Apr 1, 2011

A is for Antagonist

I've managed to bruise the inside of my eyelid with a stray tortilla chip crumb, so focusing my eyesight on anything within a 75 degree angle of my left field of vision hurts. This will not make blogging any easier.

This is my first ever post for the A to Z Blogging Challenge, so here goes!

A is for Antagonist.

A hero is only as good as the villain he has to fight. It's no fun watching Batman foil insurance fraud, so we get to see him go up against the Joker instead. So what makes a good antagonist?

As a reader, I want several things from a strong antagonist:

1: I want the hero to be truly challenged. This one is easy enough to satisfy as a writer. I don't want the villain to be defeated in his first confrontation with the hero. I want to see the hero beaten down and forced to struggle to overcome his adversary.

2: I want the antagonist and the protagonist to be connected somehow. The Joker is Batman's perfect foil because where Batman stands for justice and order, with a strong purpose behind his actions, the Joker is driven by chaos and whimsy. The Clown Prince of Crime is unpredictable and dangerous, madness personified. But his genius matches that of his arch nemesis. His plans, while seemingly without reason, put the city of Gotham in a state of terror. A true antagonist is a dark perversion of the protagonist, not quite the same, but not quite the opposite. They are a vague suggestion of a symbiotic relationship, two partners in a macabre dance for dominance.

3: I want the antagonist to revel in his role. This doesn't mean I want a mustache-twiddling stereotype. Far from it. The best villains don't see themselves as villains. The very best villains are the ones whose motivations we can understand. The hero should be able to look at the villain and think "there but for the grace of God go I." But the antagonist can still love his own mission and actions. Gene Hackman's "Little Bill" in Unforgiven is a town marshal, he's the law. But he gets a perverse satisfaction from his corrupt brand of justice. He'll happily see a man whipped to death or beat a man in the street just for telling tall tales, yet still think it fair and right that he has a strong position in town.

4: I want to be sorry when the antagonist is gone. The relationship between an antagonist and a protagonist should help define both characters. They should need each other for direction and meaning in their lives. Once the antagonist is overcome, whether through defeat or redemption, the protagonist should be lessened because of it. Not that the writer should have the hero sad that their enemy is no more, but rather that the conflict should have been so engrossing that, though we know it must end, we almost wish their ongoing battle could never end, as it would mean we no longer get to see these two powerful personalities clash.

5: When it comes to the end, I want a good fight. Whether it be a physical confrontation, mental outwitting, or social destruction, I want to see the antagonist truly defeated by the protagonist. Not through some cheap trick or deus ex machina, but by the hero using his strengths and rising to the challenge, thoroughly overcoming his foe and proving that he's the better man (or woman).

What do you look for in an antagonist?


  1. Personally, I love humanised villains, those who are doing what they feel is the right thing. It makes them so much harder to face and defeat, as the hero must challenge everything about himself to defeat them.

  2. Great post. I'm hoping I hit all of these in my current work in progress. I loved a good villian too.

  3. Aonghus: Oooh, definitely. There's nothing like a villain who makes the hero question his own values.

    Shelley: Thanks. I think a solid villain can write half the book for you.

  4. Absolutely. It's why I love Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, makes it impossible to hate Lex after that. Because no matter how evil his actions, his intentions are pure and good. Makes for awesome villains, that does.

  5. Villains with strong motivation and a secret back story are my favorites. Great post!

  6. great list!
    (And that sounds like a nasty tortilla chip crumb!)

  7. Great list! I want to love the antagonist as much as I do the hero. There should be something about him that makes me want him to win even if that feeling lasts only for a moment. I am sure that makes no sense lol

    Stopping by from the Challenge

  8. A is for Antagonist - Great choice for today! I like how you made it clear what you expect as a reader from your antagonist. Each character plays an important role in a story, and if one character doesn't fit well they can ruin everything. I really look forward to reading more of your posts.

  9. Nicole: I coudn't agree more.

    Lynda: Thanks. Yeah, it was nasty. At least the bruising has cleared this morning. The eye is still a bit stiff though.

    Dafeenah: Actually that makes perfect sense! I get that all the time.

    D.M.: Back at you. The one to one battle between hero and villain is so important to me that I couldn't think of a better topic to start the challenge.

  10. Great list of what antagonists should stand for. I always hate it when a protagonist beats the antagonist in one go!

    Greetings from a fellow
    A to Z blogger :)

  11. Great choice of topic for A. Must admit I like the subtle antagonist, so you don't realise at first that he/she actually is actually working against the hero/ine.
    BTW I envy you living in Co. Wicklow - have been to Bray several times!

  12. Sylvia: Nice to meet you. :-)

    Paula: I grew up in Bray and eventually my wife and I got a house here. It has its good and bad points, but I do love the occassional drive out to Glendalough.

  13. Interesting post, Paul, yes, even when watching movies with my kids, the storyline has to be believable.

  14. As a matter of interest, how can you tell you've bruised the inside of your eyelid as opposed to just hurt it?

    And I would love to know what happened but it's probably best not to tell me! Liked the post.

  15. I would imagine you get fed-up of all the traffic through Bray at times! I'll be there again in May, staying at the Ramada.
    I love your neighbouring town of Dalkey - really nice little town- and I love the view over Killiney Bay.
    The Wicklow Mountains are magic - the road over Sally Gap is sheer beauty.
    Glendalough is a fascinating place, even though it is packd with tourists!

  16. Brigid: Won't be long before I'm introducing my son or daughter to all my old childhood favourites.

    Ellen: Not sure, but Jen said it looked swollen, so I'm guessing bruising.

    Paula: Yeah, the traffic can be a pain. Thankfully we live on the north end of town so we don't have to deal with it too much before we reach the motorway unless we're going shopping or visiting my parents.

    The Ramada's nice. Great location for day trips out into the mountains.

  17. Stayed at the Ramada several times. As you say, a good location for getting south to the mountains. I LOVE Ireland!

  18. Me too :-) My wife and I did live in Manchester for a little while, but we missed home too much.

  19. Hello - new follower here! Looking forward to your A-Z through the writing world. Sorry about the stray tortilla chip - sounds like a terrible injury. Hope you're feeling better already.

    Hmmm... an antagonist. Definitely a good point about not knowing they're bad - that helps make them believable. I think even an attribute that the protagonist could be jealous of would be nice to keep the reader bouncing around in that good/bad judgment. I don't want to read about someone who's too easy to hate.

    Found you through the A to Z challenge - am at writercize.blogspot.com. Best of luck with the challenge - I'll be reading!

  20. Alana: Thanks! I'll be sure to keep an eye on your posts too.