Even if you are here for writing tips for developing antagonists, you may still think your protagonist is the most important part of your book. Think again. Your story is only as good as your antagonist—the character standing in the way of your protagonist and his goals. The antagonist is the story’s engine. He needs to be just as interesting and richly layered, but too often we write antagonists that are flat and predictable.
So what are some writing tips for developing antagonists? How do we develop an antagonist who is interesting, entertaining, one who will cause us to shiver, shake, yet feel more for him than loathing? How do we make our readers almost root for the antagonist, make him so well rounded the reader connects to and believes the antagonist is as real as any other character in the story?
Here are ten creative writing tips for developing antagonists worthy of your protagonist and story:
Writing Tip #1
Do the same amount of work to develop your antagonist as you do your protagonist. Develop the same amount of backstory. Know your antagonist. Give him a life before he hits the first page of your book.
Writing Tip #2
Make sure your antagonist (like your protagonist) has a goal. He believes he is on the only possible path and his goal is noble. He is the hero of his own story and wants something that he has thought about, considered and has decided to go after. Preferably the opposite of what your protagonist wants, or perhaps he wants the same thing so must clash with your protagonist to get it. Goals are key for both the protagonist and antagonist. And make sure they clash!
Writing Tip #3
Write in your antagonist’s point of view, even if his POV is never in your book. Write in his voice—first person—as if he’s talking to you. Let him tell you how he feels, what he wants, what he’s planning. You will engage a close connection that your readers will sense, whether or not this particular writing goes into your manuscript.
Writing Tip #4
Make sure your antagonist—at least in his own mind—has justification for everything he does. He has to believe he’s in the right, otherwise your reader won’t feel he’s real and will disconnect. To make him believable, be sure he believes in himself and every step he takes.
Writing Tip #5
As Donald Maass suggests in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, outline your book from the antagonist’s point of view. Not every scene, but give him an outline with steps throughout the story so you clearly see the path he will take through your book. Whether you do it at the beginning, middle, or end of writing your book, this is a wonderful way to strengthen conflict in your story.
Still with me? We are halfway through our writing tips for developing antagonists.
Writing Tip #6
Speaking of outlining steps, do so emotionally for your antagonist as well. Give your antagonist a character arc. If your antagonist changes throughout the story, he’ll have readers in the palm of his hand. Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter series is a terrific example of this. We see him grow throughout the series, sometimes in bad ways, sometimes in good. Readers want to experience your story world through your protagonist, but give them an emotional experience from your antagonist’s side as well, and they will engage and care about your story.
Writing Tip #7
Remember your antagonist doesn’t have to be a villain. In Light on Snow by Anita Shreve, the protagonist, Nicky, is a pre-teen who has suffered a terrible tragedy (she lost her mom and baby sister in an auto accident) and all she wants a normal life. She shares her life (and the tragedy) with her father who drags her away from all she knows and sets up their home far from civilization. He has the same goal for his daughter—to give her as normal a life as possible—but because of his own pain, he can’t see clearly how to give Nicky what she so desperately needs. He is an antagonist who we not only understand, but our hearts ache for him and Nicky both.
Writing Tip #8
Add emotional danger to what your antagonist does. Make your reader feel what the repercussions will be for your protagonist. Bertrand from Sarah’s Key is a husband who is at a point in life where he doesn’t want a child. There are skeletons in his family’s closet, and he wants them to stay put. He and his wife Julia tread carefully through their marriage, and her digging into the events at the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup will tip the balance. Is Bertrand self-centered? Sure. Evil? Not at all. We absolutely understand Julia’s dilemma and it draws us right in.
Writing Tip #9
If your antagonist is evil, give him charm or make him funny. Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs is fascinating, and as he helps Clarice, the reader wishes he wasn’t a psychopathic murderous cannibal. He’s such great company, we’d love to share dinner conversation with him. As long as we aren’t the main course. As a character he was so entertaining and well-liked, he got his own book.
Writing Tip #10
If you have a huge, social issue antagonist, give it a character name and face. Build a character that embodies all aspects of the social issue. Racial bigotry of the early 1960’s becomes Hilly Holbrook in The Help. Political abuse of power is epitomized in President Snow from The Hunger Games (in fact, many of the secondary characters in that book embody different negative aspects of society). A reader loves a character to hate, so give ’em what they want!
By implementing these ten writing tips for developing antagonists, your antagonist will be as fascinating, strong and compelling as your protagonist, and you will be on your way to writing a great book!
Award-winning novelist Kathy Steffen teaches fiction writing and speaks at writing programs across the country. Additionally, Kathy is also published in short fiction and pens a monthly writing column, Between the Lines. Her books, FIRST THERE IS A RIVER, JASPER MOUNTAIN and THEATER OF ILLUSION are available online and at bookstores everywhere. Check out more at www.kathysteffen.com