hatred, vengeance, lust, and any other number of dark emotions are good qualifiers for your antagonist. But, alone, they are not enough to motivate his story goals.

It’s not enough for your antagonist to hate your protagonist just because. Dig deeper than that. The deeper you go, the more rounded a character your antagonist will become—and the better your protagonist will also have to become in order to face this impressive bad guy you’ve constructed for him.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What humanizing reason are you using to motivate your bad guy? Tell me in the comments!

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

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.


  1. It took me several goes to get this one right. Arthur was a studious lad who preferred reading to playing football in the rain. His father persecuted him for this, and he tried to run away. He got enough money together for a ticket to another planet, but the kindly lady on the ticket desk simply thought he was in minor trouble and called his father to take him home.

    From then on he hates Arcturian Interstellar Space Lines, the Confederation, and all women in uniform with a passion bordering on the irrational.

    Then comes the day when he has taken Jane Gould, an Arcturian Space Fleet officer, prisoner. She has information that he wants:

    Arthur pulled open a drawer then slammed it shut again with a curse. He spent several minutes rummaging until he found what he wanted. ‘You really don’t understand, do you?’
    He clicked a switch and the tip of whatever he was holding began to glow first red then orange.
    Jane fought to tread water in a tidal wave of panic, her mind working furiously all the time. She refused to look at the glow, instead fixing Arthur with her eyes.
    ‘Jane,’ he said, almost pleading, ‘don’t make me do this to you.’
    ‘Arthur,’ she said, a cutting edge to her voice, ‘nobody is making you do anything. Whatever you do to me will be your fault, and yours alone. If there is a hell, and I pray that there is, you’ll burn in it for what you do.’
    ‘It’s almost a pity,’ he said, ‘you’re quite an attractive little thing. But after this,’ he moved his hand closer to her, ‘nobody will want to look at you, ever again. And you won’t have saved the drive. You’ll give in, one way or the other—none of it’ll have been worth the agony. So see sense, don’t make me.’
    ‘Make you? I’m not making you do anything.’
    Arthur shook his head. ‘Fate then. I’m going to have the drive. There are some things that happen because they’re meant to happen, and this is one of them. Fate, history, the life-force itself—call it whatever you want, has chosen me to be the means of setting the human race free from Arcturus. That’s why I’ve been given you, and the means of making you talk-’

    Arthur slowly turns into Faust, and Jane emerges victorious, as we would hope.

    I have, in another novel, written an anti-heroine (who sells heroin). The book opens with her killing a would-be rapist, and coming to decide that, in the end, nothing matters other than looking after herself:

    There was a muffled scream from next door. Mother had gone too far again.
    In that case, if there wasn’t any God, or any heaven, or any hell, nothing mattered. We live, we die, and the wind and rain erases all trace of our actions, good or bad. If there is no eternity, and it looks strongly as if religion doesn’t do what it claims, the only person that matters is me, and the only thing that matters is making me as safe and comfortable as possible.
    To hell with everyone else (only there isn’t a hell). From now on it’s me for myself, and (imaginary) devil take the hindmost.
    [ Adult bit redacted. ]
    I could be Josephine Abigail. And as a scarlet woman it amused me to call myself Greene, the final e making it so slightly distinctive. Josephine Abigail Greene, the rhyme between the first and last names just enough to catch the unwary. Jojo, high class tart to the rich.
    They say that people used to take Christian names on baptism. For me it was the other way. That night in bed I abandoned what little remained of my childhood beliefs, and took a heathen name.

    Jojo, in an attempt to make up for her childhood, becomes the second in command of the biggest drug cartel in the world. In the end she is redeemed by love.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s often interesting to think of antagonists as heroes (or anti-heroes) of their own novels. It brings the necessity for their motives into a much clearer light–and lets us write imperfect heroes as well.

  2. I’m working on an antagonist who is pretty much Bluebeard, as the story he’s in is a retelling of the tale. I feel like he’s pretty well rounded so far; I’ve got his motivations and reasons for his actions all worked out and I think it keeps him from being little more than the creepy crazy person.

  3. There was proper motivation for the antagonist in the original screenplay that Brian Duffield wrote for Jane Got a Gun.

  4. Katie Suratt says

    This may be one of my main problems in plotting out my story so far–I think my antagonist doesn’t have a good enough reason.

    He has an antisocial personality disorder (which is only going to be hinted at–the reader isn’t supposed to know right away).

    But that can’t be his reason. I know my antagonist secretly idolizes his ancestor (who murdered his own brother) and thinks he’s the new, improved version. I know he’s annoyed by the fact that the protagonist always seems to be standing in the way of things that he wants, and what’s more, she won’t fall for his charm.

    These are not reasons enough to want to kill her at the end of the story. Even the protagonist finally discovering the secret of why the ancestor murdered his brother isn’t enough. The antagonist doesn’t really care if she knows. He just enjoys keeping the secret from her because he knows he can turn it into a manipulation game.

    Throughout the story, the protagonist has been working on a secret painting of the murdered brother whose ghost is a character in the story, too. There aren’t any paintings of the brother in the house, so there’s “no way” she could know what he looks like. The antagonist discovers the painting towards the end. But that’s still not enough of a reason. He didn’t murder the brother–his ancestor did that in the past. Yes, he’d be freaked out by it, and it might be the tipping point for him, but it can’t be his reason.

    I’m just having trouble figuring out what that one thing is!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’d take a look at either causes for the disorder (if they’re not chemical or hereditary) or the immediate consequences of the disorder. For example, if his disorder caused him to be bullied as a child, that might create a backstory Ghost that informs a destructive motivation within the main story.

    • People with personality disorders don’t have the same sort of reasons that “normal” people do. Most of them will walk instantly out of a relationship without warning and a minority will kill people simply because the person found out a truth about them that punctures the picture they’ve created of themselves. For example, a man who murdered his wife (true story) because she found out he never went to the University he claimed to have graduated from.

  5. Thanks for another great post. I need to flesh out my little antagonist’s motive still, so this reminder came at a great time.

    I feel bad for the main antagonist in my WW II story. He just wants to make his son proud of him and do his part for his adopted country. If only he wasn’t a German saboteur. Then I wouldn’t have to kill him. 🙁 Still, he has my respect for sticking to his convictions.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If you’re feeling bad for your antag, I’d say you’re on the right track. If you feel for him, that means you’ve humanized him–and that’s one of the keys to well-rounded antags.

  6. Max Woldhek says

    Man, I don’t know, lately it seems that reality is telling me the melodrama stereotype is the most accurate one. And I’m not even talking about a certain walking orange. In South Korea, right now, there’s a huge scandal which apparently (according to Korean posters on a forum I frequent) involves the President being in the pocket of a Rasputin-like cultist shaman who manipulated the government from the shadows. It would appear that fiction has stricter editors than real life. 😀

  7. Hannah Killian says

    I don’t even have a name for the rebel leader in my story. No name, no motives, no backstory. . .zip, zilch, nada! He doesn’t even have any screentime!

    . . . .

    Could it be that the rebel leader isn’t the true bad guy? Maybe the bad guy isn’t even human. But I haven’t even gotten past page 8 yet!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Remember: the antagonistic force is whoever or whatever is presenting obstacles between your protagonist and her goal. That could be someone very close to the protagonist.

      • Hannah Killian says

        Hmm. . .well, maybe the hero’s cousin is the antagonist for him, since he’s (the cousin) supposed to catch the hero.(because the rebels are basically Prince John, the “Phony King of Ennnngland!”) Of course, the cousin doesn’t know the hero is his cousin until the hero gets caught.

        I do know what the cousin’s ‘Ghost’ is and why he won’t back down from almost killing the hero/his cousin in the Climax. Yikes, just thinking about that scene already shatters my feels.

        The heroine’s antagonist could be the family friend’s second wife and her eldest daughter. But then again, the hero’s cousin might also be an antagonist to her too.

        Outline, outline, outline. . . .

  8. When I think of black cape villains, I think of Darth Vader from Star Wars. He was the ultimate villain. He would squeeze people’s throats just because they disagreed with him, or screwed up their assignment. It wasn’t until the end of The Empire Strikes Back, when he said, “Luke, I am your father,” that there was some humanizing of his character. Most of Return of the Jedi was spent trying to make him more human.

  9. Another villain I find fascinating is Khan from the movie Star Trek II. His motivation is clear. Kirk had exiled him on the planet Ceti Alpha V 15 years earlier. Six months after he arrived, an explosion laid waste to the entire planet. Khan wants revenge.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Vader and Khan are both great. Vader, especially, is archetypal. However, I would argue that for all his full-on evillness in the first film, his juxtaposition against the even *more* ruthless Grand Admiral Tarkin functioned as an interesting humanizing effect.

  10. After having to start over again, then reading this piece, I think I’ve done well!

    What’s your antagonist’s backstory?
    The main character/protagonist’s father grew up on a farm but decided that wasn’t for him, so he went to college and became a high school teacher

    What’s the Ghost/wound in his past?
    The process of leaving home caused a rift with his father that keeps them uncomfortable around each other twenty-five years later.

    What is the Lie He Believes that’s driving him?
    He wanted to do more than dig in the dirt, but feels stuck in a rut with no room to grow, seeing the rest of his life following the same daily script of the last twenty years.

    What good reason does he have to initially engage in the conflict with the protagonist?
    His son is very smart and capable, much like himself, and he needs to teach his son (who frequently seems more interested in sports) the importance of studying and working hard.

    What good reason does he have to continue to engage in the conflict with the protagonist?
    Now a junior in college, his son is less than two years from graduating and being on his own, but still seems unfocused, living at home and without even a part time job.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Everything I’ve heard about the dad character from you sounds like a perfect example of how to do antagonists. Admittedly, it’s often easier to humanize “ordinary” antagonists, such as family members, than it is “exotic” antagonists, whom most of us have never encountered (mobsters, serial killers, etc.). The trick is to remember that even the exotic variety of antagonist is still a human being who has a family, gets head colds, and wants to be happy.

      • Well, thanks – because it certainly didn’t start out that way. I was way into the first draft when I realized the dad character was nearly non-existent. Today, I was able to read down your list and immediately rattle off the answers. It was a good feeling!

  11. I generally can’t write from the bad guys’ POV *until* I establish one thing about them that would make them “relatable” or at least human.

    One henchman took an oath to his king without knowing his king was corrupted. His virtue is that he’s a loyal and patriotic soldier, but his downfall is that he remains loyal to his king long past the time he should have turned against him.

    In the scene where I show his POV he’s grieved to realize he’s one of the bad guys, and the good guys are coming for him. He convinces one of his younger soldiers to abandon his post and seek protection elsewhere, while he himself stays behind to face the consequences.

    For the king himself, his “ghost” is that in his youth he secretly witnessed a prophet warning his father not to designate him as his successor, on the grounds that he’s weakminded and unprincipled, a follower and not a leader. He is destined to destroy the kingdom, the prophet warns.

    When he becomes king despite the warning, early in his reign a famine troubles his land. He’s already exiled the prophet who spoke against him, but a select few know of the prophecy. A whisper campaign puts out the word that the famine is a consequence for the king disobeying the will of the gods. He fears he will be deposed and is desperate for a way to keep his throne in spite of the gods, who he resents for judging him as not good enough.

    When a new emissary of a strange god (it’s really a demon) told him there’s a way to end the famine, subvert the will of the gods, and remain king, he seized the opportunity. Slowly the demon doled out more and more favors until he was thoroughly ensnared, which is the situation when the story starts. You might say he’s already completed his negative arc but for the coup de grace my heroines will deliver.

    However, I show the king through the eyes of his loving and fiercely protective daughter. She’s ruthless in going after my heroines, thinking she’s saving her father, as a new prophecy has warned the heroines will be the death of him. The Lie has its talons deep in her; fortunately for her she’s on a positive arc.

    Note: my villains are wise to Good Management 101: they know that if they kill their employees for “failing” them, they will only damage morale and get worse results. The political villains also know to try and keep “the people” on their side, so they never do a Sheriff of Nottingham and “cancel Christmas,” although they might feign an illness to avoid publicly celebrating it 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I love it when the antagonist’s chief motivating personality trait can actually be a *good* trait–such as loyalty–that gets taken too far or applied in the wrong way. It makes his ability to argue the moral opposite in the theme so much more interesting. Good job!

      • I agree. The misapplication of something that should be good is one of the strongest forms of evil.

        “It is not from fallen mice or fallen fleas that one makes great demons, but from fallen angels.”

        In the WIP the scientists have come up with a way of editing the contents of a human brain. They were looking for a way of curing mental illness.

        The Khan of Nineveh is using it on captured dissidents. Guess why.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          This was one thing I really liked about the YA story Maze Runner. The bad guys are doing horrible things to children in the name of saving humanity–and you totally understand why someone would be able to make a call about those ends being worth those means.

  12. In Dragon’s Eggs Benedict I wrote the story from the ‘villain’ of the first book’s perspective – General Tsurech, black dragon & traitor to the American Revolution… and his motivations echoed those of Benedict Arnold, with the added layer of his being irritated by speciesism, being treated like a dumb beast, and the destruction of one (at the time he believed two) of the eggs which were all he had left of his beloved mate, who had been killed. As the short story progresses, we discover that the ‘hero’ (Mahrial DiSilvanus) of the series this story spins off of saved that third egg and raised Tsurech’s son as her own. While this is a good thing and saved the dragonling’s life, Tsurech believes that Mahrial alienated his son from him on purpose, giving him that much more reason to hate her.

  13. So how deep does this need to go? My main antagonist begins the story as basically a chauvinist who hates my protagonist because she is smart and independent and doesn’t fall head-over-heels for him just because he’s the handsome prince. However, as the story progresses he becomes more and more violent toward her, eventually kills her father, and tries to kill her husband, but it is slowly revealed that he is being controlled/manipulated by his Enchantress wife, so really SHE is the main antagonistic force, but she’s, in a sense, a minor character (at least in the first book). Does she have to have that humanizing motivation? If so, is it something that the readers need to really know about or can her motivation just be subtext while the Prince’s motivation/manipulation is explored more thoroughly? Of course, once her part in the overall story is brought to light, I would have to delve deeper into her backstory, but that’s not until the second book. Is there a good way to foreshadow her evilness while at the same time making it look like it’s all the prince?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The deeper the motivation, the deeper the character. But explaining depth can sometimes take up time and space within a book, so how much time you want to spend in the antagonist’s camp also has to be a consideration.

      I definitely wouldn’t worry too much about sharing the wife’s motives too blatantly until she’s revealed as the main antagonist. However, you can still hint at the subtext and start setting up the pieces, so they will make sense when the reveal happens.

      • “So they will make sense” is what I get as the key. Don’t leave the reader scratching their head, asking, “Huh? Why did…” Something believable that is logically set up.

  14. Andrewiswriting says

    My antagonist is the estranged son of an imprisoned father and a catatonic mother (in a home) who is being raised by his maternal uncle.

    He’s been given his mother’s (and uncle’s) surname and all his life been told that his parents were both dead.

    All of this went swimmingly, until someone started whispering a version of the truth in his ear. Your parents are still alive, your father was imprisoned, forces arrayed against you, conspiracy, etc etc.

    Over time, these sweet lies took hold, until he came to believe his father to be a great man, wrongly imprisoned, and that exacting revenge and freeing his father would earn him his father’s appreciation and love.

    So there’s that whole adopted kid pinning his hopes on his imagined father thing going on.

    Now, his father is a demon (of sorts) and the voice whispering in his ear is not Satan, but he’s a close analogue.

    He does some despicable things, as someone who seeks righteous revenge can always justify to themselves, but when you boil it all down he’s a lost son seeking his absent father’s love.

    I’m kinda happy with him.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is great. You’ve got the Lie inherent within his backstory–which is always the core kernel of the character arc.

  15. This is a major spoiler for anyone who eventually reads my books. 😀 However…

    My antagonist has two obsessions that drive him: to bring his favourite son back from a limbo/suspended animation state in the realm of Nastrond, and to escape the death foretold for him at the Ragnarok. He has reason to believe that the powers of the protagonist can help him to achieve both those goals.

    He also has an old bone to pick with her mother, but that wouldn’t be enough, in itself, to account for his actions in the story. Getting back at her mother by hurting her would just be the icing on the cake for him.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nice. It’s extra great when the antagonist can be motivated by love for someone else–such as his son.

  16. In mine and every fictional story I’ve read about bullying, it seems the only goal of the antagonist(s) is to make the protagonist’s life miserable. In many of these the antagonist (bully) is the alpha male jock who thinks he can do whatever he wants to people. In all those stories, there is little or no back story behind the antagonist. Does that mean it’s not necessary in this case?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Whenever I see a bully, my very first thought is always: this is an insecure person. That’s a generalization, of course. But there’s always a reason for these actions, and in these cases, I find it’s usually because the bully has himself been bullied or intimidated or put down in some other part of his life.

    • When you mention bullies, I think of Biff from Back to the Future. There’s no backstory there. He just makes George’s life miserable. He wants Lorraine, but the movie doesn’t say why. It gives George a foil to punch at the end and make everything all right. However, lack of a backstory doesn’t seem to hurt in this case. The story works without it.

      • Does a guy really need a reason to want a girl? (and the other way around as well). Most often we just do – the attraction comes without thinking.

        Part of my premise is the protagonist falling for a girl that he’s not supposed to be with. In one situation she says, “You can’t help who you fall in love with.”

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        True, but Biff is designed to be a cartoony character without much dimension. However, if I remember correctly, doesn’t he live with his grandmother? That would hint at some family issues in his backstory.

  17. Erik Bressler says

    I had just finished creating the back story for my antagonist before reading this article and I feel like I am on the right track. I took inspiration from history in creating my antagonist. When you really take the time to consider the “villains” of history, you understand that these individuals believed in what they were doing but were simply working towards a misguided goal.

    I have always found antagonists who you could relate with to be the most suspenseful and that was my goal for my character.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Excellent approach. History is a huge influence on my writing–and my general understanding of the world–as well.

  18. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, as nowadays the bar has been raised for creating bad guys. Cape-twirling and evil-just-because villains have become my pet peeve. Thanks for this great article.

  19. I find the most compelling bad guys/gals are the ones who are conflicted. I recently finished a novel where my bad guy originally had no redeeming qualities. It turned that he ended up a very conflicted character when I was finished. The bad gal in my novel did turn out to be much worse than him, because she was a sociopath and her motivations stemmed from pure selfishness. They are a couple, and I like the juxtaposition of these two characters, which I think gave them more substance.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree. When the bad guy has zero doubts about his evil plan it inevitably throws either his sanity or realism into question.

  20. Uh, yes, yes, a million times yes. You might as well have read my WIP and wrote about why my bad guy is poorly written and hurting the novel. (And, of course, how to fix it.)

    I’ve got a lot of work to do, but this helps so much. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You’re not alone. Antagonists were something that frustrated me in my own writing for a long time. Humanizing them was the key.

  21. Thanks and that’s a great example! I was thinking along those lines so you’ve reassured me.

  22. Elizabeth Richards says

    I like my bad guy. It’s 1893 in Colorado gold mining country. He fought in the civil war and was buried alive in a mine blast. He’s got scars to prove it and he’s afraid to go into a tunnel. Major problem if you hope to strike it rich in gold country.

    Instead he became a bar tender. He’s seen his share of men who were rich one year and freezing to death in a drunken stupor the next. He’s getting old and by chance he ends up with title to a mine that is a bonanza. At last, he’ll be able to retire somewhere warm with a young thing to take care of him.

    When it turns out that he only has part interest in the mine and his dreams are threatened, he’s willing to protect his interests. He didn’t mean for someone to die…but his motto is “I ain’t dying cold.” Isn’t it about time that he had some luck?

    I like having mottos especially for my bad guys. one of my favorites was a former prostitute, now a wealthy woman who has vowed that her son will be respectable–even if she has to kill for it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally agree on the “motto” idea. Something I started doing in the character sketches for my latest outline was listing three rules of the character’s Code of Conduct. Very enlightening for all types of characters—but especially bad guys.

  23. Does the antagonist need a ghost or a lie? In my WIP, the antagonist is simply a futuristic robot programmed to find it’s creator’s missing son (long story short), but it sees her son (the protagonist) as a source of grief and tries to eliminate him. There’s no ghost or lie, but the robot isn’t supposed to be human in the first place. Is that a cause for alarm if the antagonist falls under the category of not human?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ultimately, the Ghost and Lie are there to provide a *reason* for the antagonist’s actions. If that antagonist is non-human than the reason doesn’t have to be a psychological or emotional one.

  24. For me, it is interesting discovering how the antagonist informs the main character.
    They can’t be accidental in a story. There has to be a clear reason THIS particular person is the main character and has THIS particular antagonist. Of course, from a very objective view, it looks like the antagonistic force is offering unbalance to the main character’s world. Anyway! For me, it’s fun to think of things the main character is good at: skills, beliefs, etc. and then see how the antagonist reflects those skills (to make him a worthy opponent) or offers strengths the main character lacks!
    Katie, I’d like to get your thoughts on how you approach thinking about your antagonist in relation with the story as a whole?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve largely changed (or shall we say “upgraded”) my approach to plotting antagonists with this recent book (hence, all the antagonist posts of late). A revelation for me was realizing I needed to start plotting with the antagonist’s goals and motives, rather than the protagonist’s–since it’s the antagonist who slams into the protag, and not the other way around.

      I’ve also returned to a practice I’d regrettable abandoned for a few books, which was completing a full-on character interview for all my antagonists. It makes all the difference in getting under their skin and understanding them as more than just plot devices.

      • That’s some tremendous advice (starting with the antagonist).
        I’m making a big assumption here, but I think we all, to a degree, start with the discovery of the main character because they typically are the closest to our beliefs or what we want to say in our story. I think we *feel* closer to them versus the antagonist, at least initially.
        I like what you said because it proposes doing the opposite, and that would really be an interesting way to start developing a story – from the point of view of the antagonist. Even if solely on the level of plotting, like you said, since the antagonist’s goal is to prevent the protagonist achieving his.
        You know, I too used to do character interviews. I’m kinda in-between wanting to do them and not. Not so much because it’s a lot of work, but more so because I find that it can be hard to find ways that the backstory elements of the character make it into the story in a way that progresses it and doesn’t just push it into areas that don’t advance the story or are just meaningless details.
        There’s this interview with Aaron Sorkin (writer of “The Social Network,” “Moneyball,” “Steve Jobs,” etc.) where he personally doesn’t like to do them because he says – and I’m paraphrasing here – “you’ll end up making a list of all these things that are personal to your character and then trying to figure out ways that you can insert facts, like your character eats oatmeal and drinks a special brand of Rum instead of focusing on the dramatic potential of any given scene.”
        I partly agree with him, but I also see the value (even as simply an exercise) in getting to know your character by thinking about them and brainstorming what their lives might look like, or what they might say to someone who’s trying to rob them versus someone who overcharged them at the grocery store. I think there can be a lot of value in doing that.
        In regards to your last line, “…getting under their skin and understanding them as more than just plot devices.”: it would seem that it’s beneficial to how you use it. Sometimes getting a “feel” for a character can go a long ways to helping you nail them as an archetype if they’re simple or start you on the right path towards developing them as a more complex character with personality.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I understand where writers like Sorkin are coming from, and I agree with him in instances where you *start* your outline with the character sketches. At that point, we don’t know enough about the story to know what’s pertinent and what’s not. I order my outline process like this:

          1. General Sketches (in which I explore the entire story and get a big-picture feel for what’s going to happen).
          2. Character Sketches (now that I know what’s going to happen to them).
          3. Scene Outline (now that I know both the story and the characters).

  25. My antagonist in my co-author book is Ruben an evil sea deity. His eyes are blood-orange.

    Flash back

    Once he was a good man. His family was good people and ruled their kingdom with kindness and fairness. All was good and happy in the kingdom. Ruben was an only child and was pampered and spoiled by his doting parents. Then one day the king fell and injured his leg, he had to stay in bed to heal. He was very depressed and so his loyal subjects brought him all kinds of gifts to cheer him. Alas, none really worked. Until one day a peasant from Hope Island brought the king a beautiful yellow bird. The bird would sing to the grumpy king, making him laugh and cheerful.”
    “Once again the kingdom was happy. Ruben was off on an adventure as he was a young healthy man. All was well until the king became ill, the royal healers could not understand what was wrong.” Cara paused for a moment, remembering. Zane leaned closer to hear more. Then she continued, “the queen also became very ill, the palace was in an up roar. Nothing the healers or priestess’ did had any effect of the very ill couple. The only thing the king wanted was his yellow bird she was placed beside his bed where she sang to the king. Then one day she stopped signing, the king got weaker as did the queen. the king was upset but nothing could induce the little bird and then she died. The king died soon after as did the queen, but before they died something strange happened to their bodies.

    Ruben wants revenge because his parents got the yellow death/fever and was mad the his whole kingdom died except for an old woman.

    He was a prince before he became a sea deity who is evil. He was once Zane’s old friend from long ago. So Ruben wants to destroy the descendent of the old man called Raphael, he thought Leilani was but the old mans descendant is Lucia who is a mermaid.

    So Leilani will have to fight him when she becomes an immortal.

  26. I mentioned this here several years ago, and I have been fiddling with the concept, trying to make it work in my mind and on paper off and on ever since. I am ashamed to admit it, but forcing myself to sit through my sister’s Twilight movie inspired me. The idea is that a vampire needs human blood to survive, and captures an immortal person in order to keep from killing people, thus making the process as humane as possible. The Immortal and Vampire would be the main characters.

    I’m about to go at it again, and though I could have said this a hundred other times, I really think I found the issue with the concept. The immortal character has to be free, but threatened rather than captured already (, which might be part of the plot or a subplot). Either that, or she has to be reduced to a minor character and replaced with a different main character, which I fear would jeopardize the effect I’m going for.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      What does the Immortal need from the Vampire? If both characters want something from the other, which the other does not wish to give, that creates a really nice web of give and take in the conflict.

  27. My antagonist is a bitter old hag who was forced to be one by her mother, who wanted to make herself look better than the rest if her family so people would feel bad for her. This then lead my antagonist to be forced to house a colony of goblins who treat humans like pets or slaves. They made a deal that if the hag imprisions many humans, she would give the people to them and they would her food and wealth. My protagonist is captured, but she then escapes and end the antagonist’s deeds, which makes antagonist question whether she should fight my protagonist or keep the deal with the goblin colony and have money and food. Out of her selfishness, she decides to fight the protagonist, at the end finally confessing that she was not meant to do all of her deeds, and the antagonist and protagonist become friends.

  28. directornoah says

    I have a question. If the antagonist is the Devil, how would you approach making this character more rounded and three dimensional? I’m thinking of including him in my novel, and his main objective is to manipulate and deceive the MC, in order to gain her soul.
    Considering his motivation is nothing more than pure evil and the thrill of a challenge, do I need to add something else to his character, to stop him just becoming a plot device for the story?

    P.S, Satan normally uses his ‘Trick or Treat’ ploy in most fiction, but in the current scenario I’ve thought of, he doesn’t tempt the MC with anything, but instead tricks and manipulates her into getting what he wants.
    By leaving out the tempting aspect of the Devil, am I creating a misrepresentation of his nature and the way he operates?
    Any advice will be much appreciated.
    Thanks! ☺

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Honestly, this is why I feel the devil rarely works as a really good bad guy. Ironically. :p The trick to a really dimensional bad guy is that there’s always a hint, however small, of the possibility for redemption.

      • directornoah says

        Very good point. Bearing in mind however, that Stephen King used the Devil as a villian in his book Needful Things, where he opened a shop selling trinkets in exchange for people’s souls.
        What would you say King did differently there, to successfully pull the devil off as a bad guy in the story?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I’m not familiar with the book, so couldn’t say for sure. Humor, possibly? Irony, certainly.

          • directornoah says

            What about if the devil had a double identity and personality in a story?

            For instance, the character could appear and come across as totally normal, perhaps a little mysterious, with his own past, motivation, goals, desires, that are completely average and seperate from anything evil.
            In short, he is a typical person like anybody else, except at the end, he reveals himself to be the Devil, with malevolent ulterior motives, and has been secretly manipulating the MC all along.
            Do you think that would work, the Devil being the hidden antogonist behind everything happening?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            I think it *can* work, but it’s problematic too, in that the more you humanize the devil, the less he becomes archetypal “absolute evil”–which robs him of some of his teeth.

    • Robert Billing says

      Have you ever read CS Lewis’s “The Screwtape Letters”? They are a collection of letters from a senior devil to a junior one advising on the best ways to tempt mankind. However Screwtape himself, despite being a devil, evokes quite a lot of sympathy.

      • Joe Long says

        This is what I was thinking. If he’s not “absolute evil” then he’s not really the devil – or why is there the need for the character to be the devil? As an alternative, go with a lesser demon who may have the possibility of being redeemed. Also reminded me of a somewhat lesser work of fiction – Adam Sandler in “Little Nicky”

        • directornoah says

          The point is, the devil is absolute evil in my story. He only pretends to be a human, he nevers takes on any emotions or becomes human. His agenda is still pure evil, but his true identity is not made obvious to the reader at first. He conceals his dark nature, but still maintains a brooding presence in the story as the hidden antagonist, until he reveals himself at the end.
          Also, my novel is not a comedy, it’s a supernatural mystery, and I thought it might make a stunning, dramatic twist at the end of the story, to finally discover it’s Satan himself, who has been behind the strange events that’ve occurred in the novel.

  29. directornoah says

    True, but I was thinking more along the lines of his ordinary ‘human’ persona is an act and performance, and that he created a totally fictional profile of a past, desire, motivation, etc, to make it appear he was a normal person, when in fact, his intentions were wicked all along.
    He hid behind the mask of a human, purely to deceive and trick the MC into doing what he wanted. He always remained his true evil self through it all.
    If no one knows who he is, he can work his devilish will undetected!
    Any good?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Again: can definitely be done. However, my major concern would be that this might easily turning into a scenario of “tricking” the reader. The question is always: Will they be more pleased or less pleased when the misdirection is replaced by the truth? On the surface of this instance, I’d say less, simply because the nuanced facade is more interesting than the pure-evil reality.

      It’s a Catch-22 really. A dimensional devil is more interesting, but… not the devil. :p

      • directornoah says

        What if I foreshadowed his true evil character and gave hints throughout parts of the story, that he’s not what appears?
        I was intending on having a character mention to MC, that the devil’s ‘human’ self, was suspected of having done violent deeds over his fictional lifetime, and had gone insane. Ironically, that same character turns out to be working for the devil, and that they both enjoy tormenting and playing mind games with the MC.

        My main point is, if I show hints of the truth, that the character might have done bad things in the past, will the reveal of him being the devil at the end, lessen my misdirection to the readers, if they already had a suspicion he was a bit sinister and different to what he seemed, but still make it a good surprise twist?

        Thanks for all your advice on this! ?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Yes, it’s all about artful foreshadowing. Pull that off, and readers will be prepared to follow wherever you want them to go.

          • directornoah says

            Thank you very much for your patience. I will put your advice into practice when I write the first draft.
            Many thanks again. ?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Glad to be of help!

  30. Robert Billing says

    I think I see where you are going. If I can recommend another book by CSL there is a passage in “Perelandra” (“Voyage to Venus” in some editions) where Ransom realises at the end that there is nothing to the devil except hate. The intelligence shown earlier was a means to an end, the end is just spite.

  31. Great post, K.M.!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.