Being a writer isn’t easy. The biggest obstacle to writing something people accept as ‘good’ is, well, the readers themselves. Everything is subjective to that audience and they are the ones you need to get to invest in the world, the characters and the story you have to tell. That means we, as authors, can’t skimp on any part of creation because any lapses could trigger an onset of disengagement that will make the readers turn away. Which leads, meanderingly, to today’s Looking at Character article, which is devoted to the bad guys, the antagonists, in literature, more specifically in making your villains something the reader will want to invest in.
Much like your protagonists, your antagonists need to have a ‘real person’ at their core, at least in most cases. They need to have understandable motivations for doing what they are doing. If you don’t bother with providing your bad guys with reasons for doing what they are doing, they become something more akin to a hurricane or thunderstorm, threatening but impersonal. The reason to use actual people as villains is to explored that characterization so you better bother to actually do it!
Closely related to this ‘why’ of the antagonists, you should closely consider the ‘who’. Who are they? What are their origins? What are their capabilities? What do they look like? These are all components of the greater ‘who’ of the antagonists and is their core characterization, something vital to all your major characters and important to the minor ones as well. It’s all about building a realness, something the readers can understand, even if the antagonists themselves are inhuman.
Once you’ve put some thought into the ‘why’ and ‘who’ of your antagonists, it may be smart to consider the ‘how’. How do the antagonists fit into and help move the plot along? How are your antagonists threatening to the protagonists? How can they be overcome? These, and others, are vital questions to consider, as the lack of an answer to any of them can cause you to paint yourself into a corner in your writing.
If you don’t know exactly how the antagonists move the plot forward, they may feel ‘tacked on’ to the actual story. If you don’t know how they threaten the protagonists, they will be seen as ineffectual at worst or nebulous at best. If you don’t know how they can be overcome, any victory you write for the protagonists will seem like sudden or cheap, as you haven’t established the means to that victory before hand. All of these things press hard against the suspension of disbelief and threaten to break it and, as we all know, once that is broken, the entire story tends to collapse.
Really, this is a topic that could be an entire book in and of itself. Still, I hope that this basic look at the creation of good antagonists will be a big help to all of your writers out there. If you want to add more do’s and don’t’s, add them in the comments!
Until next time, good luck and good writing!