Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #8: Writing Believable Antagonists

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Antagonists are great! They’re evil, quirky, strange people who do things that we normal people would never dream of doing. Unfortunately, antagonists are often not given enough character development to truly be able to shine.

So today we’re going to talk about how to improve your antagonist and the role he or she plays in your novel. I know that I’ve touched on the antagonist a few times already, but I wanted to give this important character the space he deserves in this course.

Note that not all novels have a human (or sentient) antagonist. If your book doesn’t have one, don’t fret! It’s not a requirement. Though most books have at least some human element to their antagonistic force, so you may still pick up some helpful hints.

Avoid Bad for Bad’s Sake

The most common mistake when writing an antagonist is creating a character who is bad just for the sake of being bad. He loves to rub his hands together and laugh maniacally and think about drowning puppies and stealing candy from babies.

This type of person does not exist in reality. Even serial killers, rapists, and mass murderers are rarely (if ever) described as all-around bad people.  Even most crappy horror movies give the antagonist at least some sort of motivation.

People are bad for a reason. They have a motivation to do the evil things they do, which leads us to:

Antagonists Must Have Tangible Goals

The antagonist, just like the protagonist, has something that he or she wants to achieve. They have a goal. This goal needs to be tangible, identifiable. If the reader doesn’t know what the goal is right away, they at least need to get the impression that there is one.

The goal also needs to make sense!

Taking over the world and murdering everyone is a mostly illogical goal. What would someone do with a world full of dead people? Yet taking over the world could be turned into a realistic goal if it would allow the antagonist to solve some personal issue, such as needing the government’s secret technology in order to build a time machine to go back in time to save his sister.

Yes, even antagonists need to have a goal that is personal. Achieving their goal must relieve some source of pain or hardship in their lives. Without that, their goals will seem laughable.

Note that their source of pain or hardship could be entirely based on their own perception. It doesn’t have to make sense to normal people. However I would avoid using “insanity” as a cop out for the antagonist’s behavior.

Antagonists Believe They Are Right

Just like the protagonist believes they are right, the antagonist believes that they are right too. This is a very important fact that can be easy to lose sight of. Many amateur novels have an antagonist who practically walks around going, “Oh gee do I love being evil!”

This is not how people think. When people do bad things, they believe that (for some reason) the behavior is justified.

For example, an abusive parent isn’t abusing their kid because they just like being evil. Most individuals who act aggressively towards anyone (friend, family, or foe) are able to justify it: “He deserved it!” “He was asking for it!” “My dad beat me and I turned out okay!” “It builds characters!”

Some antagonists may even believe that what they are doing is actively good. For example, cleansing the world of a certain type of person, teaching someone “bad” a lesson, or righting some sort of wrong for which they were the victim.

The most important thing to remember is that if an antagonist doesn’t believe what they’re doing is right (in whatever twisted, messed up way), you’re going to have a tough time making them seem realistic to the reader.

Antagonists Are Defeated by Their Flaws

For a truly satisfying climax, the antagonist should lose because of a character flaw. Just like with protagonists, this flaw could take an infinite number of forms. Antagonists could be overly arrogant and make careless mistakes that get them caught. They could underestimate the protagonist and end up getting defeated in a way they never imagined. They could get so wrapped up in their ritualistic behavior that they don’t clear out of a crime scene in time. Or they could have difficulty controlling their anger to the point that they snap in public.

Whatever their flaw, it should be made as apparent as possible prior to the climax. This will ensure that when they are defeated, it seems logical, possible, and not like an easy way to simply let the protagonist win.

Cut the Bumbling Henchmen

Unless you’re taking the idea in a wildly new direction, I suggest avoiding giving your antagonist bumbling henchmen. Sure their sidekicks aren’t going to be as smart or as powerful as they are, but they shouldn’t be complete and utter baffoons.

In general, somebody else’s blatant stupidity does not make for a very interesting way of defeating them.

All characters of any significance (and henchmen certainly qualify if they become an obstacle for the protagonist) should undergo enough character development to not have to fall back on being stupid in order to fail.

What About Monsters?

If monsters are sentient enough to have a tangible goal, then they should have one. If they can talk, then they definitely need to have one.

The goal could be eating the protagonist or stealing their soul or appeasing the demon fleas infested in their fur, but they need to have some reason to be evil (just like the human antagonists).

Homework: Believable Antagonist Worksheet

To get you really thinking about how to improve your antagonist, I’ve created a worksheet of questions that will challenge you to think of your antagonist in a different way. You could easily write hundreds of words for each question if you properly develop your antagonist. So sit down in a nice quiet spot and get working!

The questions:

  • What is your antagonist’s goal? What is he or she trying to achieve?
  • Why does your antagonist feel that his goal is justified?
  • Does he ever not feel that the goal is justified? Does he ever feel guilty or remorseful? If so, what prompts him to continue pursuing his goal?
  • If the antagonist could snap his fingers and make the world exactly as he wants it, what would that world be like?
  • If your antagonist could travel back in time and change something about his past, what would it be? (Don’t say “nothing.” That’s a cop out and you know it!)
  • What is your antagonist’s flaw and how will it ultimately cause him to be defeated?
  • What is your antagonist’s relationship like with his henchmen/sidekick/etc.?
  • What does your antagonist like to do for fun? (Don’t say “kill people” or “make the protagonist suffer.” Really think about the question. Everyone has non-evil things they enjoy.)
  • What are some positive traits of your antagonist? Is he a great listener? Did she raise happy, healthy children? Did the wolfman once save someone’s life?

If you answer these questions before editing or rewriting your novel, you will be able to spot areas that are lacking in depth and create a more complex and interesting antagonist.

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!

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I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.

6 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #8: Writing Believable Antagonists

  1. Linda Vernon says:

    My antagonist is a mean girl. I was just going to have her born that way — Now that I have the worksheet there’s going to be more to it than that. (As I follow along in the boot camp I seem to be making every mistake so far! LOL!)

  2. Roman says:

    My antagonist actually has a positive character arc. He’s a antagonist in the most technical sense. In that at first, he is against the protagonist. Not to give my story away, but my antagonist is working to save his ‘kind’ from the curse of a more darker evil than himself and my protagonist is the key to that. My protagonist is what this darker force desires.

  3. Joshua Grayer says:

    In my novel the antagonist starts out as one of the protagonists, but it takes awhile for that to happen. Is that going too far when it comes to making a realistic antagonist? Is it a bad idea to even have a protagonist turned antagonist? I feel like it might be cliche…I don’t know.

  4. Ashley Harman says:

    I actually just rewrote my antagonist’s backstory just before the post on the character’s motivation. I hope it’s not a cliche but his family is believed to be corrupted but for the last few generations have been trying to change it. Some extreme things happened to the antagonist causing him to snap and become the very thing his family was trying so hard to prove they are not.

  5. Julie Allyson says:

    “Taking over the world and murdering everyone is a mostly illogical goal. What would someone do with a world full of dead people? ”

    Haha, you hit the nail on the head with what’s wrong with the Resident Evil series.

  6. Pam Portland says:

    Hi Ellen, I really wish time allowed me to be more engaged in NBC, but I am moving out of my house and driving to Wyoming in 4 days. Each day I have been adding your lectures to my SoundGecko account, so I cannot wait to be driving across Nebraska listening to your wonderful, sage advice. If you haven’t heard it enough, thank you SO much for all your work on these lectures and activities! It is truly appreciated by me (and my characters).

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