Is there a "best" way of writing antagonists?


#1

Posting this in the General section because I’m not sure where would be best😅

I got to thinking about this after playing through several WIP on here–though it is something I’ve thought about plenty before.

Much of the time, I see various media portray antagonists as evil for the sake of being evil. I feel that there are certain cases in which this works fairly well, but in many cases it makes it more difficult to immerse myself in what I’m reading or watching. Black and white morality is difficult for me to swallow, and relying on it often seems like an excuse to not write the motivations of the antagonist(s). It’s difficult to flesh out a character when that happens, which makes it difficult to think of the character as a person. Note that this doesn’t include antagonists whose motives are hidden (this can work well as a plot device).

The problem is, it’s really, really easy to fall into this trap when writing. I feel like it’s probably due to our own views about what we consider “good” and “bad;” we’ll write evil the way we view what evil is in reality, forgetting that our readers may not feel the same as we do about this. Even consciously thinking about this, it’s something difficult to avoid while writing (vague and shallow motives aren’t necessarily better than no motives, IMO).

Like I said earlier, some writing functions very well with the kind of antagonists I’m describing here, but it works best if the writer was presenting the antagonist(s) this way on purpose.

So, does anyone have any tips to writing well characterized antagonists? The only things I’ve been able to come up with are to be conscious of one’s own biases when writing and to utilize feedback, and do so often. I ask mainly because, as I’ve said, I’ve seen this problem a lot and have had trouble with it myself in past experiences.


Who is your favourite Villain/Antagonist and why?
#2

The best villains are threatening, you have to feel like your 3 steps behind them until you finally get the upper hand at the last moment.
They are also real, not some far off evil that is just evil, they’re the person who could live down your street and yet through unfortunate circumstances feel like they have no choice in what they’re doing. They didn’t choose to be this way. Hell they might even believe what they’re doing is right, whether it’s the ends justifying the means or they’re blinded by revenge and see themselves as a righteous judge.

But this is all just in general. There are amazing villain who don’t fit this (eg. The Joker, who works because he is such a polar opposite to batman).


#3

It depends. Do you want a truly Evil-ish Antagonist which is the nemesis of the knight in shining armor?
Or is the antagonist is actually chose to be the antagonist because he/she doesn’t agree with the protagonist main cause?

Plan how you want the antagonist to be, and from there you can start to flesh him/her out


#4

I normally find that the best villains are the people who totally convinced that what they’re doing is right. And I’m not talking about “getting people heated up behind a popular message because that’s what will make you rise to power the fastest”, but an antagonist that truly and wholeheartedly commits to their cause/beliefs. Whether these antagonists choose to justify their actions or not is up to the author, but both are utterly captivating in my opinion.

But then again, villains pushing a message just because it’s the quickest route to the “bank” can be very interesting too.

I think the central message that I’m trying to push is that villains shouldn’t be evil just because the plot demands it. “Wanting to see the world burn” is nice and all, but there has to be a cause, a catalyst, that made the antagonist change.

(I find myself flipping between the words “antagonist” and “villain” a lot. Is there a difference?)


#5

I think this poses a very interesting scenario that is seldom seen in videogames. It would make one hell of a plot-twist in that the hero may or may not be a villain in disguise (or even that they’re not aware of it themselves) as well as the moral dilemmas it would impose.


#6

The difference between a villain and an antagonist is that one isn’t always the other. Your main character is your protagonist. A person who introduces conflict to stop the protagonist from achieving their goal is an antagonist. This means that if the story revolves around a villian, the antagonist could easily be a hero. In many situations, however, the antagonist is made out to be a “bad guy.”


#7

I think being “good” “bad” or “evil” is a matter of perspective. If someone was starving and near death, and someone with, say a taco comes walking by. The one that’s starving takes a brick and caves in the taco carrier’s head. To the one starving, this act likely has no morality, and is about survival. Although, society would likely call this a vile, evil action.

Sure they could have found another way to get food, but in that moment. They either didn’t care, or even think about alternatives.

Alternatively, helping a starving person living on the street. Would likely be seen as a “good” act. Even if that help causes the recipient start relying on handouts, and charity. Instead of fixing their own problems. Of course this is just my own opinion. So make of it what you will.

Also I should say that I do not condone killing someone for a taco, or killing someone in general for that matter.


#8

My elementary teacher once said that the antagonist is the bad guy and deserve a punch-in-the-face by the protagonist :laughing:
With the protagonist is the one who wanted to save the world.


That… is a nice example


#9

Also I forgot to mention that it can be very interesting to have the villain be made as a result of the protagonists actions (this happens a lot in spider man eg. Doc Oc). This can help to create drama through the protagonists struggling with the idea that they are making more problems then they are solving.


#10

This :slight_smile:
Unless the evil for evil sake trope is what you’re going for, I think it’s good to have a reason why they would behave like that. Do they think they can bring about a better world order, have they been slighted in a way that makes them feel they have to change things. Do they have to do it for some reason? (IE get money to pay for treatment for their kid). Are they blinded by their beliefs etc.

Look at some people we’d consider warmongers or cult leaders and at the time, they and their followers probably thought they were justified in their actions even though most people consider them to be bad.

Anyway, try to make them a bit less stereotyped and 2D if possible. Even consider having grey points where what is “evil” may depend on your point of view. Some issues are complicated and difficult to be clear about. Try to suspend your beliefs and look at both sides of the equation. It can make the character seem more human.


#11

I like the idea of writing antagonists in much the same way you’d write other characters… just in such a way that their motives clash with the protagonist. This could be due to strongly believing in something reprehensible, or even idealistic but terrible in practice. It could be out of support for a group that the main character doesn’t belong to, even in support of family or loved ones. It could still be selfish motives, too. And, since people generally are motivated by more than one thing, it could well be a mix of these, and even a mix of these things with more positive motivations that might even align with the protagonist, making it all the more disturbing when they don’t.

But as far as fleshing someone out, there’s a lot of value in considering traits that don’t directly revolve around their villainy. Even if it is someone who acts out of self-gain, without remorse for others (and such people do exist and are valid subjects for writing), they would still have additional personality traits. Maybe the villain likes lilacs, or enjoys waltzing, or has an interest in growing tropical plants. Could be anything, really. Whatever you do, though, that provides a way to make the villaim more memorable, more of a person, and more interesting.

Evil is human, after all.


#12

I’m not sure what kind of a villain would be great, but I know what type is the most boring for me. I’ve often seen stories where the villain is very ambitious and motivated, but the protagonist is passive/reactive and his only desire is the ~power of friendship~. Snore. Sometimes the villain’s desire is morally neutral, but it’s still presented as a character flaw because it’s not meek and humble and status quo supporting. This setup makes it seem like the writer thinks being ambitious is evil, or maybe the writer has the crabs in a bucket mentality. It’s the quickest way to get me to side with the villain and hate the lazy protagonist. Lol.

I suggest giving the protagonist a plan, and then making the antagonist try to stop him/her, instead of the other way around. Or maybe they both have active plans that happen to clash.


#13

There’s no real “best way” to do it since it’s going to depend on the story you’re writing.

One type to consider though and I don’t think it’s one that gets used to its fullest potential a lot and that’s “The Nobody” antagonist.

Basically this is some relatively nameless person that has been causing all the ills and the protagonist doesn’t even know them. Or more likely, they HAVE met them at some point, but only so briefly that it was never important to them.

Though to the antagonist, the protagonist did something (That again, they were never aware of) in their life that it caused the antagonist to go to great lengths to give the protagonist grief. The slight might not have even been major, it could have just been as simple as bumping into him.

Oldboy might be a good example of this.


#14

There’s a lot that’s been said here about antagonist motivations, but rather less about antagonist actions. Does the antagonist act the way they do because it makes complete sense to their character, or because it furthers the plot? For example, if the antagonist kills the protagonist’s family, kidnaps the protagonist’s girlfriend boyfriend, and then tries to destroy the world, then you had better make sure that those actions are in-character. It really annoys me to see supposedly smart antagonists make stupid mistakes again and again just to give a far dumber protagonist a chance at victory. The Evil Overlord List exists for a reason, people (and no, you don’t have to be evil to use it).

Of course, if an antagonist actually is stupid, then they can make as many stupid mistakes as you want… but don’t expect them to be seen as a credible threat. Insane genius can work, but it’s a bit cliched…

I think a good example of “smart” antagonists is the original Star Wars film (yes, really). There are only two actual mistakes made by the imperial forces in the entire film: one made by a minor officer (who probably got force-choked later), and the other by a designer (which has since been retconned into being a Rebel ploy all along). Tarkin’s actions are not stupid. Sure, he could have been more careful, but this isn’t the Titanic; the idea that the Rebel fighters could destroy a vessel the size of a small moon was insane. Even the Stormtroopers’ actions are not incompetence (something sadly missed by quite a few imitators). The Stormtroopers have a single job: make it look like Luke and Han are actually rescuing Leia, so they don’t realise that the Imperials have planted a tracker on the Falcon.

EDIT: as a corollary to the above, the later Star Wars films (excluding Empire Strike Back) do fail. The antagonists of both Return of the Jedi and, to an even worse extent, Force Awakens make exactly the same mistakes as Tarkin, only worse, despite the fact that they should be smart enough to have learned from his failure. And Palpatine’s grand plot in the prequels is ridiculously overcomplicated, even for him, and relies far too much on the Jedi being idiots (admittedly, he was proven correct here).


#15

Reminds me of Knights of the Old Republic! I thought that was a great twist, that also allowed the player to choose whether to reembrace their dark past and deeds, or keep going full light side, even if the conversion wasn’t entirely their choice to begin with!


#16

I’ll toss in that, due to the nature of most CoGs and HGs taking place “though the eyes of the protagonist” and the inherent limitations of that sort of lens, that writers have to find creative ways to give more depth to the antagonist(s). In some movies and books, the story actually cuts away to the antagonist and can reveal personal conversations, flashbacks, etc., to give the antagonist more depth. The “Kingpin epsiode” of Daredevil Season 1 was one of my favorites, for example. It put “meat on the bones” of Wilson Fisk. Author Dean Koontz has written several books where the chapters alternate in first-person from the protagonist to the antagonist. That really allows the reader to get into the nuances of the antagonist’s worldview.

But if you’re telling a story entirely through the eyes of the MC, as we generally do here, you don’t really get those opportunities. Yes you can have the antagonist monologue to the MC, but that gets boring and tropish. You can have the MC discover the antagonist’s secrets, perhaps like a diary or secret papers. There are ways to do it, but I do think it’s more challenging in a typical CoG/HG set up where you can’t hop around and have a few “villain scenes.”


#17

A villain who waltzes out of the room after every confrontation with the hero


#18

But why not? As long as you keep it short I think you could cut away to a scene with the antagonist, it’s not like we’re making a choice every page. I think it’s something CoGs and HGs should do. The antagonist could gain a lot more depth while not subtracting from the rest of the story.

Just because this is an interactive medium doesn’t mean it has to be all the time, games have cutscenes to explain more so why can’t we do something like that here.


#19

I feel like this is why the approach of not having the protagonist see the entire picture often works well in these cases. Also, there are many COG that utilize perspective shifts. I think it’d be rather interesting to throw in perspective shifts where the reader plays as the antagonist without actually knowing so (this could be aided by being misled into thinking that they’re playing as a different character–like a scene where the antagonist uses the name and identity of another character to accomplish something).


#20

I agree, but I could forsee the game being less immersive as a result–one of the things that makes COG unique is that the reader plays as the protagonist. When you start throwing in scenes that aren’t from that perspective it can be jarring. Depends how it’s done and why, TBH.