What Makes a Great Antagonist? Expert Advice

So many of the best and most beloved stories feature a great antagonist which keeps us glued to the edge of our seats. But how do you write a great antagonist?

Great antagonists oppose everything that the protagonist or hero fights for. They embody the opposite of everything the protagonist stands for, and they personify the oppositional forces that the protagonist must defeat to achieve their objectives.

Can an Antagonist be Good?

Antagonists can be good. They just have to act in opposition to the protagonist. If you have a fallen hero like Macbeth, then an antagonist like Macduff is actually the ‘good’ guy in the story, who saves Scotland from the Macbeth once Macbeth has turned evil.

Can an Antagonist be an Animal?

Yes, an antagonist can be an animal. The antagonist in a story can be anything at all that opposes the protagonist. So the weather could be an antagonist, or an antagonistic force, if it impedes the progress of the hero.

Can a Protagonist be an Animal?

Yes, a protagonist can be an animal. Another word for protagonist is hero, or the central figure in a story. There are many stories which feature animals as the central character, such as Peppa Pig.

What is the Difference between an Antagonist and a Villain?

There is almost no difference between an antagonist and a villain. In most stories the protagonist is a hero, and the antagonist is a villain. However, sometimes villains are the central character and become the protagonist, and heroes become the antagonists. An example is arguably the film Joker.

Can an Antagonist become a Protagonist?

There is no story rule to prevent an antagonist from becoming a protagonist, but it doesn’t happen very often inside a single story. Usually, the central character of a story remains the central character, and therefore remains the protagonist. And vice versa with the antagonist.

Are Antagonists Always Bad?

No, antagonists are not always bad. Antagonists are just things that oppose the will of the protagonist in a story.

Are Antagonists More Interesting than Protagonists?

Yes, sometimes antagonists are more interesting than protagonists. Protagonists are usually ‘good’ and we know what goodness looks like. But we are often less familiar with the appearance of villainy and so find this dark side intriguing.

Can the Protagonist be a Bad Guy?

Yes, the protagonist can be evil. We are often invited to identify with the situation of the protagonist, and to sympathise with that character, so sometimes a bad protagonist can appear like a good guy.

Why are Villains More Relatable?

Not everyone will find villains more relatable, but the moral high ground attained by protagonists like Superman feels unattainable for most people. Most people identify as being morally flawed in some ways, and so can find morally flawed characters relatable.

If your antagonist has followers, and they probably should, it’s likely that there is something appealing about them. Lucifer was the most powerful and beautiful of all the angels before he fell, which is also true of Sauron.

The devil is often portrayed as charming. Voldemort inspires admiration and loyalty in his followers through fear and the promise of power.

Give your antagonist complicated and contradictory beliefs that confound and confuse their followers (gaslighting them): Hitler was a vegetarian because he hated the thought of animal cruelty.

Which Villain Deserves to Win?

Sometimes in morally complex stories the audience can be left wishing that the villain had won. Macbeth by Shakespeare is a great example to check out, because by the end it is not clear who is evil and who is good.

Should the Antagonist be the Opposite of the Protagonist? 

If your protagonist is on a journey towards love, life, and happiness then your villain may represent death, decay, and unhappiness.

Often a protagonist will learn who they are throughout the course of a story, and eventually actively chose the values in the final confrontation that come to embody their new sense of self. The antagonist should represent the values that the protagonist rejects.

For instance, in Star Wars, Luke choses not to give in to the allure of the dark side offered by the Emperor, even if it means saving his own life, and the lives of his friends in the rebel fleet.

Should Villains get Stronger?

Dramatic tension in your story should rise. One way to achieve this is to have the antagonist grow in power, even as your protagonist moves closer to achieving their objective.

For instance, in Lord of the Rings, the power of Sauron grows with each passing day, as he gathers the forces of darkness around him, and builds his armies.

Voldemort grows in power as he gathers his Death Eaters, and assumes corporeal form. 

Does the Antagonist Always Lose?

The villain should be defeated in the final and largest climax of your story. This final confrontation should bring to the surface the theme of your story. For instance, Harry Potter walks out to meet the Death Eaters, sacrificing himself.

In this way sacrifice is centralized as a theme. You may find ‘self sacrifice for all that is good’ is central to many tales.

When Should I Introduce an Antagonist?

Villains are successful partially because they hide their true nature and power. If a villain appears on the horizon, guns blazing, the forces of good can prepare an adequate defense.

But if your villain hides in the shadows, obfuscating the extent of their power, and even creating doubt about their very existence, then the forces that might be mustered in defense may never be roused to action (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter).

We hope you enjoy writing great antagonists!