What Are Antagonists
When people think of an antagonist, they often think of them as the Bad Guy. While not inaccurate, that’s a great oversimplification. The antagonist is the antithesis to the protagonist, and that doesn’t always equate to an evildoer. They are there to antagonize our hero.
Their goals and intentions should directly mirror those of our main character. Why? Because that sets up a perfect push-pull challenge that will force our main character to think hard about why they want what they want, and how wrong things would go if they didn’t get it.
The antagonist exists to deepen our understanding of the protagonist.
Antagonist VS Protagonist
The foundation of your story is that your character wants something. The antagonist should want whatever directly opposes that goal. If your character wants the ring, the antagonist should want the ring for himself. If your character wants the healing power of the moonflower, your antagonist should want to keep her from obtaining it.
When the antagonist is an equal force, they become an obstacle that the protagonist must overcome to move forward. This is the perfect recipe for rising tension that leads to an unavoidable dispute where there is one clear winner and one clear loser.
At the same time, the antagonist is not this blockade the hero is going to punch through. They are actively contriving new ways on how to keep the main character at bay. They have their own reasons behind why they want the opposite of the hero, and those reasons are what fuels them through to the end—just like the protagonist.
Designing an Effective Antagonist
When you designed your protagonist, you took the time to determine what this person wanted and why. What their backstory looks like. What’s at stake if they lose this battle. The same effort should be put into creating your antagonist.
It’s not enough for your bad guy to be evil for the sake of evil. Gone are the days when a story can stand on the Good VS Evil argument alone. An antagonist who wants to destroy the world because, “Muhahaha, I’m so vile!” is a generic doomsday villain. We don’t need any more of those.
Let’s go back to that moonflower. Our character needs it for its healing properties. Our anti-character wants to keep her from it. Why? Maybe it will be used to heal an outcast who holds ominous secrets the antagonist doesn’t want released. Or perhaps the moonflower attracts a mythological creature with desirable capabilities and the antagonist wants it for themself.
There are many reasons you can come up with, but there must be an answer to that why. The antagonist must be just as fleshed out as the protagonist. Enough that they see themselves as perfectly justified in their actions; even going so far as seeing themselves as the hero of their own story.
That promises us a true battle of wills. One where both of them will have done and sacrificed everything they can. Not because the moonflower was important but because their reasons behind wanting it were.
You could put any noun in place of the moonflower. They could fight over an external hard drive, a locket necklace, or a birth certificate. It could be a relationship, a community, or a paradigm. It is not so much what they’re fighting over, but why they want it, that will push them to earn it.
Can You Switch Perspectives?
Think about whatever story you’re currently writing. Would it be possible to switch the roles between the protagonist and antagonist? Put your “bad guy” into the main perspective. Think about the things they may narrate to the reader. The memories they might recall. Do they have a good argument for why they want what they want? If they win at the end of the story, what happens to the world?
From their POV, the protagonist is the obstacle they must overcome. There are things they’re going to have to do that they don’t want to. But they will do what it takes because they believe that what they’re doing is necessary
This does not by any means turn your bad guy into a really good person who loves children and is the best guest at Christmas parties. Both characters will still be ground down to their bones in desperation to get what they want. This is where their true colors will show through.
You still have an obligation to your reader to make the protagonist likeable and the antagonist into… well… a bad guy. The things your antagonist will do to get their way will prove their moral compass to be inferior to your protagonist’s.
This Is What Stories Are About
We read stories to broaden our knowledge of what it means to be human. In a dire situation where a delicate moonflower might make or break a village, what punches will the characters pull? Will they put their needs above the needs of the many? Will they harm others?
Antagonists will cross these lines. Protagonists (usually) won’t. Even if you do have a nitty gritty main character who occasionally offs people and steals, they will still have redeeming qualities that will take center stage by the end of the story.
As humans reading other humans, we already know there will be suffering and confusion. What we look for is that little spark of hope that people really can overcome all odds without sacrificing their humanity.