Your story’s plot is what happens when obstacles get in the way of your protagonist’s goal. If you don’t have conflict, you don’t have a story. And who is it who causes the conflict? Well, that would be the antagonists, of course.
Today, I’m going to take a look at 5 Types of Antagonist that you can add to your story and challenge you to think about what’s right for you.
Let’s get some terminology straight here: When I talk about an antagonist, I’m talking about any character (or act of nature, but more on that later) that gets in the way of the protagonist’s goals. If I mention a villain, I’m talking about one of the five types of antagonist I’ll be discussing today.
There’s also further sub-types of villain I would love to talk about in another post, but for now:
1. The Villain
I think the villain is what people are most likely to think of when someone says the word “antagonist.” They’re Superman’s Lex Luthor. They’re Harry Potter’s Voldemort. And they can be great—if done right.
While villains appear in many genres, you’re arguably going to remember most of them from fantasy and superhero stories. And a villain should just that: Memorable. Maybe because they’re a colourful character, or perhaps because they represent an ideology. (Is Voldemort wizard Hitler? You bet Voldemort is wizard Hitler.)
The problem with villains is that they can easily become caricatures who are doing evil simply for evil’s sake, and such villains will only have a thin motivation that doesn’t convince. In fact, the whole character won’t convince. So, to write a compelling villain, consider the following:
- Who? Just what kind of person is this character? What are their strengths? What are their flaws? Your villain should be just as strong a character as your hero. You should know them just as well.
- What? Really consider what goal your villain has, and just how this comes into conflict with the goal of the hero. While structurally, the villain might exist to cause conflict for the hero, they aren’t going to see themselves that way. They have to be the hero of their own story, with there own goal. (A goal to which the hero is an obstacle.)
- Where? Where is the villain from? How did this help to shape them? If they are there representing an ideology your story argues against, is this a product of their environment, or is the villain an outlier?
- Why? More than anything else you have to know why the villain is committing such evil acts, and why they think it’s important. The motivation must be strong. And, it’s what makes the difference between a capitalist overlord and wizard Hitler.
It’s important when creating a villain that they are powerful. So powerful, in fact, that your hero—and readers—might very well not see a way to defeat them. Here you have to be careful and walk the fine line between threatening and overpowered. So, finally:
Consider the weaknesses of your villain very carefully. This is how they will be defeated.
Voldemort has his Horcruxes, a physical weakness that can be destroyed. He also has an inability to love, which in Potter lore is just about the greatest weakness one can have. (*cough cough* Wizard Hitler.) The Death Eaters also happen not to be the most trustworthy crew, and more than one of them betray him over the course of the story. All these things together contribute to his defeat.
What does your villain want? Why do they want it so badly? What makes them so threatening? What weaknesses about them will contribute to their downfall?
Well, we started with my favourite type of antagonist, but let’s move on to one which might be a little more shocking for your readers.
2. The Ally
There are a number of ways in which an ally might become an antagonist, and if done well it can be a great shocking twist.
Let’s have a couple an example.
Boromir, The Lord of the Rings: This character joins Frodo and the rest of the Fellowship on their quest to take the One Ring to Mordor and see it destroyed. Unfortunately, in the end, he succumbs to the power of the Ring and tries to take it from Frodo, which causes Frodo to flee. Following these events, the Fellowship ultimately breaks up.
(As a side note, book Boromir didn’t get the redemption that movie Boromir did. I think the redemption actually made him a stronger antagonist, but that’s just me.)
Ally antagonists like Boromir show us the consequences of making a regrettable choice, and shock the audience with their betrayal. They also add another conflict to the story, if this ally isn’t the primary antagonist—for example, if you also have a villain.
So to craft such an antagonist, think:
- Who is this ally? Where have the protagonist and ally been before the betrayal, and why are they close?
- How do their strengths and flaws lead to their decision, and how do they compare to that of the protagonist?
- Just what action is the ally going to take that will be so shocking, and what context will you craft to make it that shocking?
If an ally betrays your protagonist, your protagonist is going to ask why. Maybe the ally answers, or maybe they don’t. But your protagonist will ask, so make sure you have a clear and powerful answer.
The great thing about this type of antagonist is that they can show us the complexity of characters, giving grey areas for your readers to think over. Also, betrayals? They make for memorable scenes. As long as you’re not throwing in an ally antagonist just for the sake of it, you can do a lot with them.
I’m sorry, but: Mad-Eye Moody. I will always remember Goblet of Fire for that.
3. The Authority Figure
An antagonist who’s an authority figure might be a parent, a government official, or a teacher. For this reason, they’re very common in children’s and young adult literature. Many of the adults in Harry Potter are this kind of antagonist, and I’ll use that to explain a few of the varieties.
Delores Umbridge is a government official sent to work at Hogwarts by the Ministry. In the big picture, she’s eeeevil and used to show why the government shouldn’t get too involved in education, but in the day to day, she exists to get in the way of the Golden Trio’s ambitions about the school and in the wider world. Delores Umbridge is the ‘Shows the power of an oppressive regime’ type.
Severus Snape is a teacher who despite doing some good here and there (and saying “Always” just to break your heart) is just about the biggest dick on the planet. He publicly belittles his students. In fact, he outright bullies them. He also doesn’t seem to possess half the emotional maturity of most of his students, yet he gets in the way of people trying to do the right thing. (Funny thing for one who’s supposedly the good guy.) Severus Snape is the ‘Adults have corrupt morals’ type often found in kids fiction.
The Dursleys abuse Harry throughout his childhood. That kind of doesn’t need more of an explanation. They are the ‘Interfering or wrongdoing family member’ type.
There is any number of authority figure types, and they may well emerge while you’re writing. But you know about Stormtroopers and Peacekeepers. If you have a strong character behind the misfiring mask, you have one of your most powerful world-building assets with this type of antagonist. Don’t waste it.
Now while these antagonists might be building a world around your protagonist, there’s also a world within your protagonist.
4. The Inner Demon
You might be writing a story about a character’s inner struggle. In this sort of story, you’ve sort of rolled your protagonist and antagonist into one, and that inner turmoil is your antagonist. This might, however, lead to a situation with a lot of narration on the character’s inner thoughts and not a lot happening, so remember to:
- Show fight, show consequence. If your character is fighting against, say, an addiction, then show them fighting, and also show their failures and the consequences of those failures.
- Again, why? What led to this inner turmoil? It’s in stories like this that backstory is most important.
Remember that this type of antagonist is also going to show up in just about every other story, but it’s mostly not going to be front and centre. Instead, it’ll be part of character development amidst external conflict.
Also remember that if you do choose to make your protagonist’s inner demons your primary antagonist then you should include secondary antagonists to create external conflict. Your story still needs both.
5. The Act of Nature
A disease. A hurricane. A desert island. Hell, a zombie hoard. If your antagonist isn’t a character, it might just be an act of nature. And, actually, despite what I just said it’s still a character, so treat it like one.
This type of antagonist is also called The Beast as it includes creatures like the shark in Jaws. We couldn’t get inside that shark’s head. It’s part of nature.
As this kind of antagonist doesn’t have a traditional character arc, making it interesting is going to take some thought on your part. Consider:
- Build up. In a natural disaster book or movie, the disaster is hyped up before it hits. And for a reason: Tension.
- Unpredictability. This is the benefit of such an inhuman antagonist. We can’t relate to it, so we can’t hope to know what it will do next. Use that to your advantage.
- Variance. Not every crashing wave or shark attack has to hit with the same intensity. In fact, that would kill the tension. Use varying dilemmas—perhaps one shark attack victim needs an amputation in the field—to throw people off. Or perhaps the characters get a lucky break instead.
- Making the danger real. This kind of antagonist really does have to injure or kill some people to be of any real threat. Who wants a hoard of zombies that don’t bite anyone?
Especially in a longer story, you’ll have a mix of these antagonists. Think about who they are, and what they do in your story.
Now that I’ve said my piece, what about you? Do you have any thoughts? A favourite type of antagonist, or a favourite particular antagonist? Let me know!
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Featured image property of Warner Brothers.