Monday, November 17, 2014

Antagonists: Make Them Unique

Once again, I was completely at a loss for what to write about today (seriously, please make recommendations about what ya'll would like to see me talk about in regards to writing. It would be beneficial for all of us). Then I woke up this morning, got my coffee and cereal, sat down and started watching the news.

No, this isn't about the news. Once I sat down and turned on the television, I started thinking about IN A HANDFUL OF DUST, by Mindy McGinnis. Also known as: the book I reviewed last Saturday.

What got me thinking were the "villains." I'm using quotes because they aren't really the "villain" of the story, just a variety of antagonists; unfortunately, my mind tends to make certain words synonyms for each other instead of leaving them as related terms. Basically, I'm apologizing right now for jumbling up the two words.

Right here is where I stopped writing this post, stared at the title (which read: "Villains: Make Them Unique") and decided to change it to "Antagonists: Make Them Unique. Definitely makes more sense, now.

Anyway, what got me thinking was the fact that there are a number of antagonists in McGinnis' most recent book (off the top of my head I'm thinking three, but there could most definitely be more). Each one of them was completely different from another.

How's that possible, though? They all want the same thing: food, water, weapons, survival. And, yet, they all manage to have their own personalities, their own wants and fears, and their own methods for getting what they think will suit them best.

Their differences are extremely important when it comes to writing antagonists. Heck, it's important for writing any character in your book (villains, protagonists, side-characters). Consider the fact that they need to stand out; they need to have a shape all their own, and if they start looking/sounding/thinking/acting the same, then what's the point of having more than one? It doesn't matter how many you have (although, really, don't go overboard; like I said, IN A HANDFUL OF DUST had, like, three, and that's basically three groups, with certain people at the head. Those are the antagonists I'm talking about), just remember to treat them all like people.

Look at Harry Potter. Draco Malfoy is an extremely consistent antagonist whose attitude stems from basically being the spoiled little rich body with a superiority complex. He hates being shown up, and he also kind of hates the fact that Harry Potter is a more well-known name than his own. Later in the series, he simply becomes desperate as Voldemort claims a hold over his entire life. His attentions even switch from making Harry's life miserable to struggling with his own demons.

What about Dudley, Uncle Vernon, and Aunt Petunia? Their antagonism comes from their belief that anything that is not human is freakish. Also consider the fact: Petunia's sister got killed by bad magic. She'd already alienated Lily for her freakish tendencies, and then she gets killed by them? Well, by golly, she knew all along there was something wrong and dangerous about magic. Why on earth would you want your nephew following in the same footsteps?

And don't forget the Minister of Magic, who, through the entire fifth book, did everything in his power to make Harry and Dumbledore and anyone associated with them look like crackpot fools. Because he was afraid; nobody wanted to return to the dark days of Voldemort.

Fear really is an excellent motivator for people, don't you think?

Those are just three examples (and I think we all know by now that there are countless antagonists in the Harry Potter series).

To wrap this up, here are just a few things that I feel are good things to look at and think about when drudging up an antagonist:

Setting-more than just the overall world (since that's impacting everyone), look at their individual experience with the world. How have certain events and people influenced them through their life? How has that shaped and molded their outlook?

Background-before they entered the present world of your novel, before they met the protagonist: what was their life like?  Who or what made them the way they are? How did they survive to their current age and mental state, and how did those experiences make them see things differently?

Motivation-extremely key for any kind of character: why are they doing what they're doing? What's in it for them? What's fueling their actions?

Relationship to the Protagonist-here's a big one. See, the antagonist wouldn't be an antagonist unless they were somehow keeping the protagonist from their goal, right? Which means that at some point, in some small or large way, they're going to interact with your main character. What about the protagonist makes them tick? Why are they at odds, what's the conflict between them?

Limits-how far are they willing to go to get what they want/keep the protagonist from getting what they want? What's their limit? How far will they go until they refuse to go further? Will they kill? Will they blackmail? Torture? Subject themselves to someone else's power, sit back and watch another character do dastardly deeds and say nothing?

So, that's not the entire list. By far. But I mean, just some things to think about when thinking about the character(s) that pop up in a bad situation just to make things work.

So I ask you: how do you think up your antagonists?

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How do you make your antagonists stand apart? @Rae_Slater shares her own process for thinking up human obstacles (Click to Tweet)

Things to think about when creating realistic antagonists and adversaries in your novel via @Rae_Slater (Click to Tweet)


  1. Well said, darling. A good antagonist makes a book that much more enjoyable, and I always have the most fun coming up with my antagonists. Your villains should have as much depth as real people. That's what makes them compelling. Excellent post!

    1. You said it; I love when antagonists are well-rounded, and even when you hate them but love them all at the same time. Those are the most perfect ones, particularly when they're relatable. Thanks ,dear!