Often I find myself gravitating towards the antagonist (bad guy) of a story. I don’t know if it’s because a lot of my early reading was comic books—and without a good bad guy there’s not really much of a story—but I find this preference for well crafted bad guys rings true for all kinds of storytelling.
A well written bad guy engages the reader and makes you almost want to root for them. They have motivations for the things they do. They have a vision for the world and desires for seeing that vision come to fruition. No bad guy is just evil for the sake of being evil. And that’s where a lot of writers have trouble. But don’t worry, we have some tips on how to write a better bad guy. Let’s get to it!
6. Antagonist Are People Too
Make sure there’s a real reason your antagonist are the way they are (this actually applies to all characters). If their only reason for being in the story is to move the plot along, you’re doing it all wrong and your story will suffer from it.
There needs to be reasons and purpose for what your bad guys do. As I mentioned in the intro, your characters shouldn’t be evil just to be evil. People in real life aren’t like that. A good rule of thumb is to create bad guys who are fleshed out characters. Their motivations and character traits should be so complete that you could write the whole story from their point of view and the story would still make sense.
5. Don’t Make Them Completely Evil
The only time an unrealistically evil antagonist might work is for some horror or monster stories—or if you really want your readers to hate the character. But that generally works best in movies. Not only is it kind of boring having a completely evil character, but it’s hard for a reader to connect to said character.
If you do a good enough job creating your characters, the readers will have a hard time deciding who they want to actually win. At least to a degree. The best villains in books and movies are the ones we can kind of relate to or feel bad for. Think of Darth Vader. Even before his whole back story was created, there was something the audience liked about him. They felt for him and he became a cultural figure. That’s a good bad guy.
4. The Main Antagonist Shouldn’t Be A Corporation, Disease, Or War If It Doesn’t Fit The Story
There’s no real way for your protagonist to overcome these things in any real way. If you want to try to use one of these as a backdrop, (and there are plenty of reasons why you should) make sure there’s a face you can put to them: such as a corrupt businessman representing a corporation, a power-hungry war monger who needs to be stopped, or even a disturbed scientist trying to come up with new poisons to kill people.
Of course, this isn’t saying you can’t use these events as antagonist. But it will be quite a different story if told like this. Think of the Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck used poverty as a backdrop that sets the characters on their path. But there isn’t a main villain thwarting their progress. It’s just the poverty they must deal with. And that creates an entirely different experience than if he made—let’s say—an oil tycoon causing the poverty.
3. The Antagonist Should Be Capable
If your bad guy is a bumbling buffoon, how can there be a real expectation of him defeating your protagonist? It takes out all of the conflict and tension you’ve tried to build during the story.
I think you’d be good making your antagonist more capable than the protagonist. This would create an even greater challenge for your hero to overcome. There’s no fun if the bad guy is Dr. Evil style pathetic and incapable of winning.
2. Have The Antagonist Be Familiar
If your bad guy starts out as a friend, ally, or loved one, it can really add a lot of future drama to your story. You can use this in multiple ways: such as an old friend who felt like they’ve been wronged and come back for revenge, or having someone who is an ally but is secretly waiting for a double cross.
Having the bad guy be some random evil Joe the protagonist doesn’t know kills a lot of the drama. It causes a disconnect between the reader and the tension you want to build. The readers don’t care if you kill a random bad guy. They do care if Wolverine has to kill the Phoenix who has taken over the body and mind of his love Jean Grey.
1. Create A Hidden Antagonist
If you’re bad guy throughout the story is presented as a mystery man, make sure he has underlings that the protagonist can go up against until the final conflict. You also want to make sure the antagonist is working behind the scenes to move the events of the story along without the knowledge of the protagonist.
A good mystery antagonist is someone who may not be known, but their presence is felt throughout the story. The things they do steers the course of the protagonist’s journey and creates drama. And once the final unveiling and conflict occurs, the readers will feel immense satisfaction. This is a great tool in creating a unique story and is implemented by a lot of mystery writers.
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