Q&A: Antagonists and Villains

How do you write a good antagonist? on that point, how do you write a story from the villains POV, but still make them a likeable character without glossing over how evil they really are? P.S I just found this blog and it’s rlly great! sorry if my question is confusing, I’m not very good at English

There’s a writing truism to keep in mind here, “everyone sees themselves as the hero of their own story.” That’s very important to remember when creating a quality villain.

There’s not a lot of reason to be evil just for fun. If your character is doing horrific things, they probably have a reason. Digging into their thought process can be unpleasant, but it is valuable for making them into a relatable character.

Done well, there’s nothing wrong with a villain as the protagonist of a story, even when that character is supporting a horrible system, or committing evil acts the way. For example: there’s plenty of Star Wars stories focusing on bounty hunters or Imperial officers as the core characters.

In less, black and white settings, bouncing between both sides of a conflict with your PoVs can help to understand the nuances of the situation in a way you generally don’t get if you stick to one side alone. It can also be useful to understand the mindset and philosophies of each side.

So, what do you do?

First, let’s split this a little bit. A villain is one of “the bad guys.” They represent part of an opposing force, which probably works against the protagonist. I’m sticking a bunch of conditionals in here because it’s possible to have villains who aren’t, actually, hostile to the protagonist.

For example: You could have a corrupt cop who is a villain, but doesn’t care about the protagonist at all, as their investigation doesn’t threaten him. More disturbingly, you could a corrupt cop who benefits from the protagonist’s investigations, leading to an awkward situation where they’re a villain, but not an antagonist.

An antagonist is a character (or force), who works against the protagonist, and opposes the progression of the story. Again, this is a bit conditional because it can lead to some weird edge cases. A character’s psychological issues could be their own antagonist. There’s also no moral judgement associated with an antagonist. A character who oversees your protagonist could be an antagonist by trying to keep your character from breaking the rules.

Having covered that, a good antagonist simply needs to be someone who has a reason to oppose your protagonist. They don’t need to be evil. In some cases, the antagonist may even have the best interests of your protagonist in mind, but, they’re working against them, and that’s why they’re the antagonist.

In many cases, thinking an antagonist needs to be evil can actually harm the story as a whole. How many novels have you read, or shows have you seen, where anyone who opposes the hero must be secretly evil? Especially when the hero is already prone to making some pretty questionable choices? In cases like that, it actually cheapens the story. There’s nothing wrong with an antagonist who tries to stop your hero, with good reason, and is even sympathetic to them, but still can’t let them off.

A villain is a little different. Like I said, these are the bad guys. They do bad things. They harm others. They need a goal. They need a plan. They need to have reasons for the things they’re willing to do.

A good villain makes all of these pieces fit together. They have a plan to achieve their goals which will (probably) harm others. They may be callous about it, or they may have attempted to find a solution that minimized collateral damage. They’re not simply killing puppies for fun, they have reasons for what they’re doing.

There’s no easy way to plot this out in abstract. You need to know what your villains want, and from there plot what they’re willing to do. They should expect some opposition, and have a few reasonable backup plans for things not going their way. At this point, the more reasonable their plan looks, the more disturbing it will be. Also, the easier it will be to sell to the audience.

Don’t gloss over what they’re doing, give your villain the opportunity to honestly present their position, and trust your reader to understand that this is evil.

-Starke

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