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The Mean, the Bad, and the Nasty—Writing Villains

May 4, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified July 13, 2013

By whatever name they’re called—villain, antagonist, bad guy, nasty character—the characters who stand in opposition to your protagonists are integral to your novels.

He, she, or it—human antagonists are more satisfying than machines or non-humans when we’re talking actual villains—the oppositional character of your story plays a major role.

The baddie sets up a great deal of your lead character’s challenges. He stands against the protagonist, actively works against him, determined that your main character not succeed in his endeavors. The antagonist not only works to undermine the lead and keep him from achieving his goals, but the antagonist actively works to achieve his own goals, which may parallel the lead’s or be the opposite in every measure.

You must create a relationship in opposition for your story—both protagonist and antagonist cannot succeed. If your main character, your protagonist, achieves his goals, the antagonist will have failed to stop him. If your protagonist fails, the antagonist will have been successful.

They cannot both win, though theoretically both could lose. If neither achieves his goal but at the same time prevents the other from achieving his, then you have a tragedy or a post-modern tale.

If both do somehow win, it’s because they’ve joined forces or were not in true opposition after all. However, while writing everything but the ending, you’ll have to maintain that the characters are in opposition. Otherwise they are not protagonist/antagonist and there’s another antagonist hiding in your story.

Sometimes the bad guys win. And win big. And sometimes they don’t get what they want but see to it that the protagonist doesn’t get what he wants either.

Of course, sometimes your villain, to the sound of cheers in your mind, is soundly trounced, while in other stories the hero limps home, alive and successful, only without a leg or his girl or the ideals that set him on his path to begin with.

A character can also stand in opposition to something in himself or to something in nature, something other than a person. My concern in this article, however, is a human or human-like character acting as antagonist.

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Antagonists don’t have to be all bad. Actually, if one is all bad, he becomes a cartoon figure rather than a true character.

No one, outside the devil, is all evil. And the devil even looks good a lot of the time. Even a psychopath may pay for his latte instead of shooting the young kid at the cash register.

So, remember to give your antagonist traits or behaviors or simply moments where he doesn’t always choose the most heinous option. No, you don’t need to fall into the cliché of giving him a cute puppy that he walks every evening. But you should show him behaving with some normalcy.

Villains and bad guys come in every size and strength. You may create an antagonist out of a former friend to your protagonist. Their differences could have arisen over miscommunication or a mistake. Of course, the mistake has to be strong enough to carry through the story—if a single word could correct a misunderstanding, you don’t have a strong enough excuse for former friends to be active enemies.

Take a misunderstanding and twist it and then twist it again. Make it impossible for even the most determined of friends to easily untangle their problems.

Add emotion or a second misunderstanding to tighten the knot. Involve another person both parties trust so they are drawn even deeper into their differences.

Give both parties a reason to care about some problem and a reason to take opposite sides.

A misunderstanding between friends is only one way to create an adversarial relationship in fiction.

Characters may naturally be in opposition; politics, religion, and social issues can set otherwise compatible characters apart.

Or, your story may focus on the an age-old problem of good versus evil.

Or, your antagonist may be, instead of bad, simply mad. Mad in the crazed manner of super villains determined to take over the world. (Or a nation, a company, or a family.)

Whatever his reason for being the way he is, the antagonist of your piece must oppose your protagonist. He must be at odds with him, anxious to see him defeated or demoralized or destroyed. At least this is the way the protagonist should feel he’s being treated. Sometimes all is not as it seems in the world of fiction. (See Jeffrey Archer’s Kane and Abel for a marvelous twist on the protagonist/antagonist relationship.)

The aims of protagonist and antagonist must be in opposition. Their dialogue should employ conflict. Their attitudes should highlight that conflict.

Conflict can be subtle or overblown, relentless or insidious. It can show up in dialogue and in action and in thought. It can be expressed in a myriad of ways in the same story.

It can’t be absent.

The conflict between characters is one of the major drivers of fiction. Yes, the main character has goals, and those goals drive his actions. But an antagonist who works against those goals creates barriers to their attainment and thus ups the tension in the story.

Tension keeps the reader involved and it’s conflict that leads to that tension.

And when the protagonist is challenged and thwarted, when he’s purposely pushed farther from his goals, he struggles even harder to attain them. Thus conflict and goals work together to drive story.

Even though I included villain and bad guy and antagonist in one category at the top of this article, please realize that all antagonists are not villains and evil-doers. They are individuals who operate in opposition to the protagonist. They could be the protagonist, the hero, in their own stories.

What makes a character the antagonist in one story is his stand against the protagonist.

That stand doesn’t make him a bad guy.

One type of story that can get your readers thinking—and feeling—is the one in which two equally good men are placed in opposition. If both hold morally defensible positions and yet they still disagree, readers can feel for both, can be torn, may even yearn for a solution that brings about an ending pleasing to all.

Such a story creates a much different type of tension than if the antagonist isn’t a good or pleasant fellow to begin with.

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Reasons an antagonist is antagonistic. He’s—

misguided

mistaken

evil

crazy

confused

unhappy

under the influence of drugs

manipulated by someone else

grief-crazed

self-serving

Each of these creates a different story and must be approached with different tactics.

You’d write a psychotic antagonist differently than you’d write a mistaken one. You’d write a character who understands his actions in a way different from the way you’d write a character who couldn’t appreciate right and wrong.

Decide what causes your antagonist to challenge the protagonist. Is it personal? Or would the antagonist challenge anyone wanting the same prize? That is, were there ties between protagonist and antagonist before they clash in your story or were they strangers who are now caught up in their differences?

Did the actions of one cause the rift between them? Do they hate one another or are they friendly rivals?

Are opposition and antagonism logical? Give your opponents good reason to be adversaries, at least from the antagonist’s point of view. Animosity and opposition have to make sense in terms of plot and character.

Antagonists require motivation to drive their actions, just as protagonists do.

Decide your antagonist’s level of opposition. Is he boyhood bully or world terrorist or does he fall somewhere between?

The antagonist’s level of opposition will color his words, his actions, his thoughts, and his goals. It will also affect the protagonist’s reactions.

You can escalate the opposition, but maintain consistency within the logic of your story; it’s not likely that a neighborhood fight over locations to park cars would escalate into bombings of neighbors’ businesses.

Decide upon a style of opposition. Does your antagonist primarily challenge through mental and emotional attacks or does opposition get physical? Does the antagonist go after friends or family of the protagonist? Does he try to hurt them or does he try to enlist them to sway the protagonist into giving up his quest?

Some antagonists war with words, others with emotions, still others with weapons up close or from a distance, on a grand scale.

Some tease before they strike, others strike without warning.

Choose your style and then play with it, adjust it, for successive encounters and strikes.

Decide on the antagonist’s goals. Does he want to kill your protagonist? Does he want to destroy his business or someone he loves? Does he simply want to get to the treasure before your main character does? Is the competition between them friendly or deadly?

Convey his goals to the reader.

Decide on the antagonist’s methods. Will he play by the rules, maybe simply bend them? Does he obey the law? Will he cheat and lie but keep all his acts legal? Does he do anything it takes to win? Does he have his own code?

His methods may change as the story progresses because he not only drives his own action, he must react to the protagonist’s actions. Keep methods logical. Make them consistent with who he is and yet let them adjust to changing conditions and to the protagonist’s words and deeds.

Decide on the antagonist’s tools. Does he have the same weapons (physical and emotional) that the protagonist has but put to more effective use? Is he more willing than the protagonist to escalate to stronger weapons and methods to achieve victory? Does he employ others to help him?

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Evil villain or thorn-in-the-flesh irritant, the antagonist opposes and challenges your story’s main character. You have to decide the depth of opposition. You have to decide whether or not your antagonist is true baddie or simply someone who keeps the protagonist from what he wants.

Keep in mind that the protagonist may not be on the side of the angels. That is, his goal may not be a universally popular one or the prize he seeks may not be his to attain. Although the story may be his, thus his designation as protagonist, he may not be a good guy. The antagonist might well be the story’s good guy.

Making the protagonist an unlikable character, one who’s not a hero, is one option for your story, yet remember that readers typically want to identify with the protagonist and they often want him to be heroic in some way. You can reverse the expectation, of course; it’s been done many times and done with great success. Yet always remember that you write for an audience.

Some genres more than expect protagonists to be good guys, they accept only that.

Try writing a bad guy as the hero in a romance. He may get the heroine in the end—which would take some tricky writing on your part—but he’s not going to win over the readers. Romance fans want heroic heroes. Not perfect men, necessarily, but men of good character, at least by some measure.

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Antagonists, villains, and bad guys are fun to write. You get to have them do and say things you might not get to do or say in your world. They can do bad things for the right reasons and bad things for the wrong reasons. They can cause problems and get away with it.

At least until the end of the story.

They get to be instigators and rabble-rousers, stirring up trouble and laughing about it.

Or, they could be troubled by their actions, just as the protagonist would be, if they had to do something against their own code because the end result was more important than worrying about getting into trouble.

Write your antagonists with the same nuances that you write your protagonists. Give them levels of complexity. Give them shadings in terms of intent and purpose.

Think complex. Think conflicted. Think driven.

Make your antagonists worthy opponents to your protagonists; make them true opponents and not cardboard images. Give them competing drives and goals. Make them strong. Make sure they win at least some of the skirmishes with the protagonist.

Make sure they are real, with substance. Remember that antagonists are more than their opposition. Something makes them strong, makes them able to stand against the protagonist. Give them a back story, if only for your own knowledge.

Surprise your protagonist (and readers) at least once with an unexpected act at the hands of the antagonist.

Give your antagonist a fitting send-off. He’s been the cause of problems for your entire story, and he deserves an end worthy of him. Make sure it’s sufficient for the trouble he’s caused and one that fits the deeds he instigated.

Create in your antagonist a foil that makes your protagonist even more compelling.

Write good baddies.

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To clarify—an antagonist is a character or thing that opposes the protagonist, the main character in your story. A story typically has one major antagonist, though there can be a number of minor ones.

The antagonist opposes the protagonist more than once per story and does so in more than one way. The relationship between protagonist and antagonist is an adversarial one. The protagonist either cannot easily defeat the antagonist or chooses not to use means that might defeat him right away if those means could harm others or even result in the death or destruction of the antagonist.

An antagonist does not need to be a person (think storms, whales, or a man’s contradictory nature).

A villain is an antagonist but an antagonist doesn’t have to be a villain.

I used the term bad guy for the antagonist but mostly in jest and to keep from having to write antagonist each time I needed to mention one. The antagonist may be a bad guy in the protagonist’s eyes only. He may in actuality be a great guy.

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8 Responses to “The Mean, the Bad, and the Nasty—Writing Villains”

  1. Great article. Thanks!

  2. Shawnette, I’m glad you liked it.

  3. Amber says:

    Awesome! I guess besides creating just normal characters, the antagonist is pretty complicated. I mean, come on, it’s the one you love to hate most of the time! The article really helped me consider some things for my current “baddie” that I am creating, so thanks a bunch!!!

  4. Amber, we love our baddies, don’t we? When else can we indulge ourselves or dig deep into those emotional depths? Bad guys are great for fiction.

    Have fun working on your own baddie. I hope he’s a solid antagonist for your protagonist. And I hope he makes your protagonist even stronger than you’d envisioned.

  5. Hi Beth,

    I was hoping that you could give me a little advice on the novel I’m currently working on. When I originally sat down and plotted out my book, I was intending it to be a Christian romance with a bit of a legal thriller twist, where my protagonist would be the only eyewitness to a crime, and the main conflict would be the criminal trial. As I continued to plot out my story, I decided the crime should be a murder, but now I’m torn as to what I should do with the antagonist – I still want to approach it as a legal thriller, but I’m having trouble wrapping my head around the idea that the antagonist would just sit back, knowing there’s an eyewitness out there. The only way I could see that working is to have him arrested and thrown in jail, and using lesser antagonists for the romance subplot. Any advice? This doesn’t feel like a true murder mystery, since my protagonist is the witness – she would know “whodunit” from the beginning, so I don’t have that element of suspense to drive the story.