BOO! Did I Scare You? Writing the antagonist

HalloweenHalloween is the perfect time to write about the antagonist: the bad guy, the killer, the malevolent force who’ll make your protagonist’s life pure hell. The trick here is to write an antagonist who is strong enough to make you root for the protagonist.

When I wrote my first novel, I knew that Lucifer would be hiding in the shadows, waiting to pounce on my protagonist, yet he’s such a stereotypical villain that I found myself in a dilemma: How can you mess with people’s foregone conclusions about the Prince of Darkness? So what did I do? I invented his two wives and made them do his dirty work. (I actually had a senior editor from Penguin Group say to me, “I didn’t know Lucifer had two wives!” Seriously, dude?)

Inventing these two antagonists turned into a wild ride. Two sister-wives who hate each other with such venom they can barely be in the same place for more then ten seconds before they’re at each other’s throats, literally. Creating a catfight scene between them and having their husband, Lucifer, come in and break it up can only be described as pure, unadulterated, writing joy. And yet these two characters need to work together on a common goal: to kill my protagonist. Talk about conflict? This gave me the vehicle to write tons of it in a myriad of directions.

Writers tend to focus much of their effort on developing their protagonist, as well they should, however it’s the villain in the story that really drives your story. It gets your juices flowing, your pulse racing, your anger riled. That’s the fun of reading! Personally, I loved to get the pants scared right off me. I vividly recall reading The Exorcist when I was in college. (Okay, I’m dating myself here.) Snuggled in my bed on a cold wintery day, I was so engrossed in the tale that I lost track of time. I lived in a sorority house that could easily have passed for a cinematic house of horrors: three stories, creaky floors, a heating system that shrieked, secret staircases, even stone gargoyles guarding the cupola on top of the house. I suddenly realized I couldn’t see the page, as it had grown dark outside. I got up to turn on a light and peered down the shadowy hallway. I gave a yell, “Anybody home?” The boiler screamed in response.  I slowly crept down the squeaky stairs to the second floor, lighting my way as I went, and called out again… and then to the first floor. It didn’t take me long to realize, I was the only one in the house!

I put the book away.

I love villains. I love the danger. And the more evil, the better the story for me. In order to make your antagonist a character you’ll love to hate, you need to consider the following:

1.  Just like your protagonist, your bad guy has to have a goal. He’s either trying to avoid something or gain something, and he has to be highly motivated. He’ll do anything to achieve his end.

2.  He needs to be adaptable. When one of his evil deeds is foiled he’s got to come up with another one, and fast.

  1.  He needs to be compelling. Don’t make him two-dimensional. A bad guy must be human enough to identify with. He can’t be all bad or he becomes a caricature, so you should show him behaving with some normalcy. Even a psychopath will pay for his coffee rather than shooting the girl behind the counter at Dunkin’ Donuts.

4.  Emotion is key. Conflict and tension is mandatory and if there’s no antagonist, there’s no conflict.

  1.  Your reader should be able to empathize with why your antagonist is so evil. How did he get this way? Is he mistaken, or just plain evil, is he crazy, or mad, or just unhappy?

  2. Often your antagonist is hiding something. Surprise your reader by not revealing some evil plot point, some character trait or backstory until the end. Nothing is more rewarding than when your reader says, “OMG! I didn’t see that coming!”

7.  Of course, he must cross paths with the protagonist. However, similar to writing a love scene, the longer you keep the two apart the greater the tension and the more reward there is when they finally face each other.

  1. The antagonist doesn’t have to be a person. It could be the weather, circumstances, or the protagonist’s inner self. Personally, I find human antagonists to be more satisfying than machines or non-humans. We can identify better with humans rather than a mechanical villain. When using a monster or mad robot, the villain is often the guy behind the machine/monster, eg. Dr. Frankenstein.
  2. When the last battle is fought, there has to be a winner and a loser. Traditionally, the protagonist wins and the antagonist is defeated. This is what most readers want and expect. Of course, you can deviate from this and both can lose or both can win. I don’t think it necessarily provides the most satisfying ending. Romeo and Juliet both lose. I didn’t like that ending very much.

  3. Consider multiple points of view. You need to get your reader inside your antagonist’s mind. Think what he thinks, feel what he feels. Understand his motivation, his madness, his compulsion to thwart your hero. After several revisions of my first novel I finally decided I had to add the POV of Lucifer’s wives. I struggled with it at first, but eventually I became so immersed in their minds that I couldn’t drag myself away. My beta readers went wild! They loved the banter between these two antagonists and it made the story much more compelling.

When crafting characters we have be like actors, acting out our characters’ parts. I seriously got into writing my antagonists to the extent that my friends began to say, “I could see you as one of Lucifer’s wives!”

Well damn. I’m not sure how to take that.

Who are some of your favorite antagonists and what made them so? Write us and let us know.

Up Next from Caryn? The Hero Model




Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

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