Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #8: Writing Believable Antagonists


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.

Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #7: Be Ruthless


Writers love their characters. I mean, they really really love their characters! Some of them daydream about their characters throughout the day. Others hear their characters talking in their heads. And most authors say that they put at least some tiny piece of themselves in every character.

So because writers love their characters so much (and may even view them as an extension of themselves), sometimes they’re a little too nice to them.

I mean, when you love someone, you want to see them happy. You want their lives to turn out beautiful, all wrapped up with a nice tidy bow.

But this is not what novels are about. Nobody wants to read about a life sprinkled with rose petals. In order to write a great novel, you must be willing to beat the crap out of your characters. You have to give them hell. Throw them through the wringer and meet them with a sledgehammer at the other side.

You have to be ruthless.

Here’s how:

Write What You’re Afraid to Write

We’ve all had good and bad experiences that shape who we are. These experiences can cause us to shy away from certain subjects – either because they are so frighteningly foreign or so terrifyingly familiar.

These things can be big or small, serious or light. They are things so far from our plotting radar they don’t even enter our minds as we write, or they might be things we think of but dismiss. “I could never write about that!”

They could be things we’re afraid of: needles, the dark, spiders, clowns, freak accidents.

Or they could be things that just seem too harsh or unfair: the death of a loved one, abuse, divorce, infidelity, a terminal disease.

These things are scary, especially when they’re happening to our character (who, admittedly, as at least a little bit like us). Writing these scary elements or events into our novel can hit a bit too close to home. It can make us uncomfortable. But it can also make for an interesting and complex conflict.

Sometimes our plot needs something that’s hard for us to write. Consider the topics you’re consciously or subconsciously avoiding. Not only are they emotionally charged, but the terror that you feel about them can translate into tense and emotional writing.

Hurt Your Protagonist’s Heart

We’re all pretty nice people who don’t like to trample on anyone’s feelings. But this can make us really bad plotters when we want to coddle and protect our characters from broken hearts. And I don’t mean in a purely romantic sense. Broken hearts can come from all sorts of experiences and relationships.

The very best novels trample all over the hearts of their protagonists. They don’t pull any punches. They don’t wrap their protagonist in a cuddly blanket and push a mug of hot cocoa in their hands. They let the terrible things in the world rip them to shreds.

Never be afraid of breaking your protagonist’s heart. Let them taste their goals and then smash their dreams. Don’t worry, you can always build them back up later.

If you don’t let them go to those dark places, at least for a while, there’s no satisfaction for the reader.

The novel is your character’s journey. Give them a wild ride, not a pleasant trot across flat terrain.

Avoid the Impenetrable Protagonist

For those writing novels with a lot of physical challenges – natural disaster, hard labor, fighting, etc. – don’t shield your protagonist from injury. There’s nothing quite as artificial as a protagonist who runs barefoot through the woods getting chased by a murderer in the hot August sun, yet gets nary a scratch.

Do not wrap your protagonist in bubble wrap! They’re human beings, not androids. If you throw them into a pit, their legs should break. If someone punches them, they should get a black eye.

Overly protecting a protagonist is especially apparent when other characters do get injured. If your protagonist makes it out of every scuffle without so much as a bug bite while everyone else is holding their guts inside their slashed stomach’s, readers are going to call your bluff.

And besides, even if it does come off okay that your character doesn’t get injured, you’re still reducing the obstacles in their path. Make them bleed! Break their bones!  Your readers will love it.

Give Your Antagonist the Advantage

In a fight between a little girl and a sumo wrestler, it’s obvious whose going to win. If the little girl is your protagonist, awesome! If she’s the antagonist, suddenly she’s super-duper lame.

To create a satisfying battle (whether it’s physical, mental, or emotional) between your protagonist and your antagonist, the antagonist must (at least) be an equal match to the protagonist. Ideally, the antagonist should be the stronger, faster, smarter, savvier of the two. Yes, he/she will have a weakness that the protagonist uses to beat them, but in all other areas, they should be equal to or superior to your protagonist.

One way of going easy on your precious characters is to put an antagonistic force in their path that is easy-peasy to defeat. No! Don’t do this! The reader should believe that defeating the antagonist is impossible. If you match your sumo wrestler protagonist with a little girl antagonist (unless she’s evil, possessed, or an android), the battle is going to feel bland, boring, and totally unsatisfying.

Make Your Antagonist Act

Sometimes we get our protagonists into sticky situations where the antagonist clearly has the advantage. For example, the protagonist is tied up, handcuffed, locked in a jail cell, cornered, or battling without a weapon.

Those writers who are being too easy on their characters will often end up with the antagonist in this scene doing nothing! He will circle around the character, say some mean things, maybe swing his weapon around a bit, but will ultimately be foiled because he fails to actually ever do anything.

Don’t let your protagonist win just because the antagonist is an idiot. This might give you an opportunity to avoid hurting your precious main character, but the reader will call you out on it. “Why didn’t the bad guy just stab him? He was right there!”

We’ll be talking about antagonists more soon (*cough* tomorrow). But I want you to get started thinking about the role of the antagonist in putting your character through the wringer.

Homework: Give Your Character Hell

The homework has been a lot more challenging this week, so I wanted to give you a tiny break with something not quite so hard.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the worst thing that could happen to my character emotionally? Have you delivered it? Could you edit the novel to add it in? If not, could you add a tamed down version of it in?
  • Are there any scenes where the character should have been injured but wasn’t? Could you add an injury? Even a minor one?
  • Overall, are the obstacles in your character’s path a bit too easy? Do they create a legitimate challenge and carry a reasonable amount of risk (emotionally or physically)?
  • Is the antagonist as strong or stronger than the main character? Do their encounters/battles legitimately challenge the protagonist?

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!

Screen Shot 2014-06-26 at 10.41.51 AM 93-facebookgroup

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.