Antagonists: How to Write a "Good" "Bad" Guy

My post today is about something which is an important element in every story: the antagonist. Without the antagonist, there would be no conflict, no problem, and either no story or an extremely boring narrative which would not be worth reading.

 

If you were to look up the definition of the word antagonist in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, this is what you’d find:

 

1: one that contends with or opposes another: adversary, opponent


That’s a rather broad definition. I personally think there are two categories of antagonists:


1. Humanoid antagonists

2. Intangible antagonists

 

Humanoid antagonists are antagonists who are characters in the story. They are living, breathing beings with a mind, heart, and soul hell-bent on making things extremely difficult for the protagonist, whether they personally know that or not.

 

 Intangible antagonists are antagonists that are not animate beings, but still set back and hinder the protagonist and his or her buddies. For example, the traumatic experience of a plane crash impedes a high school girl from taking the trip to Paris she’s always dreamed of.

 

 For my part, I’ve done more work with humanoid antagonists than intangible ones, and I will focus on them more—also, humanoid antagonists require so much more work, as they are self-conscious and not merely a single experience or struggle.

 

 When I sit down to watch a movie (which isn’t all that often, mind you—I’m more likely to be writing up a storm or reading another book on my kindle), I often assess the characters and plot from a writer’s point of view. I watch closely for character development, among other things. I also pay close attention to the antagonist, or, in the words of a child under seven, the "bad guy".

 

As a general rule, villains who are evil just because…they’re evil—they’ve always been that way, always will be, and that’s just how it is, those villains are one of my pet peeves. They have no characteristics except for their bone-chilling, wicked ways, which have no explanation and possibly no motive behind them. Now, sometimes that kind of villain can work, I will admit, but more often than not they end up being cardboard, two-dimensional, and not scary at all.

 

 A better kind of antagonist or villain is what I like to call the sympathetic antagonist. This antagonist has both an explanation and a motive for their barbaric actions. A (somewhat geeky) example is Loki in the Marvel movies. Oh, yes, he has quite the list of dastardly deeds. Yet beneath that crazy dictator-magician exterior there lies a heart, which we often see evidence of, from his agreement to help his adopted brother to the tears in his eyes as he sits in his jail cell. Now he is a "good", well-written and carefully characterized villain, a character that the audience can love and hate at the same time, all the while wondering what he will do next. This is the type of villain I love to write, read about, and see in movies.

 

 How does one go about creating this sort of antagonist? It’s a simple process, with a good deal of brainstorming involved, just like almost anything in writing.

 

I like to look at something I call the F.A.H. factor first. Why does this "bad guy" do what he or she does? Why do they have evil plans to take over the world? Why are they intent on punching every brunette man with a goatee? Why does the sight of a Chinese buffet make them clench their fists?

 

 Fear

Anger

 Hatred

 

That above is the F.A.H. factor, the three main things which often drive a well-characterized antagonist. Now the questions must be asked: Fear of what? Anger towards whom? Hatred of where?

 

 Maybe…the fear of overpowering governments is what drives our villain to devise a plan to take over the world. Perhaps…the anger she feels towards her jerk-wad ex-boyfriend is behind her punching every brunette man with a goatee. Her father was fatally poisoned at a Chinese buffet…which is why she hates the sight of one.

 

Now we have an antagonist our reader can sympathize with, even when she punches our brunette, goateed hero square in the face. After giving her ‘the character treatment’, which consists of detailing personal appearance, some likes and dislikes, and overall personality, she can make the jump to the pages of our story.

 

 Farrah Algonquin walked down the dark alley, shoving her hands deep into the pockets of her tattered jeans. At last, she would meet the mysterious stranger who had been fighting her plans to take over the world before dictatorship did. She slipped through a battered door and descended creaking steps to a dank, musty room, lit only by a single lightbulb. A man was bound to a chair, his mouth muffled and his eyes covered. The men who had been standing over him straightened at her arrival, and one walked over to her. "Here he is, Quinn. We followed him to a Chinese Buffet and were able to detain him." Farrah barely repressed a shudder. "Excellent work, J.P.," she answered, patting him on the shoulder. She

smeared some magenta lipstick on her lips before removing both the blindfold and gag. The man blinked. He had brown hair and a goatee. As soon as Farrah registered that, her fist shot out, connecting with his jaw.

 

 I don’t know about you, but I like Farrah. She’s an antagonist, no doubt, one which the hero is actively working against. Yet she doesn’t exactly have horns coming out of her head. Lastly, although she makes a lot of people shudder she’s not exactly fearless and unfeeling herself. Although the reader may be cheering for our unnamed hero, they are wondering a little bit about Farrah and hopefully sympathizing with her, if only a little bit. That’s the mark of a "good" "bad guy".

 

-H. R. Kasper

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