Creating antagonists can be challenging and fun for writers. The challenge of course, is creating villains that are believable. Gone are the days when you immediately recognized the villain because of the black hat. Last week I picked up a book I had read as a child. The cover had a storm-shrouded house on a cliff edge, with the young governess running from it, lit by moonlight, and looking back over her shoulder in horror. I got so much enjoyment out of re-reading that book. Took me about five minutes. These days, though, the villain must be realistic, believable, and with recognizable reasons for doing what he/she does, even if the reasons are insane. Jessica Page Morrell has a great book called Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches, about creating believable antagonists; it’s well worth reading.
One odd question I’ve received lately, is for suggestions on ‘evil’ names. It appears some beginning writers think that a villain’s name must be evil, although I’m not sure what an ‘evil’ name sounds like. I usually respond that the character makes the name evil, not the other way around. ‘Ted’ wasn’t an evil name until associated with Ted Bundy. Most writers already know this, and know that a truly horrific and terrifying antagonist is one that could live next door and not be recognized as the wearer of the black hat.
Personally, the antagonist is, for me, my favorite character. I think it goes back to highschool days and secret crushes on the bad boys. Plus, that character can be the most challenging to write. A story I wrote had a character based loosely on a relative. As my own private retaliation, the character died in the first draft. Oh, the outcry in the writer’s group! Turns out that character was their favorite and many recognized aspects of the character from people they knew. I took their advice, resurrected the character and ended up with a much stronger story.
A character who creates strong reactions in the readers is one to hang on to and not kill off, which sounds obvious to writers until we have a character we really want to do away with. Antagonists can be the character who holds the whole story together, keeps the reader turning the pages, and can be more important than the protagonist. Which can actually be something to watch out for if you don’t want that antagonist taking over.
So what antagonists remain with you after finishing a book, and why? Do you prefer developing the protagonist or the antagonist and why? Have you learned more about the craft of writing through the protagonist or the antagonist? How do you develop an antagonist that is believable?