Literature is full of fantastic antagonists who make it hard for the story’s central characters to reach their goals. Read antagonist examples from successful novels, along with tips we can take from fictional villains and opponents:
How to write a good antagonist:
- Give an antagonist unsavory goals like Sauron or Lord Voldemort
- Make your antagonist’s backstory believable
- Make your antagonist’s misdeeds require decisive action
- Show how your antagonist outwits opponents
- Reveal the power an antagonist has over other characters
- Don’t make overcoming your antagonist too easy
- Read antagonist examples for description inspiration
Let’s unpack each of these suggestions:
1. Give an antagonist unsavoury goals like Sauron or Lord Voldemort
Some of the most memorable villains of fiction share much in common with history’s worst tyrants. Tolkien’s Lord Sauron, like Adolf Hitler, dreams of world conquest and domination.
Sauron has slavish minions, roped into his web of depravity to do his bidding, too.
An antagonist with an unsavoury (cruel, selfish, destructive or dangerous) goal is a force worth stopping. Even though Sauron suffers multiple military defeats (you can read a full history of his multiple rises and falls here), he doggedly pursues one goal: Dominion over Middle-Earth.
Because Sauron continues to raise armies and wage wars, Middle-Earth needs a solution that will counter Sauron’s own self-serving end-game. It requires an act of daring and heroism. The antagonist’s single-minded pursuit of his goal shapes the inciting event – the protagonists’ decision to journey to destroy the ring that would restore Sauron’s power. J.K. Rowling’s Lord Voldemort is a similar fantasy villain in that he seeks power at all costs.
While fantasy antagonists tend to seek rule and domination of others, there are other unsavoury goals antagonists may have. For example, a school bully may wish to intimidate his peers to hide his own pain and vulnerability.
This also highlights crucial differences between a ‘villain’ and an ‘antagonist’. A ‘villain’ is a character ‘whose evil actions or motives are important to the plot’ (OED). An ‘antagonist’ is ‘a person who actively opposes or is hostile to someone or something’ (OED). Note the absence of a mention of ‘evil.’ A school bully, for example, may have underlying trauma propelling their unkind actions towards others (for example, the bully has an unhappy home background). An antagonist may be more complex than a villain who is evil for evil’s sake. Backstory supplies a good psychological and/or historical reason for their actions.
Let’s think more about antagonist examples and the role backstory plays:
2. Make your antagonist’s backstory believable
Plot and character holes start to form if a character simply does bad things ‘because’. Sometimes we don’t get answers and explanations for wrongdoing. Yet the danger of not giving your antagonist’s actions context is that they could read as simple plot devices rather than the believable actions of a desiring, living being. [A section of our concise guide to writing believable characters covers backstory – get it here.]
Take, for example, the antagonist in Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953). The protagonist, Guy Montag, is complex. He is an agent for the novel’s main antagonists initially, a ‘fireman’ who burns outlawed books. Yet the novel follows his dawning awareness of the danger and ugliness of radical censorship. His boss, on the other hand, the antagonist Captain Beatty, maintains his hatred of books. Beatty, a ‘fact man’ and functionary of the state, hates books for their contradicting facts and opinions. He hates them, too, because they permit dissent and disagreement, social unrest, even.
This second detail about Bradbury’s antagonist shows the importance of Beatty’s backstory. Beatty’s rise to a position of power in a regime that is pro-censorship is incompatible with any love of books (the character is well-read, too, making him something of a hypocrite). We see in the path Beatty has chosen – being a tool of censorship – the choices behind his main, unsavoury goal (destroying all ‘outlawed’ texts that might encourage free thought).
Bradbury’s antagonist shows how antagonists, like other characters, make choices that lead them down destructive or conflict-ridden paths. In Sauron’s case (in Tolkien’s fantasy cycle), his desire for power is so all-encompassing it disallows freedom anywhere. In Beatty’s case, his desire for social order and black and white answers is incompatible with a world where people are free to exchange contradictory ideas through fiction or non-fiction. The personal choices in Beatty’s past are thus believable origins for his decisions.
3. Make your antagonist’s misdeeds require decisive action
An antagonist creates the conditions requiring decisive action on the part of your protagonist. Let’s examine this example, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin (2003), a novel about a woman coming to terms with her seemingly psychopathic son:
Shriver depicts a series of worrying events leading up to a school massacre. Kevin’s mother Eva narrates.
Despite Kevin being her son, Eva struggles to reconcile her role as a mother with her son Kevin’s confrontational behaviour. Shriver shows the evolution of Kevin’s misdeeds, from the milder (spraying a room Eva has recently wallpapered with ink) to the more extreme. This makes the necessary conversation of the title more and more pressing, as we see Kevin’s troubling behaviour intensify and become increasingly worrying.
An antagonist example like Shriver’s Kevin shows the importance of making an antagonist an unstoppable tide of opposition. Just like Sauron keeps strengthening and scheming despite military defeats, Kevin is constantly on the brink of another misdeed.
This ongoing sense of threat drives other characters to make important judgments and choices. For Kevin’s father Franklin, it is dogged defense of his son’s behaviour. His father largely insists Kevin’s actions are normal and explicable. In Eva’s case, she opposes his actions more openly, resulting in escalating conflict. An antagonist’s misdeeds are thus also useful for polarizing other characters. Antagonist’s typically sow conflict, disagreement and disruption.
4. Show how your antagonist outwits opponents
When your antagonist has a history of misdeeds, it may seem doubtful to readers that they haven’t yet been apprehended. There are many ways to explain this. Your antagonist could have:
- A ‘respectable’ job that enables them to hide in plain sight (for example, the finance job Patrick Bateman has in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1991), masking his dual life as a serial killer)
- Insider knowledge that enables them to escape detection (for example a villain who has forensics knowledge or training and can cover their own tracks)
- Supernatural powers/abilities (for example the killer in David Lynch’s classic murder mystery series Twin Peaks, who is more evasive than they first seem)
- A helper on the inside (for example, a criminal boss who is in cahoots with corrupt, sly members of the police force)
This all depends on where your antagonist is on the trajectory of their descent into playing the part of a villain or opponent. If your novel details the early days of their antagonist role, rookie mistakes could aid your protagonist in apprehending them, or at least create a few nail-biting encounters.
If, on the other hand, your antagonist is a seasoned pro (e.g. a serial killer with a strong facade), you’ll need a more complex system explaining why they have not yet been brought down (such as the crooked allegiances mentioned above).
In Charles Dickens’ classic novel, David Copperfield (1850), the main antagonist in the second half of the novel, Uriah Heep, is a cunning antagonist. He hides his fraudulent agenda (stealing from his employer and eventual business partner) by constantly talking about how ‘humble’ he is. For example, in this exchange with the novel’s protagonist:
‘I am well aware that I am the umblest person going,’ said Uriah Heep, modestly; ‘let the other be where he may. My mother is likewise a very umble person. We live in a numble abode, Master Copperfield, but have much to be thankful for.’
Through his two-faced character, Heep is able to escape detection at first (although the perceptive David notices small signs of mismatch between Heep’s words and demeanour). This double quality enables Heep to defraud his employer.
5. Reveal the power your antagonist has over other characters
In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, Lord Voldemort creates such fear that the wizard community refers to him routinely as ‘You-Know-Who’ and ‘He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’. This indicates something crucial about a good antagonist – they should hold some or other power over your protagonists and other characters. Uriah Heep, for example, as secretary and eventual business partner to Mr. Wickfield, holds a position of trust that enables him to dupe and deceive Wickfield.
An antagonist such as a criminal boss who has ties to corrupt officials in the police department holds power because he can take his corrupt helpers down with him. These lines of influence are useful as they help to explain the power your antagonist wields as well as the multiple fronts of resistance your protagonist faces in opposing them.
Even in a novel where the antagonist is less ‘adult’ or criminal (a school bully, for example), these antagonists often have their own minions, other characters who are drawn to the secondary power a bully ringleader offers.
Your antagonist’s power over others brings an important element of plot and story: complication. When your antagonist has power and influence of some type, they are that much more difficult to unseat, and there are many more potential conflict situations for your protagonist.
6. Don’t make overcoming your antagonist too easy
An antagonist is much more fearsome or unpleasant when they’re like a rash that just won’t go away. Sauron keeps on rising. In Rowling’s Harry Potter books, the secondary antagonist and school bully Draco Malfoy and his friends constantly intimidate and provoke the protagonists.
Persistent opposition sustains conflict and tension. It creates anticipation for a final (or, at least, greater) showdown. To create a true sense of the scale of threat your antagonist wields, you could show:
- The network of influence and power over others your antagonist holds, as described above
- The means they have for outsmarting and truly complicating things for your protagonists
- Hidden trump cards your protagonist doesn’t yet know about (for example the powerful, protective artefacts Lord Voldemort creates in Rowling’s fantasy series)
7. Read antagonist examples for description inspiration
Many of literature’s greatest villains are particularly memorable for their chilling description. Consider this description of Uriah Heep, for example, in David Copperfield:
‘As I came back, I saw Uriah Heep shutting up the office; and feeling friendly towards everybody, went in and spoke to him, and at parting, gave him my hand. But oh, what a clammy hand his was! As ghostly to the touch as to the sight! I rubbed mine afterwards, to warm it, and to rub his off.’
Using something as simple as a description of a character’s hands and how unpleasant they feel, Dickens hints that there is more to Heep than his outwardly friendly appearance.
It may be tempting to describe wicked characters or antagonists with stock imagery. Rowling, for example, describes Voldemort as having red eyes, a far too common shorthand for a villainous nature. Subtle details (such as the mismatch between a character’s friendly appearance and horrifying handshake) are important, though, and help to build a sense of mounting menace over time.
Ready to create a believable antagonist? Use Now Novel’s Idea Finder to flesh out your antagonist ideas or share antagonist outlines with the community or your own writing coach.