I decided to write about and analyze the role of the Antagonists in various works of fiction due to the fact that having a well written antagonist can easily save your story, while having a badly written one can just as easily ruin it and make it boring.
Antagonist comes from the greek word ἀνταγωνιστής, which means opponent, competitor, enemy or rival. The antagonist is the character within fiction who opposes and stands against the protagonist, his allies as well as his possible goals. Making a good protagonist is not that easy, but making a good antagonist is even harder, for it is very easy to overshoot the mark and get the opposite of the desired result when making them.
What do I mean by this? Many writers try to make their villains sympathetic and likeable to the audience by giving them goals, motivations and ideals, which is not inherently a bad idea as there is nothing less interesting than an one dimensionally evil antagonist who is evil for the sake of being evil. But more often than not, by doing this they end up creating an antagonist that is more sympathetic or likeable than the protagonist, which is rarely their desired result. Whenever I watch or read some kind of work, I find it hard not to agree agree or sympathize with the antagonist someway or another, as the only thing that separates them from the protagonist is how far they are willing to go for their goals and what methods they use.
And on a personal level, the thing that usually makes me like an antagonist is also whose absence makes me hate or dislike the protagonist, that quality is the willingness to go far for the achievement of one’s goals. Heroes usually want to save lives and protect the innocent, yet they rarely ever go to extreme’s in order to do this, in my opinion they simply lack the balls. Take for example Batman, or any other superhero that does not kill, Batman has been doing his vigilante job for decades, yet he still fails to realize that there is no redemption or possible cure for most of the psychos he captures and sends to Arkham Asylum. They are crazy, cannot be rehabilitated because of their craziness and will simply resume their heinous acts the moment they have a chance to break out, which they do have quite often.
Batman should have realized ages ago that he achieves virtually nothing by locking these guys up, as he is doing nothing more but stalling the inevitable, the fact that they eventually will get out, set loose and start rampaging in Gotham once more. Yet he never eliminates or permanently neutralizes any of the villains on his own volition because of some sort of idiotic logic that if he kills he will become the same as them. In reality one wouldn’t be able to protect anyone with such a weak resolve.
It is usually the villains, the antagonists who dare to stake everything for the success of their goals and plans and by therefore, to me at least, are much more admirable than most of the protagonist characters. The protagonist are this “He who defends everything…” type of character many times in fiction, which is a dangerous position to hold in reality as the saying goes: “He who defends everything, defends nothing.” Yet fiction rarely every punishes the protagonist of such arrogance due to the fact that they are idealized rather than realistic.
But let’s not get too far off from the main topic, and that topic is:
What makes a good antagonist?
The easiest way to decide this is by showing you what types of antagonist the writers commonly use from worst to best.
1 – Evil for the sake of being evil: Characters with negative moral standards, those who do not feel any remorse after killing or harming someone, instead they delight on it. Or those who would not mind killing you for your mobile-phone or for your wallet. They can also be characters who revel in the chaos and mayhem they cause, such as your average pyromaniac. Making a character like this in fiction does not result in an interesting antagonist, even though many of the real life murderers and criminals fit into this exact category. But let’s be honest, it’s not like you ever found random street stabber X to be interesting or intriguing.
The reason for them being bad as characters, is that their characterization is halted or always brought back to the fact that their character is evil, that is their primary defining feature/trait. In fiction this is the laziest method one can use to justify the existence of an antagonist since by making them evil, you do not need to give any complicated reason for why they are opposing the protagonist, they are simply evil and everything ends with that.
At worst they are your average street thug.
At best they are your enigmatic killers like the Zodiac killer.
2 – The Insane: Little different from category 1, instead of opposing the protagonist due to being evil they do it due to their lack of sanity and overall craziness, which is just pretty much another way of justifying the actions of the antagonist and eliminates the need to write a proper character, seeing the author can make the crazy antagonist act however he wants to. It doesn’t matter what he does, he is crazy, no one will question it.
At worst they are your typical psycho.
At best their craziness have reached a level where they are no longer a mere crazy guy, they have become a walking embodiment of chaos and mayhem. (The Joker from Batman comics for example)
3 – The Monsters: With this category we are finally moving somewhere as monster antagonists do not oppose the protagonist out of being crazy or being evil. Instead they can do it to perpetuate their existence or because its natural of them to do so. But of course there are as many monsters in fictions and stories as there are trees in a forest, and some of them are little better than category 1 or 2. But again since they are monsters, the writer once more does not need justification for their actions as their existence itself is the justification, thus he can avoid proper characterization this way.
At worst: Zombies and other brainless human eaters.
At best: Monsters like Dracula who are intelligent enough to communicate, scheme and play with the protagonist before eating them.
4 – The Oppressors: In the last few decades, depicting authority and the government as something evil, oppressive and corrupt has been quite common across a multitude of media, which is obviously in relation with the real life progressive movements that keep springing up. In fiction the oppressor antagonist can be anyone who is in an authority or power above the protagonist characters, let’s say he is a prison guard and the protagonist is a prisoner, or if protagonist is perhaps a land owner and the antagonist is a politician who wants to take away his lands.
The roles of the antagonist in this category can greatly vary, but the common link is that he is always above the protagonist, who is subjected to his whims and power, making it easy for the protagonist to be exploited or otherwise be harmed. I personally loathe this category, for it is nothing more than cheap emotional manipulation, it is extremely easy to make us feel sorry for the protagonist and sympathize with him when such an antagonist is present, as it immediately casts the protagonist into the role of the underdog.
Due to the fact that such stories are usually told from the protagonist’s viewpoint and perspective, we do not get the side of the antagonist, all we see is that he is an oppressive asshole towards the protagonist for virtually no reason, so it becomes next to impossible to like or sympathize with him, leading him to become an 1 dimensionally evil villain, and once more the writer avoids proper characterization as the oppressor simply oppresses because he can.
At worst they are your dickish cops and prison guards.
At best they are your shrewd and corrupt politicians.
5 – The Corrupted: Now we finally arrived at the categories that we can consider to be decent and perhaps even good. Corrupted antagonists are characters who were once good and perhaps even a friend or ally to the protagonist, but due to events that happened in the story or due to the corrupting influence of another antagonist, the character goes over to the antagonist’s side and starts opposing the protagonist.
The quality here largely depends on how well the corruption is done, if the corruption is instant then its shit and makes it look like bullshit. Good corruption are all gradual that start somewhere in the story and reach their peak as it continues, the more foreshadowing and implications of the corruption we are shown the better it is. Characters who were already corrupted at the start of the fiction are much harder to care about, as we did not see them fall and thus it is harder to sympathize with them.
The Corrupted Antagonist is rarely ever the main antagonist is in the fiction, as his corruption is most of the time the result of another antagonist’s actions and scheming, he usually serves as a secondary antagonist due to this, but on rare occasions the Corrupted Antagonist eliminates the main antagonist and becomes the primary villain that the protagonist must face. The possibility of redemption is a common theme with this type of antagonist.
6 – Conflicting Personalities with the Protagonist:
Some people simply cannot get along, this can very well be the relationship between several protagonists and antagonists. Maybe they hated each other the moment they met, maybe the protagonist realized the true personality of the antagonist with a single glance, and was naturally repulsed by him. Or maybe this antagonist was once a not so willing ally or companion of the protagonist who finally had enough of the hero’s personality that always ticked him off and finally decided to shut his mouth.
These antagonist are more often not closer to a rival rather than an outright villain as they rarely have the desire to kill the protagonist for real, they just want to make him lose or perhaps beat him up. But in rare cases when their personalities are polar opposites, such as honourable vs dishonorable, deceiver vs honest, one can expect blood to be spilled. In this case antagonist antagonizes the protagonist simply because he does not like him, which I believe to be a far better reason than simply being crazy or being evil.
7 – Protagonist’s relation to the Antagonist
Not all antagonists appear out of random when the protagonist reached a certain point in his quest or goal. Indeed some of them may have come from the protagonist’s past or from his circle of acquaintances. Perhaps the protagonist have wronged them in the past, maybe the protagonist’s actions have caused some kind of misfortune to befall on the antagonist and his family members or anything that would make the antagonist hate or resent him and cause him to become his opposer.
And this is exactly why this is one of the best types of antagonist’s, because they have a proper reason for their antagonistic behaviour, or at the very least they themselves feel that they do, which immediately makes them a million times better than the psychotic characters who just delight in opposing our protagonist or the corrupted character who did not become the antagonist on his own will.
One of the best examples of this type of antagonist can be found within the Korean tragedy movie called Old Boy. In the film, the protagonist called Oh Dae Su is kidnapped at the start of the story, he spends 15 years in the antagonist’s captivity, not knowing the reasons or anything related to why he was kidnapped in the first place.
Eventually Oh Dae Su is released and given a chance to find out why he was kidnapped. Throughout the course of the movie, our protagonist is forced to dig into his own past to find out the truth, while the antagonist is trying to make him remember as well as simultaneously torturing him. After a certain point he realizes that due to the fact that he started a nasty rumor in his highschool years, the antagonist’s sister had committed suicide, but because of the fact that he had transferred before the suicide he soon forgot about this rumor as it was completely trivial to him.
But it was certainly not trivial for our antagonist who was willing to plan and enact his revenge on our protagonist, even if it took decades of waiting and preparation to accomplish, as his revenge was quite complex, he did not simply want to kill Oh Dae Sue, no he had planned something far more sinister that I shall not spoil.
Another good example would be the Monster from Frankenstein as the Monster wasn’t something inherently evil, its original nature was actually quite good, but his good heart was corrupted by the treatment he received from humans and the rejection from his own creator, Doctor Frankenstein. The Monster’s revenge is highly justified yet also sad at the same time.
Giving the antagonist a proper and genuine reason is likely to set both characters into the grey area rather than dealing with everything as black and white, making them both sympathetic and somewhat relatable.
8 – Conflicting Ideals
The conflict between the antagonist and the protagonist can occur on the level of ideas, for example if the two of them represent fundamentally different and opposing ideals, it is only natural for them to eventually clash. The protagonist could be the living embodiment of progress and evolution, while the antagonist could embody backwardness and the past. There is a bit of a crossover with Category 6, but it is not the same as it deals far more with the characters ideals, goals and actions rather than just their personality.
A clash of ideologies can occur when the protagonist and another do not agree upon some action or event, for example a honourable protagonist having different ideas in war and battle than a Machiavellian manipulator, this will easily turn the previously neutral character into the antagonist. Such clashes can also occur between politicians trying to run a country or various merchants trying to profit and screw each other over.
Since the conflict occurs in the realm of ideas rather than just the realm of characters, it is far deeper and more meaningful than any other type of antagonist and protagonist relationship, therefore I shall place it on the top.
Special Type of Antagonists that I will not number:
Fate: Rather than have the antagonist be a concrete person, some works may make something intangible or transcendent the antagonist of the story, one of these things can be fate. For example the protagonist is cursed and fated to die if he does not do X or Y. Or something terrible happen if the protagonist fails to arrive at a certain location at a certain time. In Prince of Persia the Warrior Within, the Prince is running from his inevitable fate and trying to fight off the manifestation of the said fate in the form of the creature known as Dahaka. While other antagonist arise within the game, his overall goal still remains to change his fate, this is an example of Fate itself being the antagonist.
I have rather mixed feelings about this type of antagonist, since if Fate truly existed, then it is not something you could work against as a simple human being, it is not something you have power or control over. And many times because of these facts, such stories are usually revolved via the usage of Deus Ex Machina’s or something equally bullshit. On the other hand if the story is about the inevitability of Fate and how it is futile to try avoiding it, then it becomes an entirely different matter. Although very few stories ever go that way.
God: Yes, even God can be the antagonist, or any other godlike being in fiction. When God is the antagonist, he does not want to kill the protagonist, because if he wanted to do so, it would be very easy to just make him die with his omnipotent power. So instead what God does is test the protagonist and gives him challenges, if the protagonist can succeed, then he triumphed over god. Yet again, this scenario is bullshit because if God did not want the protagonist to win he would have simply designed an impossible challenge since due to his omniscience he would know what the protagonist can do and cannot do, therefore the protagonist only wins because God himself willed it so. And I don’t see much point in such a story.
Category 1, 2 and 3 make me seem like as if I hated horror stories, and that is actually very true but also highly unrelated to the matter at hand. Horror characters like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers have literally no character as far as I’m concerned. But that is actually fine since characters barely matter in horror movies, as most of them exist only to suffer and be killed. Rather than relying on characters horror flicks make use of suspense, terror and shock factor in order to chill the audience, for those purposes Category 1, 2 and 3 are probably the best choices for obvious reasons.
Likewise the Joker is a perfect villain for the usually idealized world of superheroes, as he reminds us that not all humans are worth saving or preserving, that people like the Joker who exist only to sew chaos will never stop being what they are no matter how many times one jails or beats them. It is instead the superheroes reaction, or in this case, their lack of reaction that I am dissatisfied with.
What type of antagonist you need hugely depends on the genre you are writing in, category 8 despite being the best of the bunch, obviously wouldn’t work with your standard horror movie as it would slow it down and make it boring, nor would it be a proper situation or premise to explore a clash of ideologies.
But the more sophisticated work you are aiming for, the more obligatory it becomes to use one of the antagonist types from the higher categories, as usage of the lower categories in a work that presents itself in an intelligent light only worsens your quality, yet too many writers still make this mistake, there are far too many works across multiple mediums that try to be seen in a serious and realistic light yet they keep having 1 dimensional villains and antagonists, that you can do nothing with but hate or dislike, as they are characters who are made to be hated.
One common mistake that the writers usually make is that they create antagonist that do not fit with the theme or the setting of their work, this comes as a result of trying to make an antagonist interesting, but backfires on them, as it makes him strange and out of place instead. For example a mad scientist obviously doesn’t belong anywhere in the dark ages, nor does a knight or an inquisitor belong in our modern times, yet I see them done all the time.
And this isn’t the only mistake that authors commit by trying to make their antagonist interesting, the second most common one happens by giving the antagonist some kind of power, and accidentally turning them too powerful, far too powerful for our protagonist to actually defeat by his own power. The creators typically don’t realize this fact until its too late, and thus they are forced to use some kind of bullshit or Deus Ex Machina to defeat the villain, which is something that you should always try to avoid or it will end up looking this stupid.
If you are in such a situation I would honestly just recommend to let the villain win rather than resorting to the sin of using a Deus Ex Machina, sure it will be shocking and might be even disappointing to your audience, but it is still far better than being known as a hack writer. Besides I don’t really understand this whole taboo against downer endings, they have a possibility of being good, especially due to the fact that rarely anyone does downer endings.
Third mistake that stems from trying to make an antagonist interesting is that they often end up doing nothing, like really, many writers create an antagonist and put him to the sidelines, and refuse to use him until the very last moments of their work. This is bad because the greatness of any antagonist comes from their interaction with the protagonist and his allies, if he only does something at the very last moment of the story, then it is quite hard to care about him.
But it’s not like its impossible to understand their logic. Their logic goes that if the antagonist appears too often it will cause him to become stale and boring. While true to a certain extent, not appearing and interacting frequently enough causes way worse problems. A good antagonist has a sense for timing, making him appear when one least expects it is a good idea for a shocking introduction or memorable appearance. Also if the protagonist had multiple interactions with the antagonist prior to the ending, then it makes all the more sense that he defeats him due to learning from his past experiences.
I would like to draw the conclusion that a good antagonist is a character who antagonizes the protagonist regularly but not too often, has a relationship of mutual dislike throughout the story and is driven by something more than simply being crazy or evil, likewise he should also be someone that can be defeated by the power and efforts of the protagonist, otherwise what’s the point to an impossible challenge?