Stan Lee once said, “Villains are the most important people in the story, because if the hero wasn’t fighting some unpredictable guy, or girl, or monster, who you didn’t feel the hero didn’t have a chance to defeat… then there would be nothing to impress you.”.
Stories are defined by conflict. If the Protagonist didn’t have obstacles to overcome, their story wouldn’t feel fulfilling. Antagonists are those obstacles; characters who oppose the Protagonist, cause trouble, or hinder their progress. Oppose is the key word here, as an Antagonist may not be malicious, or even evil.
So how do you create memorable foes? You can start with the same formula detailed in our protagonist article. Start by giving them clear goals and values, or make them relatable and consistent with your setting.
As we define darkness as the absence of light, an Antagonist is defined by their opposition to the Protagonist; the dynamic they share are what make villains stand out. New elements can be added to make your story’s foes memorable, such as:
- Playing on the duality between your hero and villain
- Creating a personal dynamic between them
- Increasing the threat they pose to the protagonist
- Giving them interesting motives
Element 1: Duality
The first trick is to play on the duality of your Protagonist and Antagonist.
Let’s take a look at Carl Jung, one of the pioneers of modern psychiatry. Jung believed in the existence of archetypes: symbolic characters present across all myths and cultures, such as the Mentor or the Mother figure. To Jung, those characters represent various parts of our unconscious mind. These theories remain contestable, but they provide a good framework for fictional characters.
One famous archetype is the Shadow, a person’s dark side embodying all the feelings one represses. An Antagonist can be the hero’s shadow made real, their flaws made flesh. As a storyteller, you can highlight the similarities between your hero and villain to make the latter more unsettling.
Let’s take Venom from Spiderman, as an example. Venom is more or less an evil Spiderman, sharing the same abilities but using them for revenge, or murderous justice; power without responsibility. Moreover, the original Venom, Eddie Brock, is also a photographer just like Peter Parker. Similarly, he too has a powerful, but twisted, sense of justice; one without mercy or restraint. He’s even an orphan like Peter in more recent adaptations. Eddie Brock’s similarities to Peter Parker imply that he is who Spider-man might have turned into, had he let his resentment consume him. When Spiderman confronts Venom, he confronts who he could become, should he stray from the right path. Above all, Venom presents not only a physical challenge, but an existential one.
Besides making the Antagonist the Protagonist’s mirror, you also make them the yin to their yang. Another great comic example is Superman and Lex Luthor. A benevolent and all-powerful alien is opposed by an all-too human genius embodying mundane evils such as corporate greed. The contrast in ideology, design, and strengths are what make their rivalry memorable.
Element 2: Create a personal dynamic
Next, you can make the dynamic between the Protagonist and Antagonist more personal than a fight between good and evil. What if your Antagonist’s goal isn’t to defeat the Protagonist, but to recruit them? What if they are a family member? Or harms the hero’s loved ones instead of attacking them directly? Giving your Antagonist an emotional edge over the protagonist can generate great tension.
One such dynamic is in Game of Thrones, through Littlefinger’s mentorship of Sansa Stark. Littlefinger’s goal isn’t to kill Sansa; but to corrupt her and dispose of her family. In other words, their conflict isn’t an impersonal fight, but a visceral, human drama. Doubly so due to their similarities as disappointed idealists.
To continue with Jung, repressing the Shadow only makes it stronger. It is better to accept its existence and learn to integrate it into one’s personality, without letting it become dominant. The Sansa-Littlefinger dynamic follows this development: Sansa defeats Littlefinger by exploiting his emotional weaknesses, thus embracing her manipulative side… while remaining firm in her loyalty to her family. She tamed the Littlefinger part of herself.
Element 3: Make them a credible threat
You can also play on the threat the Antagonist present to the Protagonist, by making them the Goliath to their David. These villains present a credible danger that cannot be easily pushed aside, and their defeat takes effort. Important Antagonists often defeat the Protagonist during the first encounter, forcing the hero, for instance, to use his wits to overcome them during the second round. These Antagonists make a lasting change after their arrival, often darkening the story’s tone with their very presence.
Let us examine L from the manga “Death Note.” A brilliant detective, L is the main opponent to the protagonist, Light Yagami, a genius teenager trying to purge the world of criminals through supernatural means. L is just as smart as his opponent, and moreover commands vast resources, such as FBI agents. Their first confrontation results in L outwitting Light, and latter encounters keep putting pressure on the Protagonist. However, L is eventually overcome by Light after pushing him to his limits. L remains a famous because he was the Protagonist’s intellectual equal, and therefor his defeat felt earned.
You may even go even farther by making the Antagonist truly unbeatable. In the Cthulhu mythos, defeating the titular monster is never an option; delaying its victory is in fact the best outcome. This is mostly used in horror, as the sense of impending doom, dread, and despair that Cthulhu inspire are what make it, and the genre, unique.
Element 4: Give them a Point
Some Antagonists are memorable because they have a point. They challenge not only the heroes, but also readers’ pre-conceptions.
In the Web Serial Worm, the protagonist Taylor Hebert, a bullied teenager turned supervillain, is confronted by the Protectorate, a group of local superheroes. Most of these superheroes, such as the heroine Dragon, are good people fighting who they perceive to be a career criminal. Indeed, they could have been protagonists themselves had the perspective been reversed. While Taylor remains sympathetic, the conflict’s ambiguity can cause the audience to wonder if the Protectorate might be more just. These Antagonists stand out even more if your hero’s goals aren’t “good” or selfless.
Giving your antagonist stranger goals can work too. Half of the terror Cthulhu inspires comes from the fact his motives are impossible to grasp; implying our human goals and achievements do not matter in the big picture.
Combining those elements
Memorable antagonists usually put the focus on one of these elements. However, some manage to combine them all at once into an explosive cocktail. Cinema’s iconic villain, Darth Vader, represents a dark mirror to the protagonist, Luke, shares a familial bond with him, and establishes his power by killing Luke’s master, and winning their first encounter on foot. His original motive, to save his wife’s life, makes him more complex than what his appearance would suggest.
However, do not go too far with these techniques. While a personal connection between the Antagonist and Protagonist enhances their conflict, making it your villain’s only defining feature might make him one dimensional. Invincible Antagonists can make readers see the story too depressing, or predictable. In the end, these techniques are bonuses to enhance a character; they shouldn’t be all there is to them.
So, how do you know if you have created a memorable antagonist? Ask yourself these questions:
- Does my Antagonist sufficiently contrast or complement my Protagonist?
- Do my Antagonist and Protagonist share an interesting personal dynamic?
- Is my Antagonist a credible threat?
- Are my Antagonist’s motives unorthodox?
If you have good answers to those questions, then congrats. You most likely have made a memorable Antagonist!