I love me a good antagonist, don’t you? A powerful opposing force really makes or breaks a story, because they are so important to create conflict and tension and therefore your story arc. A good story lives off of conflict and tension and without it it’s shallow, boring and kind of void.
Also keep in mind that your antagonist is your protagonists chance to grow! Your protagonist needs to grow in order to overcome those obstacles.
The One Powerful Antagonist
Your antagonist should ideally be overwhelmingly powerful, so powerful in fact, that your protagonist doesn’t stand a chance. At least throughout the majority of your story. Imagine Harry Potter and You-Know-Who or Frodo and Sauron on the same eye level… it doesn’t work, does it? Having protagonist and antagonist be equally powerful takes away all the tension and friction, which takes away all of the stories potential.
Instead, you get an incredibly powerful You-Know-Who, where people don’t even dare to speak his name and you have young Harry, who doesn’t seem to be utterly special aside from surviving the death curse. How on earth is he going to defeat this mighty enemy? BAM! There is lots of conflict, lots of tension and lots of pages turning to find out.
Same with Sauron. An evil and most powerful enemy who is stronger than even the strongest of elves. How does Frodo, a peace-loving, harmless hobbit, stand a chance against him? Even with Gandalf and all the others on his side, the odds are against him. Which makes this story worth reading. You want to know if and how they can find a way to withstand this strong opposition.
Be aware that your antagonist doesn’t necessarily have to be terrifying and evil. Your protagonist has some goals and interests and the antagonists job simply is to prevent the protagonist to get that. Classical fantasy loves to play with the fight between good and evil, but depending on your story, your antagonist doesn’t have to be.
If you’ve ever read Pride and Prejudice than you will know that Mr. Darcy, the future love of protagonist Elizabeth Bennet, acts as some kind of antagonist throughout a good portion of the story. Fueled by misunderstandig, he becomes the opposing force, before they can actually look past those prejudices. And while this doesn’t seem like such a powerful antagonist on the first glance, you do wonder throughout the story how on earth they can overcome their hostility and actually develop romantic feelings. Therefore it is a powerful opposing force. At least that’s what I think 🙂
Smaller (Scene) Antagonists
Most stories have more than one antagonist. Sure, you (often) have one big antagonist who overshadows the whole plot, but you also have different smaller antagonists throughout your scenes.
Harry does have to face Snape, Filch and McGonagall, who oppose his various wants, like strolling through forbidden corridors or sneaking out at night. You also have Hagrid, who doesn’t want to share relevant information or some dark and scary dog who seems to follow Harry.
Frodo has to fight those nasty black riders – the Nazgul – as well as a horde of orks and goblins. Though even Strider presents some form of antagonist when Frode first meets him and of course the ring itself opposes Frodos interests on various accounts.
Personified Motives, Beliefs and Opinions
To make your antagonists legit, you need them to personify motives, beliefs and opinions.
The classical villain antagonist usually finds his motivation in his desires – the desire for power, the wish for revenge, the need for redemption. Both You-Know-Who and Sauron desire power to rule over others. This is what dictates their thinking and their actions.
Professor McGonagall acts on behalf of school rules and Snape is reacting to his hate for Harrys father. Rita Skeeter on the other hand embodies our corrupt and warped news system, while the Ministry of Magic stands for everything that’s going wrong in our own governments.
Another great example is the Marvel movie Civil War. Have you seen it? In it, our formerly united super heroes stand on opposing sides. Both sides have very legit reasons, yet they can’t find common ground, which creates the whole conflict of the movie. I find this very intense, because you can understand the motivations of both parties and yet you can’t really find a solution either.
Here are some points to take away:
Make your main antagonist overwhelmingly powerful and intimidating.
Don’t shy away from conflict and when creating your antagonist, give her power, give her motives and beliefs, make her a mirror of the protagonists values. Create as much tension and friction as you possibly can.
Use people as vessels for generalized beliefs or systems. Readers connect better to people than to concepts.
And keep in mind that your antagonist is your protagonists potential to grow!
Do you have something to add? Other thoughts? Let us know 🙂
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