Antagonists AKA Villains
We’re moving into… *dramatic music* villains!
What is a villain, exactly? Well, another name for a villain is “antagonist” – that is, someone who is against the “protagonist” (our hero.) Thus, the villain is the character who is against or opposed to (conflicting with) the hero.
Heroes and villains have been conflicting throughout the centuries, specifically in the form of good versus evil. Any good story and any story worth hearing/reading has a hero and a villain clashing with each other. Try to name ONE story – just one – that did not have a hero and villain that was interesting. For example: We could say that “the tree stood tall”. But this alone is not enough. In order to understand the tree, we must understand that the vulnerable seed was exposed to birds and other hungry creatures; we must understand that the harsh winds blew against the tree, bending it’s branches, breaking off its leaves, and threatening to bring storms in; we must understand that there have been grueling winters in which the tree lay dormant, tested to see if it would survive. Without conflict, there is no story. Who provides this conflict? The antagonist of the story (for characters, we call these “villains” – as a side note, we’ll use the term “villains” in this post to reference both villains and antagonists, which could be of a human or an environmental origin, because, frankly, “antagonist” takes a lot more effort to type. *Smirk.* Actually, we’ll use the term “villain” because, in this lesson, we will mainly cover internal character more than external source. Though, the principles in this lesson could easily be applied to any sort of antagonist.)
The Clash of Antagonist versus Protagonist
The first thing you’ll notice about any antagonist is that they have a grudge, peeve, or clash with the hero. Ultron was set on destroying humanity (whereas The Avengers were set on protecting it); Mr. Eliot wanted to marry Anne, but Anne was still in love with Frederick Wentworth (and we all know how gossip spreads!); the White Witch wanted to stop the prophesy from coming true and tried to kill the Pevensie children (lesson learned: beware of Turkish Delight); The Sherriff of Nottingham wanted Robin Hood arrested (an interesting twist in the story, seeing that Robin Hood is the more honorable man); and the list could go on.
The main point is: in order for a story to be interesting, it must have a clash between antagonist (villain) and protagonist (hero). This is the basis of a great story. This is the foundation a great story is laid on. This is the primary essential element of any great plot. Without conflict (and specifically, conflict between a protagonist and antagonist), there is no intriguing plot. Which leads to a flat story.
So, to craft a great story, what should you do? What should you focus (a great deal of time/effort) on?
Your villain and hero!
Some essential questions to ask:
- What are your hero’s purpose, goal, and greatest attribute?
- What are your villain’s purpose, goal, and greatest flaw?
- How and why do your villain and hero clash?
- What happens because of this conflict?
- How is this conflict resolved?
Food for thought: Chris Colfer said, “a villain is just a victim whose story hasn’t been told.” What do you make of this statement?
Read on, Writer!
Villains in Stand-Alones
Obviously, there is going to be a difference between how you approach writing a villain within a stand-alone (single) story and how you will approach writing a villain in a series.
Writing a villain in a stand-alone is going to be shorter and more to-the-point. Depending on what you write (play, poem, short story, novella, or novel) you will have a varying amount of space to portray your villain; but in any of these cases, you will only have a single story to get your plot, character arc, and message across. Not to worry, though! This can work for you, if you take some extra steps and precautions to make sure your villain is strong, believable, and noteworthy.
The biggest tips to remember when writing a villain in a stand-alone are:
- Show your villain’s depth, potential (for evil and/or good), and conclusion (by this we don’t mean death. We mean the conclusion of your villains twisted character arc.)
- Side note: What is a villains “twisted” character arc? Well, a villain can go one of two ways. The “normal” villain-character-arc is BACKWARDS. Your villain goes from bad to worse. If you think of a rainbow (or the shape of it, at least), this is what we mean – visually – by “character arc.” Normally, a character arc will start on the left and go to the right, just like reading words on a page. You move forward. Your villain’s character arc, on the other hand, will most often be backwards. He/she will start on the “right” and move toward the “left” – he/she will go from bad to worse.
- Make your villain memorable. Why is The Joker so intriguing? What makes Frankenstein’s monster so timelessly classic? Why is Sauron so relatable as a villain?
- Make your villain believable. Every villain must be believable. No one would believe that John Wilkes Booth killed Napoleon and then lived happily ever after in Buckingham Palace (as he learned to become a Jedi.) This is a stupid example. And the point is clear: you need to make your villains believable. I wouldn’t believe that “all men in the Confederate army were evil.” Nor would I believe that someone who loves a child would then kill that child willingly and without emotion or regret. (Let’s look at an example from, my personal favorite, ABC’s Once Upon A Time: one of the biggest reasons for bad reviews on the first half of season 4 was lack of believable motivation for the characters. We know that Rumpelstiltskin wouldn’t use the – very secret – dagger in front of a new, unknown sorcerer like Elsa. We also know that The Snow Queen wouldn’t push Emma in front of a car to use her “magic” in a land without magic – they are, of course, outside of Storybrooke. Why were these things done? Because they were necessary to keep the episode going. But they drove a wedge of unrealistic inconsistencies which lessen our belief in the characters and plot.) The point being: Do you research; study people; make notes (always.) This is an essential key to great stories: believable and true-to-life characters and situations.
- Make your villain complete. By this I really mean: no one believes something while doubting that it’s true (am I right?) Your villain needs to be sold on his/her task, mission, goal, ideals, passion, etc. That being said, he/she can LEARN something to change their minds later on. But always remember: he/she must believe and believe 100% during the course of their villainy and/or arc. If you want a true villain, he/she needs to believe he/she is RIGHT. “You don’t truly understand an antagonist until you understand why he’s a protagonist in his own version of the world.” (John Rogers)
- Don’t forget the conclusion! A smash-bang ending is always the grand-finale key – and one of the hardest parts – of a great story. The ending needs to be satisfactory. It also needs to conclude the villains story (as you will see, even if you write a series, every story needs something to be resolved. Something. Anything. A good ending is strategically placed so that the reader will be starving for more – or else completely satisfied. If you are writing a series, refer to the section below for more details.)
Villains in Series
The biggest difference between writing a villain in a stand-alone and writing a villain in a series is that you have more time. There are more pages, more perspective, and more situations to bring your villain from point A to point B (or, we could say in many cases, from point B to point A). Since you have more time, you can really flesh out your villain. It is safe to say that villains in series will be – or should be – more memorable than those of a stand-alone (and I don’t mean this in a negative way – villains should be memorable no matter what. But it is true in every area of life that the longer you get to know someone, the more you will understand them.) Orson Scott Card hit this subject head on when he wrote in his best-seller, Ender’s Game, “in the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love the way that they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them… I destroy them.” Your hero will be better equipped to fight and defeat his/her enemy when he/she understand the enemy – the villain. And beware: the more you get to know someone, the more you understand them. This will be a significant privilege to you as a writer. You will be able to show your readers/viewers/listeners a whole new world. They will come to understand your villain. You have the opportunity to let your readers/viewers/listeners fall in love with your characters. This is a great power; and with great power comes great responsibility. So, be responsible; don’t let your villains lag behind. Strengthen them. Make them the best they can be. Make them lovable. Make them abhorrent. Make them twist our emotions.
If you are writing a series, the biggest tip we have for you:
Make sure you end each story/section/novel on the best note possible. The greatest endings are often found by playing around with the location. You may think it’s best to end this story here; but there might work a WHOLE lot better. Consider the endings of some of your favorite series. Can you pick a better place to have ended one of the books? Now, choose the one with the greatest ending and flip through to a random page on the end (preferable move to the nearest scene/chapter ending.) What if the book had ended here? Would it have been as effective – for all of the characters AND the plot?
Think about these villains and write down what you learn (hint: take notes, specifically, about what makes them unique. What makes them memorable? What makes them noteworthy? What makes them strong? What makes you like them? What makes you hate them? What makes you want to see them crushed and/or have a happy ending or redemption?)
- The Phantom of the Opera (The Phantom of the Opera)
- The Joker (Batman)
- Smaug the Dragon (The Hobbit)
- Frankenstein’s monster (Frankenstein)
- Inspector Javert (Les Miserables)
- Captain Ahab (Moby Dick)
- Rumpelstiltskin (Once Upon A Time)
With pen to paper,