We’re going to pretend that this post happened on Monday when it should have done, because I asked my new handheld JARVIS device to tell me that I needed to write it, and he didn’t, leaving you all bereft. I take absolutely no responsibility and you ought to be grateful that I got around to writing it at all, after that incompetence on the part of my AI.
Today we’re going to talk about antagonists. You already know what they are (but in case you’ve forgotten: they’re not necessarily a villain, they’re just somebody preventing the protagonist from achieving their goal), and what I’m going to discuss is how to develop them before you start writing a novel. Or during. Or after two drafts when your beta readers point out that you don’t actually have a proper, active antagonist.
Wherever you are in the process, there are a few questions you need to ask about your antagonist that is crucial to understanding them. It doesn’t matter if they’re a single person, or if they’re an organisation: I recommend having the same template and adapting your answers to suit the situation.
1. What do they want?
Sounds simple, but don’t be deceived: this is the hardest one to work out, at least in my experience. What is their motive, their driving force? What one thing do they want more than anything else? If it’s an organisation, think about the initial aim of the group and why it was set up.
Knowing what your antagonist wants is as crucial to plot as understanding the protagonist’s active goal, because it will affect every action they take. Chances are, anything that might put their desire further out of reach will be eliminated, which could be exploited to ensure their defeat…
2. Why are their aims destructive and not constructive?
This is linked to the idea that your protagonist also has an active goal. In most cases, that will be a “constructive” goal (they want to achieve something, create something, gain something), and if all goes according to plan it probably won’t hurt anyone. Of course, if you’re writing an antihero that will be different, but this is standard protagonist material. The pain only comes in when things go wrong.
But the antagonist’s goal is opposed to that, and results in breaking something down (they want to stop something, destroy something, steal something). They can easily cross over, and it’s important to work out why they’re the bad guys and not the good ones.
Again, if you’re aiming for the morally dubious thing, this’ll be slightly different.
3. How have they got this far without being stopped?
Why didn’t anyone nip this evil in the bud? Why did nobody take this poor troubled child under their wing and get them some therapy before they blew up the world? Why didn’t the protagonist’s mentor-figure succeed in destroying them, saving the protagonist from a lot of effort and angst?
They must have some skill or defence that has kept them safe. Identify it.
4. What is there to ensure they can be beaten?
At some point, the antagonist has to be beaten. Unless you’re writing a tragedy, but please. Stay on topic and let me make generalisations. Your protagonist needs to get to the final showdown and no matter how many times it looks like they’re going to lose, they have to beat the antagonist.
In other words, what are they weaknesses? Is it easier to outsmart them, outrun them, or fight them?
5. Do they have a personal vendetta against the protagonist, or are they just in the way?
Is it personal? It’s an important question. If the antagonist is actively hunting down the protagonist, their ability to find help and support will be lower, because people won’t risk the displeasure of the antagonist. But if they’re just in the way, they may be able to evade identification for quite a long time, making it a nice game of “mystery irritation” for the antagonist.
6. Whom do they trust?
I’m not gonna lie, I consulted JARVIS and Pepper about whether that should be “who” or “whom” and went with the latter. If it’s wrong, don’t bother filing a complaint.
Knowing whether there’s anybody the antagonist trusts is crucial to understanding their strengths and weaknesses, because those relationships can be exploited for conflict, betrayal, fluff, and angst. If your antagonist takes the form of an organisation, look at the degree of trust within it, and how much information is shared. Examine the hierarchy. Understand the pecking order.
7. What is their greatest fear?
This can often help with question four, because it’s something you can use against them, but it also helps you understand their backstory. If they still harbour a great degree of fear about a family member, for example, it hints at a troubled and abusive relationship, and this can be used to create sympathy for them, as well as justification for their actions.
Try and show their fears subtly: don’t just announce it. The chances are that they’ll do their best to hide it and will avoid any situation that might increase the likelihood of confronting it, so you can use that to allow readers to deduce the terror themselves. Make them do the work.
8. How do they feel about themselves?
Is this antagonist an angst-ball who spends their entire time internally tortured by the knowledge that they are the enemy they always hated and therefore takes out their insecurities on everyone who contributed to their creation?
(Like Loki.) Or are they a confident, swaggering person with great self image? Do they believe their actions to be wrong, or are they truly convince that they’re doing the right thing?
Answer these eight questions, and I can almost guarantee that your antagonist or villain will be a great deal more interesting than before. Almost. You might be really bad at answering questions but hey, not everyone can be as good at everything as I am. And most people are better at remembering to post on the right day.
I’ll be having words with JARVIS about that…
Oh, and Pepper told me to tell you Merry Christmas. Or Happy Holidays. Or whatever it is that floats your boat. Apparently it’s December again, but really, I am way too busy to even think about Christmas. Or New Year.
I have a horrible feeling I promised to host the rest of the YAvengers team for a party. I think I may be out of the country. I’ll look into it. Parties never seem to end well when I host them, though…
-- Iron Man