When we write, generally the very first thing we think of is our main character, i.e. the protagonist - or more commonly known as the ‘good guy’. What we don’t always have in mind at that stage is a ‘bad guy’, the antagonist. That’s because we naturally focus on our main character first, since that is whose story we are telling, so when it comes to creating a bad guy, some writers struggle with the concept.
In this special three part series, we’ll take a look at how to create an antagonist and explore why we need them in our stories. There is a lot of ground to cover on this subject, so for Part1, let’s start with the obvious.
Why do we have antagonists?
The fundamental reason we have antagonists is to create conflict. They provide this conflict because this is the one element that drives every story. A story without an antagonist or much conflict isn’t much of a story at all.
Whoever your bad guy is, he or she will want to prevent the hero from achieving his or her goal (another driving force of any story). Antagonists are there to antagonise the main character at every turn, thus providing plenty of conflict, tension and emotion, hence the name ‘antagonist’.
The bad guy forms much of, or is part of, the many obstacles and challenges that your main character will face throughout the story. This is a great catalyst for all sorts of conflict, particularly when coupled with the setting and plot. The fact is, both characters want something and it is what they do to achieve what they want that fuels the fire of the story, so…just imagine your story without an antagonist.
Where is it going and what it will achieve if nothing and no one stands in your protagonist’s way?
What is their purpose?
The bad guy is a contrary foil who works against your protagonist on many levels, determined to prevent the protagonist from reaching his or her goal, while at the same time maintaining his/her own aims. He or she wants to succeed…but so does the protagonist. And there lies a nice little melting post of conflict.
The antagonist is there to thwart and oppose the protagonist throughout the story; therefore they are primed for confrontation, hostility and conflict, but by this very nature, it makes both characters compelling to the reader.
Of course, the other important reason we have them is to help drive the story forward. If you didn’t have an antagonist to cause problems for your hero, then just how much of a story would you have?
In truth, you wouldn’t have much to work with and your hero wouldn’t have a lot to do.
So what makes a great bad guy?
When we think of some of the best antagonists in fiction, we think of novels such as Misery’s Annie Wilkes or The Silence of the Lambs and the indomitable Hannibal Lecter. Or what about Long John Silver in Treasure Island? Or what about Voldemort from the Harry Potter books? We remember these baddies, long after we’ve read the books. Why?
We remember them because they’re well written, they are so compelling and terrifying at the same time. They make us love to hate them.
But the thing about antagonists is that they don’t have to be stereotypically ‘evil’ for readers to remember them. Bad guys are bad because they are always trying to thwart your main character from achieving his or her goal and always causing conflict and not necessarily because they are ‘evil’. No one is born evil. People develop in so many different ways that we are either considered a ‘good’ person or a ‘bad’ person by our behaviours and actions throughout life.
Bad guys don’t have to be the stereotypical James Bond-style megalomaniac who wants to take over the world, either. This kind of bad guy is almost a caricature. In truth, a bad guy can be anyone. It could be the guy in the bookstore. Your next door neighbour. The girl who serves you coffee. Your boss.
A bad guy doesn’t have to be overt in what he or she does. Sometimes the best bad guys just simply get under the main character’s skin so imperceptibly that they don’t become aware of it until a crucial moment in the story. Not only that, but they will get under your reader’s skin too. Hannibal Lector is this kind of ‘bad’ guy. He’s subtle yet chilling.
We all know that readers love to root for the hero. But they also love to hate the bad guy.
Protagonist v Antagonist Relationship
The key word here is opposition.
A relationship in opposition must exist for any story, with protagonist and antagonist pitted against each other, on opposing sides, but paradoxically, they must also be inextricably linked through the story arc and its themes.
In truth, they need each other, so it’s important that writers focus on what sort of people these characters are. Their paths will cross, or may have already crossed, they usually share the same needs or motivations, they will both have histories and backstory, they both to want to succeed, and more importantly, they will have changed as people (for better or worse) towards the end of the story.
Both characters drive the story forward. Both rely on each other. Both cannot evolve without each other.
Theirs is the most important relationship in your story. And getting them just right is the key thing to creating memorable, effective, but opposing characters.
In Part 2 we’ll look at what goes into creating an effective bad guy, one that will be unforgettable and compelling, multidimensional and very real for your reader.
Next week: How to Create a Bad Guy – Part 2