Make Your Antagonist More

I’ve been doing a series on profiling antagonists, which I hope is useful for my three loyal readers, and I found a companion piece that goes along nicely. I found it in the July/August issue of Writer’s Digest. Laura Disilverio wrote a wonderful article, and I’d like to share parts of it here. If you want the entire thing, check out the magazine from your local library. I’m pulling out the parts I thought went particularly well with the series I’ve been working on.

NewImage(This stereotypical bad guy is brought to you courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net)

The last thing you want is your story to stink because you’ve got a stereotypical antagonist. Bad guys need to be fully realized. They are as important as your hero–after all, if your hero has no one to oppose him, there’s no conflict and no story. Don’t let that happen to you! Your hero needs to have an opportunity to grow, to change, to realize his goals. He needs his antagonist. Disilverio offers six ways to make the bad guy even better. Here are the four I found the most helpful:

1. Antagonists are people, too. He’s not a device to make the novel scarier. He’s not a cardboard cut-out for the hero to shoot at. The antagonist has a backstory. He has wants and needs and a life. He does NOT believe that he’s evil (unless your antagonist is Satan. If that’s the case, you can probably skip this entire article). Show your antagonist being human. He does nice things once in a while. He loves someone: his mom, his girlfriend, his cat. Give him believable motives, a reason for trying to keep the hero from achieving whatever he’s trying to do. When you make your antagonist a person (as opposed to a stereotype or a caricature), you involve your reader more and the story is better.

2. Eschew the totally evil antagonist. “Pure evil is dull, unbelievable, and predictable,” Disilverio says. Readers won’t relate. Worse, they’ll be offended because you tried something like that. Try to make your antagonist a viewpoint character in at least one scene. Let the reader see what the antagonist is trying to do and why. Like I said above, the antagonist does not believe he’s evil. He has a reason for doing what he’s doing. 

3. Make your antagonist at least as smart, strong, and capable as the protagonist. You lose all the tension when the bad guy’s a Navy Seal with a genius IQ and your hero has the mental capacity of a cabbage. Same for the reverse. They need to be fairly evenly matched in intelligence, stamina, and strength, but the antagonist is slightly stronger in one area and the protagonist has the superior strength in another area. Think of giving them complementary traits: one’s calm and detail oriented while the other is impulsive, or one is charismatic while the other is a loner. Think of Superman: he’s got strength, Lex Luthor has intellect.

4. Keep the tension strong when the antagonist is a friend, lay, or loved one. If your hero’s goal is to finish college by the age of 40, and his wife says it can’t be done, the wife is the antagonist. She’s also a loved one. This kind of opposition can be extremely powerful. “When writing this kind of antagonist, capitalize on the conflict inherent in the relationship and on the drama that arises when someone with our best interests at heart–someone we care about–stands between us and our goal. Our protagonists don’t want to destroy beloved antagonists or see them jailed or rendered impotent. They want to chane their minds and maneuver around them.” Don’t be afraid to inflict pain here–that’s the only way someone will win this one.

I’ll continue with the profiling in my next blog post. For what it’s worth.

-Sonja

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