Main antagonists: How to write real opponents

Main antagonists: How to write real opponents

A main antagonist is the character who is the main enemy or opposition to a hero or protagonist. Antagonists supply core conflict. How do you create and write potent opponents? Read a definition, examples and quotes, plus 8 steps to write yours:

First, what is a main antagonist?

The word antagonist means ‘one who contends with another’, originally stemming from the Greek word antagonistes meaning a ‘competitor, rival or opponent’.

Originally the word referred specifically to sporting opponents. From the 1600s, an ‘antagonist’ referred to an opponent or rival in any area of life.

We often use the word antagonist with the word protagonist which comes from the Greek meaning ‘the actor who plays the first or chief part’.

This clarifies the main antagonist’s purpose. They are a character, group, or even a hostile or opposing place which supplies obstacles or opposition. They thus challenge or obstruct the protagonist in a crucial way.

Understanding main antagonists: Examples and quotes

Examples of main antagonists from literature, popular fiction and religion:

  • Satan in the Christian Bible, who revolts against God
  • The God of the sea Poseidon in Homer’s Odyssey who punishes the protagonist Odysseus for blinding his son, the cyclops
  • Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello who manipulates the tragic anti-hero into mistrusting his wife whom Othello then murders
  • Colonel Cathcart in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, a colonel obsessed with becoming a general who bears a grudge towards the protagonist Yossarian for refusing to fly further missions
  • Metatron, the regent to the false God named The Authority in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy series

[Ed’s note: There are too many main antagonists to list here. Comment and share your favourite antagonist and what you like about their depiction.]

Helpful quotes about antagonists

Writers, actors and others have said many interesting things about antagonists.

Here are quotes about villains to think about as you create your own:

  1. Nobody is the villain in their own story. We’re all the heroes of our own stories.’ George R. R. Martin
  2. Some of us are born rebellious. Like Jean Genet or Arthur Rimbaud, I roam these mean streets like a villain, a vagabond, an outcast, scavenging for the scraps that may perchance plummet off humanity’s dirty plates…’ Patti Smith
  3. ‘The only difference between a hero and the villain is that the villain chooses to use that power in a way that is selfish and hurts other people.’ Chadwick Boseman
  4. ‘The same energy of character which renders a man a daring villain would have rendered him useful in society, had that society been well organized.‘ Mary Wollstonecraft
George R. R. Martin quote about the main antagonist in a story

How to write a main antagonist: 8 steps

  1. Find main antagonists in your story idea
  2. Know what they oppose and why
  3. Find their power’s source
  4. Imagine their weakness, too
  5. Trace formative experiences
  6. Map antagonists’ philosophies
  7. Find key moments of choice
  8. Plot their rise and fall

Let’s explore each further:

1. Find main antagonists in your story idea

Mine your story’s premise for ideas for your main antagonist.

Let’s take an example story idea and begin to ask questions find possible opponents.

If you haven’t found a story idea yet, do it in easy steps in ‘Central Idea’ in the Now Novel dashboard, then continue.

Example Story Idea: 21-year-old Cole is raised in a 24th Century, isolated city ruled over by a cyborg overlord who requires total obedience. Yet what happens when he has a chance digital encounter with an intriguing outsider who promises freedom?

In this idea, the obvious choice for a main antagonist would be the overlord figure.

The main antagonist might change over the course of the story. For example, if Cole were to escape the city in book 1, book 2 might introduce a newer, worse opponent.

2. Know what they oppose and why

What does the main antagonist in your story oppose, and why?

Look to your protagonist’s primary goals.

For a sci-fi dystopian story fitting the story idea described above, the main antagonist might oppose freedom because they want:

  • Cheap/free labour
  • To uphold a need, philosophy or belief (e.g. that free citizens would organize a coup and seize power)

In a romance, the main antagonist would typically oppose the romantic union of the main romantic leads.

Motive is important to think about when creating your main antagonist.

What do they desire, and what do they fear most? An antagonist opposed to a couple’s union may be:

  • A jealous/vindictive rival
  • A snobbish or otherwise opposing friend or parent
  • A bigot who is prejudiced towards the couple’s relationship

Knowing the root cause of a main antagonist’s opposition will help you imagine and describe potent choices and actions.

3. Find their power’s source

An interesting word to think about when writing a main antagonist is ‘power’.

Where does an opponent, rival or opposing force’s power come from?

This might be something simple, material. A bigger sword/gun. The ‘David and Goliath’ type of unequal (on paper) battle.

Power is complex. Many tyrants are propped up not only by their own power-benefitting qualities (e.g. charm, charisma, ruthlessness, narcissism) but also an ensemble of others. Advisors. Vice-somebodies. Voters. Men and women with water cannons and other resources for quashing dissent.

To understand a main antagonist’s arc is to know where their power comes from, and what could grow, renew, challenge, threaten or end it.

Two examples of sources for antagonists’ power

Let’s compare the power origins of an AI spaceship control system to a meddling parent in a romance.

In Arthur C Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the HAL 9000, an AI (Artificial Intelligence) computer, behaves in threatening and destructive ways towards a space crew on a mission.

As the main antagonist, Hal’s power comes from:

  1. Control of the protagonists’ safety:
    Hal is relied on for crucial tasks such as diagnosing issues with the space craft, and becomes suspect when falsely reporting a component is malfunctioning.
  2. Inscrutable desire/intent:
    As an AI machine, Hal is expected to act according to a programmed script, yet due to having a degree of independence can also act destructively in unforseen ways.

These are typical sources of power for science fiction. They are common since the genre often explores the possibilities for destruction inherent to ‘progress’ into uncharted scientific waters, paired with human fallibility, greed or error.

A meddling mother, on the other hand, such as the mother in The Notebook (1996) who keeps Allie and Noah apart, may gain power from:

  1. Control over communication:
    Noah writes to Allie after a brief romance but her mother hides her letters, due to Noah’s lower financial and social status.
  2. Implicit (but misplaced) trust: Because she is family, Allie may be less likely to suspect her mother of any involvement in Noah’s seeming silence.
Lin-Manuel Miranda says even the bad guy's got his reasons.

4. Imagine their weakness, too

A main antagonist should have a weakness.

Take the two antagonist examples above. A main antagonist may be weak in the event of:

  1. Loss of power: a machine could be switched off. This is a subplot of Hal’s arc in 2001: A Space Odyssey when he is threatened with being shut down for non-compliant and erratic behaviour. Similarly, Allie’s mom won’t have control over her communications forever.
  2. Loss of trust: What happens when a tyrant’s henchmen ‘skiddadle’, like rats from a sinking ship? What happens when a child finds out their parent has been witholding letters addressed to them?

    Sustained power often requires trust, force (such as control), or a combination of the two.

What might make your primary antagonist vulnerable?

5. Trace formative experiences

When you’re writing a main antagonist, it’s useful to explore their backstory. What past experieces led them to make choices that oppose, harm or traumatise your protagonist?

Let’s return briefly to that quote by Mary Wollstonecraft:

The same energy of character which renders a man a daring villain would have rendered him useful in society, had that society been well organized.

It reminds us that villains aren’t born – they’re made through multiple crucibles, such as:

  • Nature (predisposition towards traits such as self-focus/narcisissm or aggression)
  • Nurture (the way upbringing, society and other environmental variables influence a person to gain a bias towards specific choices)
  • Choice (how, in light of both nature and nurture, and the pressures of specific situations, people decide to act)

As George R. R. Martin’s quote reminds us, antagonists are also the heroes of their own stories.

What part of their story led your main antagonist to make choices that may seem cruel, malevolent or destructive by compassionate, ethical standards?

6. Map antagonists’ philosophies

The deep beliefs and values people hold are a major factor in whether they act in heroic or villainous ways.

A main antagonist may hold dubious, potentially destructive beliefs such as:

  • Might makes right (power is an end in itself regardless of its cost)
  • Productivity is most important (even above, for example, workers’ wellbeing)
  • Money is the root of all value/status (a belief that may motivate a greedy property developer who employs shady business practices, or a snobbish, interfering family member)

What experiences led to your antagonist’s beliefs? One greedy tycoon may have grown up with nothing, and thus be motivated by a fear of returning to that state. Another, by contrast, could have grown up with so much that they never questioned an inherited, distorted and privilege-based worldview.

Writing exercise: Finding main antagonists’ values

Brainstorm an opposing situation using the structure ‘Character A wants to do B, but Character C does D to stop them’. For example:

  • Jenna wants to take her girlfriend to prom, but her mom threatens to kick her out if she does
  • Peter wants to install a new AI-based infrastructure for his company but a senior developer has serious fears and doubts and guns for his termination

Now try to find a single sentence to describe the values of the main antagonist whose opposing action comes after ‘but’.

7. Find key moments of choice

After the steps above, you know your story’s central idea, plus elements of what motivates your main antagonist.

From here, shift into plotting actions and choices out of a keener understanding.

What are the key moments where an antagonist has a choice? For example:

  • Receiving a letter for a daughter from a boy who is not approved (Allie’s mom in The Notebook)
  • Receiving an instruction from a crew member that may threaten one’s very existence (In 2001: A Space Odyssey it emerges that the AI Hal began to act more dangerously when threatened with shutdown due to having no concept of ‘sleep’ – the threat appeared life or death)

Moments where an antagonist has a choice to make with potential tragic or destructive consequences reveal character and add suspense.

8. Plot their rise and fall

An antagonist has the power to oppose, which implies a rise. A Caesar is able to take down opponents because he has risen.

Within your main antagonist’s rise is the potential for a fall. The knife in the back. Or a mistreated child leaving home without a backward glance.

For a simple example such as a parent interfering in a romantic arc, plot rising plot points, that suggest their increasing or sustained power:

  • A mother intercepts her daughter’s love interest’s letters
  • The mom announces they will be holidaying elsewhere next year (not the usual resort her daughter and the love interest met at)

Also plot falling plot points, events that might signal decreasing power:

  • The daughter finds out about the letters and demands to see them
  • The daughter lies about going away with a friend for the summer to deceive her mom and arrange to see the boy

Thinking about what events increase your main antagonist’s power and what events will decrease it will help you give their character arc intriguing movement.

Create a character profile for your main antagonist now using our easy, step-by-step outlining dashboard.

4 Replies to “Main antagonists: How to write real opponents”

  1. Thank you for this Jordan. Very timely for me since I began developing my antagonist yesterday. Very helpful ideas and process.

    1. Hi JP, it’s a pleasure. I’m glad this came at a good time for your work-in-progress. Good luck as you proceed further!

  2. It’s always easy to just put an antagonist where an opposition is needed and leave it at that. Thanks for these tips to make sure they are also well-rounded characters.

    1. Hi Tina, that’s true – cardboard cut-out villains or antagonists are sometimes a little boring to read, too. It’s a pleasure, thank you for taking the time to share your feedback.

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