“How do you motivate your antagonist without making them seem like Dr. Evil?” – Anthony L.
The problem I have with stories like Lord of the Rings (hey, I can call it out because I’m a huge fan!) is that it seems like the bad guy is complete jerk in every possible way. Yeah Sauron, we see you up there in your ebony tower, hatin’ on the world and purposefully spewing creepy creatures to get in our protagonists’ way. We’re onto you.
The truth is that in the real world, bad guys are just people. So, how do you make those people believable and tough-to-beat? Here’s 10 easy steps to create your villain’s arc:
1. What does your antagonist stand for?
Who’s your protagonist? What does she stand for? Good. Your antagonist stands for the exact opposite.
Their moral compasses are automatically going to clash. They might be able to have a coffee without any major arguments, but they won’t be able to agree on, say, morality.
2. What does your antagonist long for?
World domination? A box of illicit 100 proof chocolate? To be a cabaret dancer? We all have our dreams. It can be anything, but they have to want it bad enough to do almost anything to get it.
3. What’s your bad guy’s wound?
This is some traumatic experience in his past that led him to become not-quite-good-or-wholesome. That thing that we can point to and say “He’s so bad because he was adopted from his father’s enemy and not treated as an equal to his handsome, headstrong, muscle-bound brother.”
4. What does he believe?
This is closely linked to the wound: If his talents for, say, misdirection and trickery were never appreciated as a kid (all while his brother’s obvious meat-headedness were lauded, poor guy), then he’s going to believe that he deserves to be respected. And the easiest way for people to respect him? World domination. Duh.
5. What does he fear?
This is the thing your antagonist is going to avoid at all costs. Taking a look at our good pal Sauron, we know that he fears a couple of things: a) Loss of control/power, and b) Being put to shame by a couple of scrawny hobbitses. But let’s make your guy’s fear a lot more human. In The Hunger Games, President Snow also fears a lack of control, but the movies do a great job of showing another layer to that fear: He’s afraid his granddaughter will be a casualty in the war he’s started. Look at that! Just like magic, we’ve proved that even antagonists have (cold, shriveled) hearts.
6. Who does he fear?
“The antagonist is the hero in his own story. In fact, your story’s protagonist is the antagonist’s antagonist.” –Chuck Wendig
What that means is that the antagonist’s means are justified. Your antagonist is going along, minding her own business of playing an innocent game of croquet and chopping off heads (necessarily!) to keep insurrection and chaos from spreading over Wonderland, when suddenly…
An immigrant in a blue petticoat shows up and decides she knows how things ought to be run.
7. How Do they Meet?
Very rarely is the antagonist’s goal going to be (at least at first) to destroy the protagonist. Most of the time, your baddie’s not even going to know your darling little hero even exists. But here’s the kicker:
The antagonist’s journey is going to cross paths with the protagonist’s journey at the worst. Possible. Moment.
Now, suddenly, the villain has to course-correct for this unexpected doe-eyed girl trying to throw a wrench in her plans. Generally that involves setting up traps n’ sh*t to keep the protagonist from screwing the plan up.
8. How Does he Fight?
As the protagonist continues on her journey and starts to succeed a bit more than feels comfortable, your bad guy is going to go a little crazy. He will throw everything possible at the protagonist to see what sticks. He will drive pencils into peoples’ foreheads and give a boat-full of convicts a bomb to blow up some innocents (“Why so serious?”). He might even get so frantic that he makes a mistake. Perfect opportunity for your hero to take advantage.
9. Oh! My Achille’s Heel!
Every hero has his kryptonite. So does the villain. He’s going to keep this secret hidden in the deepest, darkest recesses (say, six layers into his subconscious only accessible via creating elaborate dreams and planting ideas there), and might even unleash it at an opportune moment to try to cripple the protagonist (“Luke, I’m the world’s worst parent”), not knowing it will be his downfall.
But not so fast. Run through this quick checklist :
- Have I made my bad guy empathetic? Someone the reader might (almost) feel sorry for when he gets defeated?
- Does he have a relatively even list of flaws and positive attributes? (Maybe he’s cunning, but thinks he’s better than everyone else because of it).
- Has he set out to accomplish a goal?
- Is my bad guy smart? Has he done everything conceivably possible to avoid his fate? (Heck, maybe he’s too smart and out-engineered himself!)
- Have I made his defeat directly correlate to the protagonist’s strength and smarts? (Don’t let her die just ‘cause she’s allergic to water and a rainstorm happens to come by. Have your protag toss that bucket ‘o water.)
All done! Now you may defeat your antagonist, without making typical newbie villain mistakes.
Got a question? Tweet me @beccaquibbles with the hashtag #askbecca, email me at becca [at] DIYMFA [dot] com, or just leave a comment below! You could see your question answered right here at Ask Becca!