What is a hero without a villain? What is a protagonist without an antagonist? The answer to both of these questions is: nothing. A hero needs a villain and a protagonist needs an antagonist. And in this blog piece I am going to give you the eight best tips on how to create a compelling villain or antagonist.
Villains vs Antagonists – What’s The Difference?
Villains and antagonists are not one and the same. A villain is a ‘bad guy,’ the one the audience roots against right from the start; for example, the Joker to Batman. Villains want destruction, death and/or tyranny because they are bad, such as Galbatorix from Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle, Chancellor Palpatine/Darth Sidius/the Emperor from Star Wars I-VI, and Apocalypse from X-Men: Apocalypse, among countless others.
An antagonist is not necessarily a ‘bad guy,’ per se, and the audience is not necessarily against him/her. Antagonists just happen to be against the protagonists. Antagonists also tend to be more complex by nature. They do not act in the manner that they do because they are bad, but rather because they have logical reasons for doing so; for example, Lord Tywin Lannister in George RR Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire (ASOIAF) series, McDuff in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto in the X-Men prequel series.
Whether the writer wants a villain or an antagonist is up to him/her to decide. It depends upon the type of story that he/she wants to create. Nevertheless, villains and antagonists must have certain qualities because (and make no mistake!) villains/antagonists make the novel just as much as the protagonists. They get the ball rolling.
If they lack in character and deed, a novel can only be partially satisfactory at best. But what makes a villain/antagonist striking and outstanding in order to be remembered for years to come?
Tip 1 – The Actions of the Villain/Antagonist Kickstart The Main Character’s Journey
The villain/antagonist is the reason why the main character goes on a journey. Therefore, the villain/antagonist must do something that affects the main character enough to get him/her moving. Usually in fantasy, this takes the form of the antagonists murdering someone whom the central protagonist holds dear. In ASOIAF, Lord Eddard Stark decides to go to King’s Landing (and begin his journey for justice) when he receives a letter informing him that the Lannisters murdered Jon Arryn, his mentor, and that his friend, King Robert Baratheon, is in danger from the same antagonists.
But it doesn’t have to be murder that gets the main character on his way. It can be the theft of an object, such as the Orb in David Eddings’ The Belgariad pentalogy; or the abduction of a child in the same author’s follow-up saga, The Mallorean.
Alternatively, the arrival of the villain/antagonist can sometimes be enough to get the main character out of his comfort zone (or stupor if you prefer); for instance, Bane that forces Bruce Wayne/Batman to don the cape once more to rid Gotham of its latest, glorified terrorist in The Dark Knight Rises.
Tip 2 – Make The Actions of the Villain/Antagonist Challenge The Main Character At Every Stage Of The Narrative
The second of the eight best tips on how to create a compelling villain or antagonist is to make him/her challenge the central protagonist at every stage of the narrative. It is no good having the villain/antagonist just do something at the beginning to get the central protagonist out of bed.
The villain/antagonist must constantly do something to test the main character either physically or psychologically (or both).
Tip 2 – Example
The Joker, in The Dark Knight, classically tests Batman at every turn. First, he evades Batman. Then, he undermines Gotham’s police force (by playing on the corrupt nature of the institution). Subsequently, the Joker uses the media to spread fear and terror to turn Gotham against Batman, before he kills Rachel Dawes. After that, he manipulates a wounded Harvey Dent, Gotham’s ‘White Knight,’ pushing him into becoming a murdering psychopath.
If anything, it is this last bit that (psychologically, if not physically) beats Batman. Harvey Dent was what Batman had indirectly given Gotham. But by the end of the film the Joker has destroyed the city’s one legitimate hope of successfully fighting crime. (But Batman cannot allow that, so he takes the fall for Harvey’s crimes and goes into hiding to ensure that Gotham has its true hero i.e. the one who does not wear a mask and act like a vigilante.)
In many ways, the Joker in The Dark Knight is the ultimate antagonist. He not only tests Batman constantly throughout the narrative, he fights for the same goal as Batman (the soul of Gotham); and he turns Batman’s greatest strength (his moral code of not killing) into his greatest weakest. The Joker pushes Batman to breaking point by forcing him to make difficult, morally complex choices that have consequences. By the end of the film, the Joker’s actions compel Batman to become everything he does not want to be (in repute at least): a murderer.
Tip 3 – Give The Villain/Antagonist A Rational Reason For Acting As He/She Does
Making a villain/antagonist Evil (with a capital ‘E’ for good measure) is not only hackneyed and clichéd, it is two-dimensional and uninteresting. To make villains/antagonists plausible, they must act rationally and have a genuine reason for acting the way they do. This is what makes their decisions understandable in the eyes of the reader.*
Tip 3 – Example 1
For example, one can understand Macduff’s motives in Macbeth. He is a loyal man and politically astute. When he suspects that Macbeth murdered King Duncan, he flees Scotland with Malcolm (Duncan’s son and heir), and the audience understands why he has done so.
Similarly, when Macduff returns to Scotland and declares war on Macbeth, the audience understands that he is fighting for a just cause (to avenge King Duncan and put the rightful King on the throne).
Tip 3 – Example 2
In A Storm Of Swords, the third volume of ASOIAF, Lord Tywin Lannister arranges the Red Wedding. Many would consider this act immoral and against the rules of warfare. But when Lord Tywin asks his son, Tyrion (and the audience vicariously), why it is more noble to kill ten thousand men on a battlefield than a dozen at a wedding, one understands Lord Tywin’s thinking: he sees warfare as a numbers game, and he wants to end the war as quickly as possible to defend his family (and, by extension, tens of thousands of other men who would otherwise die on the battlefield). Lord Tywin has a fair point, and it is hard to argue against that because his reasoning is credible.
*Disclaimer – When Villains/Antagonists Become Protagonists
Sometimes (if rarely), when the reasons are credible, the audience can even understand the villain/antagonist to such an extent that they will no longer see him/her as a villain/antagonist. For instance, in the same instalment of ASOIAF, we cease to see Jaime Lannister, Tywin’s son, solely as the man who sleeps with his sister; who crippled Bran Stark; and who broke his oath when he stabbed the Mad King in the back.
Rather, we learn that his sister sexually manipulated him into becoming one of the Mad King’s bodyguards; that he pushed Bran Stark out of the window to protect all those he loves dearly; and that he killed the Mad King to stop him from turning the capital (and half a million denizens) into a bonfire. Indeed, when looking at Jaime through this prism, plus his subsequent actions in A Storm of Swords, readers may even wonder why they considered him a villain/antagonist in the first place.
(Admittedly, it helps that Jaime becomes a POV character in A Storm Of Swords. Seldom do villains/antagonists get the pages and the words to explain their side, from their innermost thoughts.)
Tip 4 – Decide The Endpoint For The Villains/Antagonists
The fourth of the eight best tips on how to create a compelling villain or antagonist is for writers to decide the endpoint for the villain/antagonist at early stage of the writing process. In nearly all cases, the endpoint for a villain/antagonist is death at the hands of the hero/protagonist. And that is fine. It could be argued that if this does not happen, the story-arc for the central protagonist will be missing a key ingredient.
But the villain’s/antagonist’s endpoint does not have to be death. It can be jail, such as Loki in Thor I. Or, the villain/antagonist could evade the central protagonist, like in No Country For Old Men. Or, the villain/antagonist could emerge victorious, like in Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith.
Admittedly, those latter scenarios are rare and in two of them there are mitigating circumstances. In Thor I, the filmmakers wanted to keep Loki alive for further instalments; and in Star Wars: Episode III, the villains/antagonists have to win otherwise the start of Episode IV: A New Hope makes no sense.
I hope you have enjoyed the first four tips on how to create a memorable villain/antagonist, and that this blog piece will help to make the writing journey a little easier for you. We shall discuss remainder of the eight best tips on how to create a compelling villain or antagonist in the next blog piece.
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