The Worst of the Worst: Making Believable Antagonists

Continuing from last week’s post on creating good characters, I will now give a look at how best to portray those characters who are often far more interesting: the baddies.
For the most part, the same rules apply to making good bad guys as making good good guys: show rather than tell, make his/her problem both relatable and believable to the audience, and be consistent. Therefore, I highly recommend reading my previous post first. However, the villain in your story is generally playing a different, sometimes entirely opposite role to your hero, and with the changes in role come subtle changes in the nuances of how the character is constructed.

Villains are generally the driving force behind any story, as they provide the main source of conflict for the protagonist (again, there are exceptions). Therefore it is important to ascribe to them reasonably strong motivations for creating this conflict. Having Darth Vader pursue Luke Skywalker simply because the latter ate his candy bar would have hardly sufficed as the underlying issue for an entire film trilogy. Of course, not all antagonists need be evil, just as not all protagonists need be good. Indeed, toying with the more subtle nuances of goodness or badness can make for infinitely more intriguing stories and characters. But as a general rule, most readers are going to automatically equate opposing the protagonist as ultimately being bad–however noble the intentions.

The neat thing about villains is that, whereas the hero tends to be a fairly steady, stable individual looking to set things right, the baddies are almost always trying to throw things out of balance. And the degree to which they do so is something that can be exploited endlessly by writers to make them seem more or less menacing as the story requires. They can be an ever-present foe attempting to thwart the protagonist(s) personally at every turn (like the Cardinal and his minions in The Three Musketeers); or they can be a distant presence, making themselves known only at infrequent intervals between the other trials and tribulations (such as the Magisterium in His Dark Materials).

The number of villains, like the number of heroes, can vary depending on how much you want to share the spotlight. You can have one main villain and several secondary ones (as is often the case in the Redwall series), multiple smaller baddies (such as in several of the Grimm Brothers’ Kinder und Hausmärchen), or just the one all-encompassing evil force (Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, for instance). And of course, in the case of multiple villains, there is the enticing possibility of making the conflict more than two-sided. Whether or not you wish to complicate things that much depends on you and how much you believe your audience can keep up with.

That’s all I really have to say on character building for now (though if you’ve any further questions, don’t hesitate to ask!). Now that the characters are created, it is time to discuss their surroundings. Next week, I will discuss the equally exciting topic of world building.

Published by J. S. Allen

J. S. Allen is an author, linguist, historian, and nature-lover based out of Kansas City, Missouri. He has previously published several short pieces in various local and online venues. Among these are the short stories "The Buck" and "The Otter Kit Streamer", which won 1st and 2nd place respectively in the 2015 and 2016 editions of the academic journal, 'Shorelines'. His first novel, 'Sauragia', was published in October of 2020.

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