Part 1 of this series looked at why we have bad guys in our stories and why we need them, so this week we’ll take a look at how you bring your antagonist to life and fully develop the character in order to give them that purpose. This is where things get interesting.
Just like your main character, your bad guy should be well thought out and fully developed before you embark with writing. This is important because although they may not share the same amount of ‘page’ time as your main character, they will still require the same thorough detail.
Spend time characterising. Pay as much attention to him/her as you would the hero. It’s vital that you give credence to the character. There are a lot of aspects that make up a really good antagonist – the kind that the reader will remember long after they’ve finished reading your story, so it’s important to get it right.
The one thing that is noticeable with bad guys is that many writers create their antagonist with the opposite emotional characteristics to their protagonist (this parallelism creates conflict because the very things that make the main character ‘good’ are the things that make the bad guy ‘bad’). That said, your bad guy – by virtue of being bad – should also have flaws, like we all do. Remember, no character is perfect. Imperfections and flaws are what helps readers identify with your characters; it makes the people in your fictional world as close to reality as possible.
Your antagonist should not only have bad traits, but a few good traits too. Yes, even bad people can be good. This is what helps them establish the connection with the reader – as much as they may want to hate the villain, they will also appreciate his or her better qualities. Bad people are not bad 24 hours of the day.
But to fully realize your antagonist, you need to establish quite a few things first:-
Why is the antagonist challenging the protagonist?
Is it because the bad guy has something the hero has? Is it because the antagonist is jealous and bitter over something? Is it truly personal, perhaps a relative who is hell bent on revenge? Did something happen to them in the past to cause the antagonism? Did the actions of the protagonist somehow cause conflict with the antagonist?
Sometimes it’s a simple as one person – usually the bad guy – hiding something, usually a huge secret, and doing everything in their power to stop the hero from finding out.
Ensure that you establish the kind of challenge and the root cause of the conflict.
What kind of antagonism is it?
There are different types. Is it the underhanded, sly type? Perhaps it’s just intimidation and sometimes aggressive, or maybe it’s the violent or even psychotic type?
Know what type of antagonist you want from the outset and decide just how far he or she is willing to go to get what they want. As writer, you control this.
Some of the best villains have used mind games with the hero rather than physical conflict – psychological thriller and crime genres employ this effectively, simply because being a bad guy isn’t always about wanton killing and blowing stuff up. It’s the fear of what the bad guy can do that is scary for the reader.
Ensure you know the type of bad guy you want before you start writing. This makes it so much easier during the process. You have to establish for the reader why there is a rivalry and a need for the antagonist’s actions and how all this relates to the story. It has to form part of the plot.
What is the antagonist’s ultimate goal?
This is something else to know before you start writing. What are his or her goals? Does he or she want to humiliate or destroy the hero in some way?
Does the antagonist want some sort of revenge? Does he or she want to kill the hero? Does the bad guy want something that the hero has or that he wants to prevent the hero from getting? Whatever the reason, make this clear to the reader and enforce it throughout the story, through your antagonist’s actions.
The antagonist will not only try to prevent your hero reaching his or her goal by whatever means (which will be part of the overall plot), but he or she must also affect change in what they do or how they act. Perhaps they see the light and want to change as people, or they redeem themselves or become a better person because of the events in the story. Even if you kill off your villain, they should change somehow within the story, just as your hero must also change by the novel’s conclusion.
What’s the antagonist’s background?
Your bad guy needs a background. Just like your protagonist, your antagonist also needs history and backstory, because what he does in the story in the present will most likely have been affected by his or her past.
Learned behaviours and character traits play an integral part of who we are, so your bad guy will be no different. Did he or she have a bad childhood, or maybe a really good one (not all baddies are bad because of their upbringing, this is a stereotype). Did some terrible event occur to colour the antagonist’s views about certain things or certain people?
Remember, any antagonist should be just as complex as your protagonist.
Some other things to consider is that bad guys tend to act in certain ways or exhibit certain behaviours to cause conflict, problems, crises, enflame situations, and generally cause trouble.
Effective bad guys do the following at every opportunity:-
- Undermine the main character at every chance that arises
- Deliberately create conflict between others, such as friends or family members
- Physically, psychologically and emotionally threaten or attack the main character
- Take something from the main character – be it an object of significance or a person, such as a family member
- Intimidate and make threats of varying degrees or play mind games
- Use underhanded or manipulative means to get at the main character
- Betray or humiliate the good guy in some way, particularly if in the presence of others.
Escalate their behaviour
Think of your antagonist’s actions on a simple line graph. Your bad guy’s actions will be low-key to begin with, but as the story unfolds and develops, the intensity of his or her actions will start to escalate, so the line on the graph starts to climb higher and higher to a pinnacle – the final conflict in your story.
Study other books and you will notice this trend of behaviour escalation. This happens because the bad guy becomes more frustrated and angry and desperate as the story nears conclusion. This is because the hero has overcome everything the bad guy has thrown at him thus far. Things will escalate to the final showdown.
Lastly, never maker your antagonist a plot device. Instead, they should be integral to the story and should always be connected to your main character.
In the final part we’ll take a look at the anatomy of the bad guy.Next week: How to create a bad guy - Part 3