For me, antagonists are often the most fun characters to create. However, most of the usual rules apply and it’s especially important (as it is with all characters) that your antagonist’s motive and goals are clearly established in your mind. More often than not, these will form the whole basis for the conflict your protagonist has to deal with, so it’s vital you get this right.
If I was to boil it down to a single rule for antagonists, it would probably be something like this:
An antagonist’s motive can be anything at all, but their goal should bring them into direct conflict with the protagonist.
Let’s start by thinking about the first part of that rule: ‘An antagonist’s motive can be anything at all’. Motives are simply what drive a character from day to day. When it comes to your bad guy, this could be something sinister such as megalomania or it could be something far more ordinary– perhaps even laudable. For instance, in The Count of Monte Cristo, the antagonist, Fernand Mondego, is in love with the protagonist’s fiancee. As a result, he falsely accuses the protagonist of treason so that he can marry Dantès fiancee instead.
So, Mondego’s motive is that he is in love with Dantès fiancee. His goal (in the beginning, at least) is to get Dantès out of the way. Loving a woman is not a particularly evil or unusual thing, nor is it a motive common only to antagonists. Plenty of good guys in other stories (especially romances and romantic comedies) are driven by the exact same motive.
Ahh, but he was in love with the protagonist’s fiancee! I hear you cry. That’s bad!
Well, I agree it’s not an ideal situation, but in and of itself it doesn’t make him an antagonist or a ‘bad guy’. There are plenty of stories out there with characters who refuse to behave inappropriately when they’re in love with someone else’s partner. What made Mondego a bad guy was his goal, not his motive. His motive (which he arguably had in common with the protagonist) drove him to carry out a sinister plot against the protagonist. That’s what made him a villain and an antagonist. It is highly unlikely a good guy would act on this motive the same way Mondego does (though remember, not all protagonists are good guys; some protagonists are bad).
Which brings me neatly onto the second part of our working rule: ‘[the antagonist’s] goal should bring them into direct conflict with the protagonist’. It’s worth mentioning that this is not the same as saying their goals must be inherently immoral.
Oh sure, they can be. They often will be. Personally, I love it when an antagonist is really bad. Murdering the hero(es), stealing something valuable and violently taking over the world are just some of the more common goals antagonists sometimes strive for. But remember, an antagonist is not necessarily defined as a morally evil character; they are simply a character whose goals conflict with that of your protagonist. They can be morally evil, but even then, their function is to present the protagonist with a real and significant problem that cannot simply be ignored. They are, if you like, a walking, talking conflict for your character to face.
Take C.S. Lewis’ story The Screwtape Letters as a radical example. This story is written from the perspective of a senior devil (Screwtape) writing to his nephew (Wormwood), giving him advice on how to lead a human into eternal damnation– a morally objectionable goal to say the least. In it, Screwtape makes frequent references to their ‘Enemy’ — namely, God. In this story, Wormwood is the protagonist. His motive is his natural diabolical nature and his goal is to secure the damnation of his unsuspecting human ‘patient’. Even though God is clearly not portrayed as evil in this story (C.S. Lewis was a Christian), nevertheless he is still the antagonist because his goals are in direct conflict with those of the protagonist.
“He (God) wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself: the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct.”
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (parenthesis mine)
Which brings me neatly onto my third and final point: the audience’s sympathies. This can sometimes be a sticky issue when you try to create an antagonist of any real depths, as I previously discovered.
In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis presumably wanted us to sympathise with God’s goals instead of Wormwood’s, even though God is the antagonist. After all, The Screwtape Letters is as much as Christian Apologetic work as it is a story. Under most circumstances, however, you will want your audience to support the protagonist’s goals instead of the antagonist. I know of only two ways to do this effectively:
- Make your antagonist at least a little bit immoral (optional – but usually a good idea)
- Create a strong protagonist with goals and motives the audience really cares about (mandatory)
Remember, an antagonist might provide the vital point if conflict in a story, but he is not the sum total of the story. If all you have is a really complex antagonist who threatens to take over the world and some half-baked protagonist to fight him just because that’s what good guys do, you’ll not hold onto your audience for very long. Remember this rule:
Your story is about your protagonist, not the antagonist.
The antagonist is the point of conflict for your story, but he is not the story in and of himself. Take the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz. She is a persistent hindrance to Dorothy throughout the film. Without her, it would be a frankly boring film about a girl who gets a bit lost (okay, very lost) then goes home. But none of that would matter if it wasn’t for the fact that Dorothy wants to get home. If we didn’t care about Dorothy and her plight, the Witch would be pretty redundant.
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