This is part 5 in a series called The Epic Guide to Character Creation. In this part I will show you different antagonist archetypes. I will provide examples of characters from both literature and movies/TV-series to provide you with an overall understanding of fictional characters. Let’s get started:
Who is the Antagonist?
The antagonist of a story is also known as the villain. The antagonist is meant to create conflict and stand in the way of your protagonist. In other words, the antagonist is supposed to make the protagonist’s life difficult by setting up obstacles and challenges.
The antagonist may actively seek to thwart the protagonist’s plans, or these two characters may come in conflict because they have opposing goals.
Antagonists are often the most versatile characters because they can take practically any form as long as they create credible and authentic conflict that will engage the reader.
Antagonists can be divided into three categories. These are: tangible antagonists, substitute antagonists, and abstract antagonists. I will explain these in a moment.
You can have more than one antagonist in your story, just make sure that one of them and his/her goal and motivations is more important than the others.
Categorizing the Antagonist
If you want to know more about the categories that follow, you can read the first post in this Epic Guide to Character Creation-series: The Epic Guide to Character Creation, Part 1: Categorizing Your Characters
Dynamic or Static, Round or Flat? You can craft a dynamic antagonist just as much as a static one. Dynamic antagonists are often grey characters while static antagonists are pure evil.
Your antagonist doesn’t have to be pure evil to be an antagonist. As long as he/she is a worthy opponent to the protagonist, and create intense conflict, the antagonist can be either dynamic or static.
The same thing goes for round and flat. Round antagonists are more relatable (and, again, this makes them grey characters), while purely evil antagonists mostly are flat because it’s hard to relate to them.
Black, White or Grey? Antagonists are on the evil side of the good versus bad, light versus dark, spectrum. However, this does not mean that an antagonist can’t have redemptive qualities.
A grey antagonist can oppose your protagonist from beginning all the way to the climax, only to have a change of heart in the end. The antagonist may not be able to change what he/she has done and set in motion by his/her previous actions, but he/she might do something that ”helps” the protagonist win in the end (just make sure that this ”help” isn’t the only reason the protagonist wins, because that will make his/her actions throughout the story seem useless).
In contrast to this is the purely evil antagonist (black). The black antagonist is usually the classic choice for an antagonist (but, beware, because this type of antagonist can become pretty dull in today’s literature). Their terrifying darkness, ruthless and amoral nature tend to be despised by the reader, who will automatically cheer for the hero/heroine.
Common Antagonist Archetypes
The different types of antagonists, and some examples to these, are:
- Tangible Antagonist — The Ice Queen in The Chronicles of Narnia, Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter
- Substitute Antagonist — Peter Pettigrew in Harry Potter
- Abstract Antagonist — Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, the virus in Outbreak
Descriptions of the Antagonist Archetypes
Here are a few notes on what signifies the different antagonist archetypes.
Tangible antagonists are humans and other creatures (aliens, zombies, and so on). These antagonists represent their own interests, goals, and motivations.
The substitute antagonists is often controlled by another antagonist. As an example of this is Peter Pettigrew in Harry Potter (and also Professor Quirrell in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) who act out the main antagonist’s (Lord Voldemort) actions when he/she isn’t available or able.
Abstract antagonists can also be called antagonistic force. These antagonists can be a sickness, an addiction, natural disasters, the economy, a corrupt society, etc.
How to Choose an Antagonist
Choosing your antagonist can be just as difficult as choosing your protagonist. However, there are some guidelines that may help you narrow down your options.
Remember that antagonists are people, too (at least the tangible and substitute antagonists). The reader should understand why he/she is the way they are. Give some background information that shows how he/she became the way they are.
The reader should be able to believe in the antagonist’s motivations, otherwise they will (most likely) stop reading the story.
Your protagonist isn’t the only character that should be flawed. Your antagonist should not be perfect either. He/she should have weaknesses and imperfections so that their defeat is realistically possible.
You can give your tangible or substitute antagonist flaws that relate to his/her character (overconfidence, arrogance, etc.) or flaws that relate to his/her physical being (a physical or mental disability).
You can also create weaknesses to abstract antagonists. For example, if your antagonistic force is a disease, its weakness can be a cure.
Tepid or cold
You can either make your antagonist tepid or cold.
A cold antagonist is on the black side of the scale of good versus evil. He/she is has no remorse and will stop at nothing to get his/her way. He/she doesn’t care about love or honor. This is the classical antagonist. However, there are some drawbacks to crafting this kind of character.
As I mentioned above, this pure evil antagonist can become pretty dull. This type of character can become both unbelievable and predictable — and even a caricature — and that’s not something you should want for your story.
Another problem is that a dark, ruthless antagonist may be very difficult for your protagonist to defeat. Your protagonist may have to become ruthless in order to defeat such an antagonist, and that may lead him/her down a dark path. Are you willing to have you protagonist do that?
A tepid antagonist, however, is more on the grey side of the scale. This type of antagonist is becoming increasingly popular in fiction. One reason for this is that these characters are more relatable to readers. They usually have a tragic backstory that makes readers feel sympathy for them, or understand why they have become the way they are.
Tepid antagonists usually have evil goals, but their motivations and reasons for going after those goals are reasonable. Fear or revenge may be their motivations to doing evil deeds.
The tepid antagonists can, however, be less terrifying than the cold antagonists. If your reader isn’t scared or even worried about your antagonist’s actions then the reader won’t fear the protagonist’s safety. That is a fatal flaw of a story.
Make sure that you craft an antagonist that make the reader worry about your protagonists safety, no matter what type of antagonist you decide to craft.
Don’t craft a dumb antagonist. Leave that to cartoons for children.
If you want a somewhat realistic antagonist, one that is a threat to your protagonist, then you have to make him/her intelligent. This is also a step in the right direction to have your reader fear the antagonist and his/her actions.
You can make your antagonist intelligent in many different ways. He/she doesn’t have to be Einstein, even though an evil genius is an interesting choice. However, you can make your antagonist intelligent by making him/her a master manipulator, by being street smart, by owning an impressive logic, etc. Let your imagination go wild.
Next week I’ll post about sidekicks. If you’re interested, make sure to come back here next Tuesday. Until then, have a great week.