The Missing Piece – What Most Antagonists Are Lacking

Every reader loves a good villain, and most writers love them too.  If you rack your brain about some of the most memorable characters in books, movies, and on TV, I’d bet more than a few villains pop up.

I personally find antagonists fascinating.  Sometimes I find them even more fascinating than many heroes out there, and it’s difficult for me to take my attention and shift it back where it belongs (and before you say I should make my villain my main character, I’ve already done that a few times.  Great minds think alike!).

What’s interesting, though, is that when creating antagonists, more than a few writers forget the most important part.

A good antagonist isn’t necessarily just a villain at large in your story world – sometimes he or she isn’t even a bad person at all.  The most important thing to remember about your antagonist is that they are the enemy of your hero, not the enemy of your world (though if they are that too, their conflict with your hero is the most important part).  They are what stands in the way of the hero getting what he or she wants.  They are your hero’s perfect opposition.

But they aren’t just the perfect opposition of the hero getting what he or she wants externally (rescue the hostage, get the money, stop the bomb), they are the perfect opposition of the hero’s inner weakness.  And this is the most important part, the part that most people forget.

People often argue about which hero’s journey is the most important – the external journey to accomplish a task, or the internal journey to grow as a person (and generally use that growth to accomplish the first, external, journey).  The main way that our heroes complete their internal journey to overcome some weakness or personality flaw or part of their past is by learning about themselves throughout the course of the book.

That learning takes various forms: advice from friends, failures in the middle of the story, getting through difficult situations, losing something, gaining something, etc.

But their main internal growth comes from one thing: their clashes with the antagonist.

So it’s a shame when I read a book where the antagonist was created out of thin air instead of with the hero in mind.  Your antagonist should have an internal flaw or weakness, too, but it shouldn’t be the same as the hero’s (unless you want your hero to learn by seeing the antagonist fail – though I’m not a huge fan of that tactic).  An antagonist should be perfectly suited to attack your hero’s weakness over and over again.  He or she should be strong where the hero is weak, confident where they are shy, fast where they are slow, knowledgeable where they are ignorant.  Now I don’t mean they should be the exact opposite of your hero in every way, but in just a few important ways, they absolutely should be.

If your hero has the personality of Superman, your antagonist’s personality should literally (and of course by this I mean metaphorically) be carved out of kryptonite.

Not only does this make the odds against the hero seem even more insurmountable (which raises suspense), but it helps them grow, because in order to overcome a villain who is perfectly suited to exploit their greatest inner weakness, they have to grow and overcome that weakness.

So have fun with your villains, but take a minute (or hour or day or week) to make sure they’re living up to their full potential.  Because everybody should love a good villain. Except your hero.

What do you think?  How do you feel about creating villains that force your hero to grow?  What is your favorite kind of antagonist?  On that note, who is your favorite antagonist?

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I'm a 25 year old recent college graduate (who still clings to that title over two years after graduating) and aspiring author. I also love sports and going out with my friends.

33 thoughts on “The Missing Piece – What Most Antagonists Are Lacking

  1. One of the most effective antagonists I have come across is O’Brien in George Orwell’s 1984. At first he seems to be an ally of Winston Smith luring him by offering Winston what he wants, an effective way to strike back at the oppressive force of the party. In the end he turns out to be an agent of that oppressive force and breaks Winston through the use of his inner most fear.

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  2. I think you have presented some excellent points, and you have be doing a quick mental review of many of my villains. I think the “force of growth” is necessary, even if it comes off as passive aggressive. Some Opponents to the hero are just there as life has merely placed them as the opposition and it is nothing personal. Still there is need to grow for whatever reason.

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    1. It’s true – if we’re being realistic some opponents to the hero are just there by circumstance. But even so I think it’s important to find the one big villain and do out best to make him/her the villain our hero needs to fight in order to grow; it adds so much to a story. Thanks!

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  3. Interesting post. I think that another quality of a good villain is his human side. Some of the best villains are the ones that you just can’t quite hate because, while they are flawed as characters, this makes them relatable and pitiable. One of the most excellent antagonists is, in my opinion, Rasheed from Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. I really wanted to hate him because of all of the horrible things he did, but I couldn’t quite do so because the author made it clear that he had a painful past, and part of me felt bad for him (I’m sure some will disagree with that, however). The complicated nature of his character causes the reader to be conflicted, which makes for a great novel because it elicits an emotional response.

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    1. I agree. My favorite villain is a villain you understand and even empathize with, because you see why he does what he does and on some level can see yourself being forced to do the same thing in the same situation (that’s why I’ve tried to turn a couple of my villains into protagonists). I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never read A Thousand Splendid Suns – I need to add it to my list.

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      1. It looks like you have a lot of great writing articles here. As long as I keep the normal credit/link/bio attached, do you mind if I feature more of your articles in full? It’ll be sporadic, but I’ll always drop you a line to let you know which and when it’ll occur. I think your writing deserves to be heard.

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  4. Great post. The first one I really remember was in a movie, so it may be tainted by a great performance. It was The Cowboys, and the first thing I ever saw Bruce Dern in. He was the opposite of John Wayne in every way, and I hated the character.

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  5. I agree entirely. This is particularly glaring in most fantasy where the antagonist is the embodiment of evil, born of Satan’s womb and devourer of virgin puppies.

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    1. Yup, absolutely. In fantasy they get away with it sometimes because it’s a sweeping epic that generally has a scope far larger than a regular book, but even still it sometimes bothers me when the antagonist doesn’t quite oppose the hero in all the ways he/she could.

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  6. Great post!!!

    And on a totally unrelated note, I am baffled – although I have been following you, I haven’t seen any of your posts in my Reader for a loooong time… I’ve now unfollowed/followed you again, hope it gets sorted!

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    1. Uh oh, maybe it’s because I’ve been posting a bit infrequently lately and am just getting back into the swing of things. If it was a technical problem I hope it gets fixed! Thanks for stopping by

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  7. I think an antagonist-hero relationship can be more complex than just one getting in the way of what the other wants, but this is still a good column. I like the part about exploiting the weaknesses.

    My favourite villain? Loads, but the one who comes to mind right now is Gus Fring from Breaking Bad. I’m into the ‘affably evil’ guys at the moment.

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  8. I think you said it perfectly! There is no point having a villain for the sake of having a villain – it should make sense with the hero’s journey and how difficult a journey it really is. Very nice article 🙂
    (and thank you for liking my post!)

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  9. I’ve found that my characters often aren’t completely sure who their enemies are. Much of the narrative seems to be about the character’s discovering what he or she is really fighting against. Often it’s something about themselves that has to be dealt with.
    Your pieces are always thoughtful! I’ve nominated you for an award, The Dragon’s Loyalty Award. If you want to participate, check out the directions at justcanthelpwriting.wordpress.com. I’ll have them posted by Saturday!

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  10. My favorite antagonist ever is Sephiroth from the video game Final Fantasy VII 8D *nods* Yep. He’s kind of like Loki from The Avengers. He used to be on the good side, but he’s been genetically engineered to be a weapon. He’s a ticking time bomb, and when he goes off he wants to take down the world that betrayed him, which includes everyone and everything. I guess it’s hard to fault him for that given the environment he was raised in. His father is a mad scientist, and his mother is locked away in crystal stasis. He’s the perfect antagonist for self-loathing Cloud (who is more of an anti-hero than hero) because he gets into his mind and makes him go crazy. I like Cloud a lot more than Sephiroth though. It’s just that Seph is probably my favorite villain. I like Crake, villain in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. He’s a sympathetic villain like Sephiroth. In his own messed up way he tries to help the world by destroying it. But Sephiroth is still my favorite villain :3

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