Antagonists are not just villains of the story, they’re the reason all the important things happen. Does yours have what it takes to push the protagonist in a substantial way?
It’s All In The Name - Antagonists antagonize your main character in ways that cause the protagonist to undergo necessary change. The protagonist can’t become the person they’re meant to be unless they confront whatever the antagonist is forcing them to deal with. If your antagonist falls flat, so does your main character. Antagonists give voice to the shadow side of the story, and challenge the reader to see things from a different perspective. A book is so much better when we feel conflicted - or even at times agree - with the antagonist - the character we know we’re supposed to root against. Here are some things to think about to see if your antagonist has what it takes.
Finally, I Get To Tell My Side - Your antagonist has to be more than a cardboard cut-out. How can you tell if they’ve got enough dimensionality? Try this exercise: give your antagonist main stage. Ask them to tell the entire story from their perspective. How different do things look? What do they focus on? How do they explain why they did the things they did? Make notes of what surprises you, and the character motivations that came up, and use it to make your antagonist more vibrant and relatable on the page.
Next, ask how essential your antagonist is to the story. Could the role be filled by anyone, or does it have to be this particular character? If any generic “bad guy” could accomplish the same thing, your antagonist is too thin. Go back to character basics, and do the same character work you did with your protagonist. Your antagonist has to want something tangible and relatable. They have to need something that we all need in some way. They have to have strengths we admire and flaws we recognize because we have them, too. Once you have identified solid reasons and real motivations, revise your antagonist with this new understanding in mind.
Mirror, Mirror - The main character’s journey is one of self-realization. The character that holds up that mirror, and forces the protagonist to confront the things they don’t want to see, is none other than your antagonist. Your reader will be most drawn in when the obstacles the antagonist presents hit at the heart of the protagonist’s core journey. Ask yourself: what would irritate your main character the most? What situation would force them to confront what they don’t want to see? Then look at your story again. Is your antagonist creating that situation? If not, how could they be?
It’s All About Me - The antagonist should present obstacles that arise naturally out of who they are. They’re not on a mission to take down your protagonist. They’re narcissists doing their narcissistic thing, which just so happens to conflict with your protagonist. In the antagonist’s mind they’re concerned only with themselves and what they want. That self-centeredness should be reflected on the page. Take a look at your antagonist. Do they stand in their own experience, or are they shaped by the protagonist too much? If it’s the latter, do some writing exercises (What scares them the most? What do they most want to keep secret? How would they answer the question: What’s the worst that can happen?) to get to
know your antagonist as a character separate from your protagonist, and weave that individuality back through the story.
Hey Jealousy - Now that you’ve got a substantial character to work with, let the fun begin. Antagonists get to do all the things you would never do in real life. They go that critical step too far, cross the line, ignore boundaries, and don’t care about the consequences. Work with your antagonist until you’re downright jealous about all the bad things they get to do, and the freedom with which they do them. When you reach the point where you’re excited about how you get to live vicariously through them, you know you’ve crafted a vibrant, substantial antagonist worthy of your story.
About The Author: Andrea Custer has been working with teens and tweens for the last several years - first as an Odyssey of the Mind coach, then teaching creative writing to middle graders and young adults at the local community center. She mainly writes YA in both the contemporary and historical fiction veins. Andrea divides her time between writing, exploring Los Angeles in search of odd happenings she can use in her novels, and getting lost in the aisles of her local bookstore. Find out more at andreacusterwrites.com, WriteTogether.Today, and TipsForTeenAuthors.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @ACwritesinMB, Instagram at andreamcuster or tips4teenauthors, and Facebook at Andrea Custer, Author.