Tag Archives: writing antagonists

Q&A: Antagonistic Heroes

So, I’m trying to write a horror/physiological book but the main character is the antagonist. I’ve seen many people saying the main character has to be relatable and I’m not sure what to do about it?

 So, there’s a catch here, I need to point out. Having your main character as an antagonist, in the strictest sense, isn’t necessarily that out there, but it’s also not what you’re thinking of.

So the antagonist is the character who works against your heroes. It doesn’t matter who they are, and there are entire genres built around stories where the main character is also their own worst enemy.

Technically, you can break this apart. Usually it’s aspects of the character working against themselves. For example: and alcoholic character’s antagonist could easily be their own alcoholism. In that sense, your main character would be both the protagonist and the antagonist.

A specific example would be The Gambler, with Mark Wahlberg. The main character is a compulsive gambler. It’s part of who he is, and that aspect is the film’s main antagonist. So, the main character is the antagonist.

Now, there is another side to this, and I suspect this what you were thinking of to begin with. You can tell stories where the protagonist is the villain. The immediate example that comes to mind there are the Ripley novels by Patricia Highsmith. These can be, reductively, described as a series of mystery novels where the killer gets away. Your protagonist can be the villain.

Making a character relatable helps, but what you need is a protagonist that’s compelling. One that grabs the audience and holds their attention. Being someone the audience identifies with can help getting there, but that’s not the real goal. It’s mistaking the shortcut for the destination, understandable, but potentially deceptive.

Also remember, most villains should have compelling, plausible, motivations driving them. The trick to getting an audience to side with your villain is digging into that motivation. There are many villainous or borderline villainous characters that audiences are quite happy to excuse their behavior, because they look at their behavior makes sense.

So, you can a villain who’s getting revenge for whatever, or working to defend their home. You can present a scenario like this, where your protagonist is the bad guy. Not even, the least bad, but straight up the villain.

There’s also plenty of room for protagonists who are evil, but principled. Such as an inquisitor for an evil empire. Even a corrupt cop can make for a compelling protagonist.

Ironically, a couple Nicholas Cage films come to mind immediately, including Lord of War (where he plays an arms dealer) and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (which is both a very long title, and an equally bizarre film where Cage plays a corrupt cop.) Seriously, Bad Lieutenant is a really strange trip of a film; if you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a watch. (Also, a film where the protagonist pulls double duty as the primary antagonist.)

In some ways, all you really need for a villainous protagonist is a character who doesn’t care about social norms, ethics, morality, or any other pesky distractions on their path towards getting what they want. This can persist even if their goals are laudable.

Some long-form examples of heroic villains include, Michael Chiklis’s Vic Mackey in The Shield, or Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer in 24. In both cases, we have characters who are presented as heroes, but are willing to “do whatever it takes” to achieve their goals, justifying it to themselves that they only people they really harm are deserving of their fate. This can be a seductive mindset, but it’s also worth remembering these characters are doing some pretty horrific things. That said, The Shield put this conflict at the front of the series as a major theme, while 24 had a hard time admitting Jack wasn’t a good person.

Your villain needs to have a coherent plan. Then they just need to look for the most efficient path to their goals. Note: this does not mean they need to create an unnecessary bodycount to get their message across. There’s no value in killing everyone in your path if you only need to kill one person. Of course, if other people try to get in your way, that’s their funerals. I’m not saying your character can’t be a sadist, just that they don’t need to be one.


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hey there! thanks for answering all our questions on this blog + how possible would it for someone to crack ribs with a solid kick? there’s a character i have in mind that’s escaping captivity, but they’re also young, so i’m not quite sure how easily they’d be able to hurt the (adult) antagonist in such a manner, especially lacking any fighting experience to begin with?

Well, you can break someone’s ribs with a kick. That’s the entire purpose of the roundhouse, especially the version where you strike with the ball of the foot rather than the top of the foot. (And… aren’t like me when I was seven or eight, when I was new to sparring and totally stubbed my toe in another kid’s side at a tournament after my brain/body got confused between the two. I didn’t break my toe, but I could’ve.)

That story above is important, by the way. If you’ve got a character who doesn’t know how to fight then they’re not even going to get that far. If you don’t know how to kick then that’s a great way to get your leg caught by someone who knows what they’re doing. They catch the foot by the ankle, and then drag you wherever they want. That’s assuming the character can get their leg up and out without falling over. Even if they do manage that, say because they’ve watched a lot of martial arts flicks, they won’t know how to generate power and will be very slow. A, B, and C occur anyway. Your protagonist is going to end up back wherever they were being kept, this time in a much less comfortable position.

Even for an experienced martial artist, kicks require fairly constant bodily upkeep in order to be able to do them cold (much less perform them at all). That’s not a combat scenario, that’s just in general. You’ve got a great chance of pulling all the leg muscles you need to get away, including ones you didn’t realize you had and that’s if you don’t break your toes. Board breaks with the roundhouse kick are the most terrifying of them all because you’ve got to remember to curl your toes just right in order to carry your foot through the board.

Kicks are off the table.

More importantly, this is an exact rendition of the “Feel Good Violence” trope: My Instincts Performed A Wheel Kick.

The protagonist is suddenly and randomly enough good at fighting to not only fight, but win when making their first attempt at a violent altercation. They use techniques which require a fairly high level of dedication and aptitude out of “natural ability” and “instinct”.

Unless you’ve got an ironclad reason for invoking the trope (past lives/ immortality/memory loss/the matrix) it will undercut your narrative credibility in ways the story cannot recover from.

When you’ve cracked your foundation, you’re done.

“The only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction needs to be credible,” – Mark Twain

Narrative integrity is based on the rules or limitations we’ve set for ourselves, those limitations are the ironclad rules by which the narrative functions. They exist on two levels: in behavior and actions of characters within the world, and on a secondary level the setting’s behavior around them. Everything in your story must be working to uphold the fiction. When it doesn’t the audience’s “suspension of disbelief” starts to crack. You are beholden to the rules and limitations set down by your setting. Without them, you have no story.

When you’re setting out to create a character, there are four questions you should ask yourself:

1) What can the character do?

2) What can’t the character do?

3) What is the character willing to do but can’t?

4) What can the character do, but is unwilling to?

Within these four circles you have your character, their ethics/morals, and their limitations. That is the box you’ve created for yourself. It is important to own it and abide by it. When dealing with a protagonist, those limitations are not just the foundations of a character but the entire narrative.

Your character cannot fight your antagonist in a one on one and come away with any victory because you have established they don’t know how to. That
is a limitation you set for yourself. That the audience knows and
understands, so they will expect this character to act in accordance
with it. They may want to walk up to the antagonist and kick them in the ribs so hard those ribs break, but they can’t. That desire could be a driving force behind them learning to fight later. As of now, though, their powerlessness in active violent conflict serves to reinforce the antagonist’s position. Reinforcing the antagonist’s position is for the narrative good.

They should be making choices based on the Venn diagram’s center: when what they can do meets what they are willing to do.

If what they can’t do conflicts with what they’re willing to do and they go with it anyway then the result is a failed escape attempt. A captive’s survival is based on their value. If they’re valuable enough for the antagonist to go through the trouble of capturing them in the first place, then they’re probably not going to be killed. At least, not until their value runs through. They lose and wind up back in captivity under more scrutiny, more security, and with fewer exit options. This reminds us why they were captured in the first place, and reinforces our villain’s position.

A protagonist can fail and retain their legitimacy many more times than an antagonist can. While this is a perfectly legitimate narrative outcome, I don’t think its the one you’re looking for.

This is the second issue with your question:

A narrative’s antagonist is its backbone.

Your antagonist is one of the most important pieces of your story, if not the most. They are the lingering threat, the shadow hovering over the story, and the knife at your protagonist’s throat. They are seventy percent threat, and the last thirty relies on their ability to make good on it.

One of the biggest mistakes an author can make is assuming their antagonist’s position in their narrative and the threat they provide are impervious to harm.

Unlike your protagonist, your antagonist is always in a precarious position. They must constantly re-affirm themselves and the threat they represent through their actions. That threat is all consuming and when challenged, it must either be defeated or confirmed.

If defeated, then the threat is gone.

If confirmed, then the threat level is heightened because now we imagine what they might do next.

An antagonist can re-affirm themselves after a defeat, but they’ve got to double down on their effort and create a new threat rather than relying on their old one. You as the author must work harder to make up for what you lost, and even then you’ll never have the initial fear ever again.

The first rule of the antagonist is: your capital is limited, so spend it wisely.

When you undercut an antagonist in favor of the protagonist before its necessary, you damage the antagonist’s credibility and, subsequently, their position in the story. When you lose your antagonist, you lose most of your narrative tension.

A character who doesn’t know how to do something is applying a limitation to the character. You are applying a restriction to what they can and can’t do. If you’re character doesn’t know how to fight, then fighting will be off the table. More importantly, having your character succeed at a skill set they have no experience in doesn’t make them “awesome” or “cool”, it means instead that the other characters who put time and effort into honing these skills suck.

When those characters are your antagonists… that hurts.

If you’ve got a protagonist with no hacking experience who manages to overcome a supposedly great hacker on their first or second go round with no time spent learning how to hack, then who looks bad? The second hacker. They’re the ones who are supposed to be good at hacking. If the narrative hinges on them being a major antagonist, then the author just shot their narrative in the foot.

Combat skills are the same way. They’re a skill set, not an instinct. They don’t come naturally, and take a great deal of time and effort to hone.

If your goal is to show your dangerous antagonist is a bumbling moron when an untrained teenager gets a lucky shot so miraculous they manage to lay them up for the rest of the story, then that’s a job well done.

If your goal is for the antagonist to maintain their credibility within the narrative? Don’t use them for a punching bag.

Violent confrontation is based just as much on threat of force as it is on the follow through. The threat is usually more frightening than what follows, and your protagonist is already challenging the fear by trying to escape. From a narrative perspective, if they get over their fear enough to challenge their antagonist directly then it’s game over. You spent your all capital either at the beginning or midway through the story, and you’re not getting it back.

Remember, your antagonist has to do just as much work to earn their street cred as your protagonist. Their position is a delicate balance of power management and threat of force. They rely on show over tell. They need to live up to whatever it is you’ve been saying about them. They need to be as dangerous as they’ve been puffed up to be, unless their reputation itself is the real antagonist. Never forget, your antagonist (whoever they are/whatever it is) is the backbone of your story. They are often the driving force of action, the reason why the protagonist is struggling, and the focal point. In some ways, they are more important than your protagonist because without them the protagonist’s got a whole lot of nothing.

When you undercut your antagonist, you also hurt your protagonist’s development. You cheat them of their chance for growth, and deny them their ability to show off whatever it is that they’re actually good at i.e. using their bravery, intelligence, and cleverness to sneak out.

If your protagonist beats down their Goliath at the beginning of (or even the middle) of the story then there’s no reason for them to go to the mountain master and learn to throw rocks.


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