Monday, April 23, 2012

The Power of the Antagonist

"The antagonist must represent a real and potent danger..."
(Burroway and Stuckey-French, 2007, p. 265)

The Villain Takes it All

Ok, I've been reading more about writing about the villain vs. the main character.

When writing fiction, we are told to make sure our antagonist is interesting, powerful, and intelligent otherwise our reader may lose interest or not care about what happens to the protagonist.

I have always found that the best scary movies or super hero movies are only as good as the villain in the story.

Weak villain = weak story.

Take The Dark Knight, for instance. Many people were concerned that actor Heath Ledger could not play the Joker in a way that would be believable.

Boy were they wrong!

Heath Ledger's Joker made the film a huge success because not only was his villain mean, evil, and creepy. But his character was funny, interesting, intelligent, and captivating. 

That's what made the movie so great.

Now, in my new YA series, The Warfare Club, my main overall antagonist is pretty much Satan himself. However, within each book in the 7 book series, there will be a different antagonist each time. And there will also be one antagonist who will appear pretty much in each book as well. 

So, it is my job as the author to make sure these antagonists are mean, evil, and intelligent...but also interesting and captivating. 

Not too much pressure!

The Power of It All

But the Power Struggle is what makes a story great. 

How Batman struggled with the Joker is what kept the audience interested in the outcome of the story. The Joker's power wasn't brute strength either. His power was his unpredictability. The mayor and police chief had no idea how the Joker would strike next. 

Your villain may have intelligence, charm, wealth, or impressive rank instead of brute strength. And that's what makes him/her fascinating to the reader. Hannibal Lecter wasn't a great villain because of his strength. He was a great villain because of his intelligence, unpredictability, charm, and creepiness. He was a great villain for many reasons!

The power must shift between the protagonist and the antagonist. Why? To keep the readers interested in what will happen to the main character. 

If the main character has the power at all time, how interesting and mysterious is that for the reader? There must always be a struggle for power and control in the story because that's how it is in real life. 

We are always trying to regain control over our lives and sometimes we win and sometimes we are caught by surprise. 

Oh Enemy, My Enemy

But the villain of the story isn't always a person. The villain might be a circumstance. I have never read any of the Twilight books, but have been told that there is no one antagonist in the series, but that the circumstance of the lovers is what prevents them from being together. Their circumstance has the power over them. 

Perhaps in your story, the circumstance is the antagonist. Or maybe its the weather, a car, a dog, a house, a town, or a planet.

The point is, no matter who or what your villain is, there must be that power struggle.

Be creative with your villain. Grab the reader early on and draw them in with your antagonist. Give your antagonist the power over your main character from time to time then switch it up. It isn't easy for me to accomplish this. I sometimes have to stop and even act out how my villain walks and talks. Since I am writing about demons, I have to try and create their voices and language as well as their appearance. I am finding that creating my enemy isn't as easy as it seems. But I know that the power must shift from the enemy to the protagonist or I'll have a lop-sided story!

That shift in power is what will keep your audience intrigued. The characterization of your antagonist is what will make your story strong. And that's what makes writing so challenging!

But most importantly....just write!

Your turn: How do you create your antagonist? Has it been difficult for you to create that power struggle?




  1. Hmmm...these are all great things to think about! At first, my book didn't have an antagonist except for a hidden truth that threatened to destroy a relationship. Then I figured out that I needed more of an antagonist to carry the plot forward.

    Good tips!

    1. Thanks! Glad you liked these tips. I found them very helpful. Yep, the antagonist doesn't have to be a particular can be that hidden truth or secret that antagonizes the main character.

      That could be fun to write too!

      Thanks for visiting!

  2. For some odd reason, I'm good at creating villains. LOL When I'm creating a villain, I make him wonderful, then chip at his past, his esteem, and generally give him a warped view of life based on all the little chips I knocked out.

    Unless he's a serial killer and then I hack chunks off and twist his religious beliefs. ;)

    Great post!!! :)

    1. Great ideas, Jessica! I find it easier to create villains too. I think most readers want to find them interesting anyway!

      Thanks for visiting!

  3. The most important thing for me in an antagonist is that he or she isn't purely bad. If I understand--even empathize to a degree--with the antagonist, then I find him much more scary. Because there is some of me potentially in him.

    1. That is a good point, Jenny! Many people liked Hannibal Lecter yet hated him at the same time! I have asked kids when talking to them about writing if they like Darth Vader and almost every hand goes up!

      Yet not one kid liked Voldemort. Most of us will like a bad guy if we can find something redeemable about them. When there is no redeemable quality...we get Satan and Voldemort!

      Thanks for visiting!

  4. Love any posts about villains, Ruth.

    This is great. If I couldn't have fun writing a great villain then I don't think writing would be as powerful for me. One of my favorite antagonists is Tommy Lee Jones as Chief Deputy Marshal Samuel Gerard in The Fugitive.
    Okay, I can't resist: "Alright, listen up, people. Our fugitive has been on the run for ninety minutes. Average foot speed over uneven ground barring injuries is 4 miles-per-hour. That gives us a radius of six miles. What I want from each and every one of you is a hard-target search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, hen house, outhouse and doghouse in that area. Checkpoints go up at fifteen miles. Your fugitive's name is Dr. Richard Kimble. Go get him." This is awesome antagonist dialogue.

    And one of my favorite villains is Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in Die Hard. He was so powerful in that role that it's no wonder he got the role of Professor Severus Snape in Harry Potter.

    1. Oh yes! Marshal Gerard is such a classic character! Only Tommy Lee Jones could have played him.

      And YES Alan Rickman! We recenty watch Die Hard and I thoroughly enjoyed watching Rickman's villain. He had charm, humor, intelligence, evilness all at the right amounts. Classic villain!!

      Thanks for visiting again!

  5. I personally love the Disney villains - the stepmom in Cinderella, Scar in Lion King, Jafar in Aladdin, Milleficent in Sleeping Beauty ...

    Oh, and Kevin Spacey's character in Horrible Bosses.

    1. Yes, Disney does great villains. Maleficent is one of the all time BEST villains! I love it when she turns into that Dragon. Perfect blend of creepiness, beauty, mystery, and power!

      Thanks for visiting!

  6. You're absolutely right. The antagonist is the key to any good story. The villain should be absolutely hissable, but with just the right amount of humanity to show where he/she went off down the path to darkness. Not to mention that for the writer, the bad guys are usually the most fun to write for, as you can let out all your worst qualities without fear of incarceration.

    1. So true, Chris. I learned at a writers conference that there must be a connection between the protagonist and the antagonist somewhere to draw the readers in. So, for example, if the protagonist is intelligent, then have the antagonist even more intelligent but not wise. If the protagonist has the power to telecommute, the antagonist might have telekenesis.

      And you can go on and on making those connections. Voldemort was connected to Harry Potter. Darth Vader was connected to Luke Skywalker....that's what draws the readers and viewers in!