Sunday, December 18, 2011

Writing Complex Antagonists

I'm a huge fan of complex antagonists. All too often I read a book with an interesting protagonist, interesting secondary characters, and a plot that rocks, but the antagonist just doesn't live up to my expectations. This problem seems to occur more in fantasy...antagonists who are Evil for the sake of being Evil.

That's the thing about characters: they are, by default, more interesting when they're human. I'm not necessarily talking about biology....I mean human in terms of psyche, emotions, and depth. Humans aren't simple or one-dimensional. We are multi-faceted, with varying degrees of good and bad displayed at any one time.

When I go about creating my antagonists, the one thing I try to remember is love. Love is a universal emotion. Everybody wants to love someone, and to be loved in return....I'd go as far as to say that love is the most powerful and primal human desire. Even "bad" people like Mao and Hitler desire affection. After all, where would we be without human contact?

I try to remember this whenever I write a villainous character. Who do they love? Have they suffered the loss of a loved one? Who loves them? What was their childhood like? Thinking about questions such as these helps me create more multi-dimensional antagonists. Although I love the Harry Potter books, I don't find Voldemort to be a particularly interesting villain because he is "evil" from the start. Even as a small child there isn't an ounce of love or compassion inside him, and he doesn't care about receiving affection from others. It just isn't realistic. Tom Riddle was once a person, after all. This is one aspect of the Harry Potter universe that I feel JK Rowling left unexplored....what makes a person evil? Why does Voldemort commit such atrocious acts of violence? You cannot paint the world in shades of black and white. All people are capable of horrible deeds, just as all people are capable of good deeds, and an antagonist should have a reason behind their so-called "evilness".

Remember, none of the world's great "villains" thought of themselves as evil. I think we can all agree that Hitler did terrible, terrible things, and probably suffered from pretty severe mental illness, but I guarantee you he didn't hide out in a dark room going "MUAHAHAHAHA MY EVIL SCHEME IS WORKING." Misguided and delusional as he might've been, Hitler actually thought ethnic cleansing was the answer to the world's problems. When I write antagonists, I ask myself, "What does this person see when they look in the mirror?" How is their perspective different from the protagonist's? Do they believe themselves to be acting for the common good?

Depth is the key to a good villain. Strong protagonists are essential to any novel, but your antagonist should be equally developed. This will create a balance that enhances every aspect of the story.


  1. Complex antagonists are the best! They make the story more captivating. Great post Kate! =)

  2. Great post. I try my best to keep this in mind too. I'll have to ask my CPs if I'm accomplishing it :)

  3. Complex antagonists can also cause a reader to stop and wonder, "if my life laid out the cards handed to this character, could I have ended up like them?" When the reader has to hesitate and really think about, then the writer did a great job with the antagonist.

  4. First of all, good post, it gave me lots to think about =). But apologies in advance if this is a long response. I just get carried away sometimes -__-

    To play devil’s advocate, whilst I generally agree that well developed antagonists enhance stories I certainly wouldn’t say depth is always the key to a good villain, and doubly so if developing your villain means you end up undermining the main themes of your story. I think sometimes it really is just enough for a character to be evil for the sake of being evil- I think the most important thing is context.

    For example, one of my favourite villains is the Emperor from Star Wars. In the original trilogy (the prequels don’t count!) his sole motivation seems to be that he’s evil and he loves it. And it works! Thematically he represents everything that the rebels are fighting against. If his character had been given any more depth than that, it might’ve lessened his impact- we’re not supposed to emphasise with him in any way, we’re supposed to hate him. Sauron from Lord of the Rings is another good example of this. He has very little character development yet his presence is so formidable and has such an enormous reach that it doesn’t matter. He isn’t a character who’d be enhanced by learning about his abusive childhood or something. It would’ve just made him somewhat relatable, which in that particular case might have ruined things.

    And then there’s the version of the Joker from The Dark Knight. I appreciate I’m talking about a film again and not a book, however the same ideas still apply. He’s incredibly upfront about the fact he has absolutely no other motivation other than to cause chaos, and yet he’s still one of the most memorable antagonists of the past few years. I think the fact that he’s being evil for the pure joy of it makes him quite scary, and it also allows for some really interesting development amongst the other characters as they try and fail to understand him. It doesn’t matter how he became what he is because in the context of the story it doesn’t matter in the slightest- what matters is that he’s here right now, he’s causing trouble, and what’s everyone else going to do about it? And the way he keeps changing his backstory on a whim reinforces this idea.

    I admit it takes a lot of skill to take a one-dimensional villain and make them interesting- for instance I love Harry Potter as much as anyone else but you’re right about Voldemort being a fairly poor antagonist. But that said, I think sometimes pure evil the way to go. Realism is fine up to a point, but I don’t want everything I read to be as realistic as possible. Sometimes it’s good to have an Emperor or a Sauron or a Joker to hate.

    (Sorry if this posts twice, my computer doesn’t like me at the moment -__-)

  5. I've been spending time thinking about this lately for my second book. I have a great concept and conflict, and a great antagonist who's not the bad guy, but the villain was a little undefined. And he needs to be scary, yet believable.

  6. I agree completely. This is one of the things I love about the Star Wars prequels. In the originals, Darth Vader is just this evil guy who likes blowing up planets for no apparent reason. But we don't know about his past, or why he's so evil, or why he's so thirsty for power, or most importantly, why he's willing to kill his master to save his son, and then destroy himself so that he can see the world as Anakin Skywalker once more.

    Then comes the prequels. We see that Vader was once an adorable little kid. He was a slave. His greatest desire was to free his mother and the other slaves. He had to leave Shmi (his mother) and maybe never see her again in order to become a Jedi.

    We see that Anakin was full of emotion, and that his emotions dictated his life (not very Jedi-like of him). We see how he reacted to the people he loved and cared for, like Padme, Obi-Wan, the other Jedi...until he begins to be manipulated by Palpatine. We see why he became evil. He was manipulated, he was Palpatine's pawn, and he couldn't look back because that would mean coming to terms with the fact that he killed everyone who ever cared about him.

    I also love the Clone Wars because we see more of this with his relationship with Ahsoka. I don't know whether or not they're planning on killing off Ahsoka any time soon (they better not!) but that would definitely be enough to push Anakin over the edge to dark-side land. And even if she doesn't die, it's obvious that we're approaching episode three and Anakin's transformation to the dark side--he's used Force Choke in pretty much every episode this season.

    So, in short, yes, I agree completely.