Writing Fantasy 101: Characters — Antagonists

I’m going to wrap up this series by talking about writing the Antagonist of your story. The starting point for writing an antagonist, that I’d recommend, is going through many of the same details we did with the protagonist. There is often a temptation to make the bad guy into just a bad guy, and having that be their defining trait. But looking through much of fantasy, that isn’t the case for most bad guys — or at least those that are written well. So ask yourself questions like you did for your protagonist.

What made your bad guy bad? Does he seem himself as a bad guy? Why doesn’t he give up being a bad guy when things get tough? A lot of the time when you are writing, you need to remember that your bad guy probably started out thinking they were a good guy. Maybe they got in too deep, maybe something pushed them over the edge, or maybe they were willing to go that extra step when others wouldn’t.

Image Source: Fantastic Fiction
Image Source: Fantastic Fiction

One master at writing antagonists is Stephen King. What I’ve noticed often about Stephen King’s bad guys is that they are really horrible, rotten people, but they have something about them that makes people flock to them. Sometimes they are very creepily charismatic, and while as a reader you can see the whole picture, the people in the town would be much more wrapped up in the antagonist’s cult of personality, or they have dirt on others, or are just a bully. So while King’s bad guys are really bad guys, there’s always a reason why the masses would follow someone that evil, besides the threat of death or violence.

Also ask yourself the question, what is the bad guy after and why? Do they feel like they were cheated out of their rightful inheritance and are going to stop at nothing to get it back? Did they get a taste of power and are trying to get back to the spot they were before? Or is there one of many other reasons, such as that they are just insane? They need a motivation for seeking this dastardly result — otherwise, why are they going to continue once the going gets rough?

And my advice on handling their henchman is much the same as for an ensemble cast of protagonists. The henchmen all have to have their own story as well. While it might not be much of a story, if they are doing something for no other reason than to just be bad or to just be an expendable tool for the antagonist, the reader can tell that. The flip side of this is that you really aren’t coming up with all of that backstory for the reader — you are coming up with it for yourself, so that when you write your bad guys’ death or aspects of their life, you aren’t just writing cliches and tropes.

Image Source: Buzzfeed
Image Source: Buzzfeed

Finally, ask yourself what happens when the main bad guy of your story is defeated. There is always a desire to make everything amazing and wonderful for your protagonists at the end of a story. But unless you’ve told the story of your protagonists hunting down everyone who was in the bad guy’s group, there is going to be a power struggle. When Voldemort dies at the end of Harry Potter, what happens to all of his Death Eaters, or even the more secretive supporters who weren’t willing to join the cause but had the same opinions on muggles (so basically were Slytherin)? There is a power void there, and there would be massive fallout. In Harry Potter, they really leave the world in shambles, and then jump suddenly to the future, where things have already gotten back to normal. An example of how this is done better is the end of the Hunger Games trilogy. Katniss and Peeta are both extremely broken people who are sent off on their own, at least for a little bit, because they are a danger to society. Yes, the main bad guy is gone, but things haven’t gotten fixed overnight, and only after a while do the protagonist lives get back to (some kind of) normal.

What is going to make your bad guy different than someone who just wants to kill or rule everyone else? What is their rise to power, or the tragic backstory that has driven them to this point?

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