Antagonists: How to create a great one.

The masters use many names for antagonists, including nemesis, opponent and villain.  Here’s what they have to say…

What’s an antagonist?

The antagonist, or Nemesis, “is the character who most stands in the way of the hero achieving his or her outer motivation,” says Michael Hauge.

John Truby agrees:  “The opponent is the character who most wants to keep the hero from achieving his desire.”

And so does Ronald B. Tobias:  “The antagonist is a device whose purpose is to deprive the protagonist of what she believes rightfully belongs to her.”

“Antagonists,” says Donald Maass, are “those who work against your protagonist.”

For David Corbett, “The opponent is the character with the ultimate power to deny, destroy, take away, or claim for himself what the protagonist wants.”

“An opposition character,” says James Scott Bell, is someone, “who has strong reasons to be opposed to the Lead character. “

An antagonist is a “Hero’s opponent,” says Dwight Swain.  “If he gets what he wants, Hero can’t achieve his heart’s desire.”

And last, an “antagonist,” says Robert Kernan, is “One who opposes another in a conflict. In literature it signifies the main character’s principal opponent, often the villain.  Any person in a story who comes in conflict with the hero (or protagonist) is an antagonist.”

A couple things to note about antagonists:

1. Antagonists don’t have to be evil.

He just needs to be “somehow standing in the way,” says Mr. Hauge.

“They can be active opponents or even friendly allies who cast doubt upon your protagonist’s actions or undermine his resolve,” says Mr. Maass.

“The antagonist may be someone who actually wants to help the protagonist, although their outward actions create major obstacles,” says Stanley D. Williams.  “The antagonist may also be an unwitting obstacle.”

Or the antagonist could also be “working in what the antagonist considers the protagonist’s best interest,” says Mary Buckham and Dianna Love, “think a business partner who believes his buddy is falling for the wrong woman or a teacher who won’t quit on a student who has potential.”

2. When the antagonist is evil, he’s known as a villain.

“The main difference between a villain and an antagonist is that the villain’s presence in the story will always cause fear and apprehension in the reader,” says Jessica Page Morrell. “If the reader is not afraid of him, then the character is not a good villain.”

“Villains are antagonists that have a shadow side,” says James Bonnet. “They personify something that was repressed and has turned nasty and compulsive. And they don’t play by the rules; they break the law. They do evil, antisocial things to gain their ends.”

“A villain is the personification of the danger that threatens your hero,” says Mr. Swain.  “Why should danger be personified?  For two reasons:  (a) Personification concentrates the danger down to a single source and thus gives unity to a story. (b) The personal villain can react to your hero’s efforts and, through continuing attacks, sharpen and intensify the conflict.  The primary characteristic of the villain, in turn, is ruthlessness.  Which means?  The villain is determined to have his own way, without regard to other people’s needs; and he’s uncompromising in his determination.”

What do antagonists do for us?

Robert McKee offers us “The Principle of Antagonism:  A protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.”

Characters “who are antagonistic to the protagonist serve perhaps the greatest function,” says Dara Marks, “because they create the obstacles that give the story its momentum.”

Need something more specific?

For Ms. Morrell, “A good antagonist:

  • provides complications and difficulties that elicit sympathy for the protagonist;
  • creates the basic situation or dilemma of the story;
  • reveals how the protagonist deals with adversity;
  • forces the protagonist into new physical or emotional territory; and
  • threatens the protagonist by inflicting physical or emotional pain.

The antics of the antagonist reveal the protagonist’s flaws and weaknesses as well as his strengths.”

How do you find and develop your antagonist?

“Identify the character who most opposes, drags down, works against, and throws doubt upon your protagonist,” says Mr. Maass. “That’s your antagonist.”

“Think about your story,” says Jeff Gerke. “What could be the primary obstacle in the way of what your main character wants?”

“Just remember,” says Mr. Williams, “something is only an obstacle because there is a goal in the first place. So make sure you know clearly what the physical goal is.”

“The best way to ensure that your hero has a foil clever and challenging enough to bring out the best–and worst–in [your hero] is to spend as much time developing your villain as you do your hero,” says Paula Munier.

“Do a complete backstory for your villain,” says Mr. Bell. “Look for those places in his past that explain why he does what he does in the present.”

Further, “the best antagonists are walking contradictions,” says Ms. Munier, “just as the best protagonists are.”

And if it isn’t clear already, give your antagonists wants, needs, flaws and symptoms, too.

“Your antagonist should possess the perfect qualities for his role and be a perfect counterpoint to your protagonist,” says Ms. Morrell.  “You also wants your antagonist’s behaviors to hit your protagonist’s flaws like an arrow hits a bull’s-eye, thwarting your protagonist’s desires with deadly accuracy and pushing him toward change.”

Last, Mr. Williams says, “there is not a generic form of what the antagonist arc should look like. The only hard-and-fast rules I’ve been able to come up with are these:

  • The antagonist always creates physical obstacles for the protagonist.
  • The antagonist forces the protagonist to confront the Moral Premise at the Moment of Grace. (More on that when we get to Plot, next month.)
  • The Moral Premise is true for all characters, even the antagonist.

Need some inspiration?

Antagonist Criteria

According to the masters, a great antagonist has a few specific qualities…

1. The antagonist interacts frequently with the hero.

“The hero and the opponent must come into direct conflict throughout the story,” says Mr. Truby. “Often this doesn’t seem to be the case. That’s why you must always look for the deepest conflict that your hero and opponent are fighting over.” “The trick is to find a natural reason for the hero and opponent to stay in the same place during the course of the story.”   (This is sometimes known as the crucible.)

“Everyone knows you need a force of opposition,” says Lisa Cron. “Without one, the protagonist has nothing to play against, making it damn near impossible for him to prove his worth, no matter how hard he tries. Which is why the force of opposition must be well defined–and present. It can’t be a nebulous threat that never really materializes, or an antagonist, no matter how potentially dastardly, who merely hovers meaningfully on the edge of the action but never actually does anything.”

“Making your nemesis visible does not necessarily mean that the reader knows the identity of the person,” says Mr. Hauge.  “In a murder mystery, for example, the audience may not know which character the hero is up against, but they know by the results of the nemesis’s actions that there is a specific individual providing the obstacles to the hero’s ability to solve the crime or stay alive.”

In this way, an antagonist interacts with the protagonist by deeds, but he can also interact with the protagonist through his minions.

And, “of course, the force of opposition doesn’t have to be a person,” says Ms. Cron. “It can be conceptual, like the straitjacket of string social conformity, the dehumanization of unchecked technology, or the tyranny of the letter of the law.  But–and it’s a big but–it can’t stay conceptual because, as we know, concepts are abstract: they don’t affect us, either literally or emotionally. What does affect us is a concept made specific and thus concrete. This means the concept needs to be personified by specific characters who try to force the protagonist to bend to their will.”

If a personal villain isn’t possible, then give the concept–such as a collective noun (“the Mafia”), a force of nature (“cancer”), or a quality of life (“the evil in the world”)–“human attributes,” says Mr. Swain. “How do you give an impersonal object or force human attributes? You write in such a manner as to give the impression that the object or force behaves as if it were a human being, with implied or explicit human feelings, human motivations.”

2. The antagonist is highly motivated.

“Something I run into with newer writers is that while the modus operandi of the antagonist is pretty clear, the antagonist’s ultimate evil plan is not,” says Julie Gray. “Think it through. If the antagonist gets their way in this situation–what, exactly are they planning to do next?  For some it seems a moot consideration because of course the bad guy is gonna be melted with a pail of water. But you really must think it through–because if you can’t image the machinations and future goals of your antagonist–how scary or formidable can they be to us?  Establishing this larger motive will give the viewer something to grasp onto.”

“Ordinarily, danger has already confronted the villain before the story starts,” says Mr. Swain. “His goals, his self-concept, have been threatened. He’s made his decision as to how to deal with that threat. Now, he carries out said decision. Ruthlessly.”

In fact, “if you don’t know why your villain is causing everybody else all this trouble–other than if he didn’t, there would be no plot–stop writing,” says Nancy Kress. “Think about the villain until you do know his psychology and motivation. Your story will be stronger.”

Need help developing your Highly Motivated Villain? Mr. Maass gives us a process:

  • Step 1:  Who is your novel’s principle antagonist?
  • Step 2: What is the biggest wrong that your antagonist must do?
  • Step 3: List twelve reasons why someone in real life would not do that, or would be prevented by others from doing that?
  • Step 4: Work out twelve reasons why, in this case, your antagonist is motivated to do the worst, and also why others are unable to prevent it.
  • Step 5: Incorporate the above results into your manuscript. Do not cheat. Add the extra pages. Put it all in.

3. The antagonist’s motivation is justified.

“Like protagonists, the best antagonists are motivated by powerful forces that stem from their complicated pasts,” says Ms. Morrell. “These motivations, along with their actions, must have a certain, understandable logic. So, while readers may not agree with an antagonist’s motives and ethics, they should understand how the antagonist or villain justifies them.”

“What you must remember is that everybody is the hero of his own story,” says Orson Scott Card. “Even if a character is completely evil, he will no doubt have his own internal story that depicts him as noble.”

“Everyone has justifications in his own mind for even the most heinous of actions,” says Ms. Kress. “Showing us an antagonist’s reasoning makes him seem much more real.”

“No matter how bad it seems to you, the bad guy thinks he’s in the right,” says Mr. Bell. “He does what he does because he believes he’s entitled. Give at least one beat in your story where the justification is made clear.”

Need help?  Donald Maass has another suggestion: “Assume that your antagonist is justified and right. Make her case in writing.

  • Find times in history when things ran her way and were good.
  • Find a passage from theology, philosophy, or folk wisdom that supports your antagonist’s outlook.
  • Choose one character whom your antagonist will win over.
  • In what way does your protagonist agree with your antagonist?”

“The more you can understand how your opponent has come to justify the wrong he commits, why it is essential to his view of himself in the world, and why he chose this path instead of another one, the more convincing and dramatically effective he will be,” says Mr. Corbett.

4. The antagonist is a formidable opponent.

The stronger and more formidable your nemesis, the more effective the story,” says Mr. Hauge.

“It’s important that he put up a really good fight,” says Ms. Cron. “This is crucial, since the protagonist is only as strong as the antagonist forces her to be.”

Mr. Gerke agrees:  “Make the thing blocking your hero’s path strong. It has to be a worthy adversary. Your hero is only as heroic as the strength of the villain she overcomes.”

“An antagonist is a threatening force and somehow makes the protagonist feel bad–shaky, unsure, worried, unworthy, unattractive, unloveable, you name it,” says Ms. Morrell. “When an antagonist appears in a story, he weakens the protagonist’s position–physically or emotionally–and keeps doing so until their differences are resolved. His role is to stand in the way of what your protagonist wants and needs, he must do this effectively, convincingly, and often intimately.”

“How do you make sure your villain will prove effective?” asks Mr. Swain, to which he answers:  (a) You lay out a private plan of action for him–a “villain’s plot,” so-called, that sets him in continuing opposition to the hero.

(b) You think him through as a person, so that he’ll fight uncompromisingly to the bitter end.

Also, “Give your antagonist a boost,” says Laura Whitcomb.  “If the problem is the solving of a code, make your villain an expert cryptologist. A murder trial? Make your villain the highest-paid defense attorney (or prosecutor) with the best record in town. Beef up the antagonist to make your protagonist the underdog.”

5. The antagonist has a note of goodness.

“When pure evildoers do evil, we simply shrug. When three-dimensional human beings for whom we have feelings do something wrong, we’re deeply disturbed,” says Mr. Maass. “That’s because we’ve taken them inside. Their wrongdoing becomes something we ourselves might have done. And that’s scary. Your main objective in creating antagonists, then, is not just to generate opposition for your protagonist, but to hold up a mirror to your reader–or maybe to yourself.”

“Just as you can make a hero more believable by giving him endearing imperfections, you can make a villain more believable by giving her compensating virtues,” says Mr. Card.  “Show that there is someone she loves or respects; show that she does keep some promises; show that she really was deeply wronged at some time, so that her hate and rate is partially justified.”

Also, “Just as you should understand what or whom the protagonist hates, you should also determine what or whom your opponent loves,” says Mr. Corbett. “And making the love noble–his children, his family, his honor, his way of life–increases the weight of the character and makes him more compelling. As with the protagonist’s hatred, the opponent’s love creates both a contradiction and a vulnerability, something he has to defend.”

Need help?  Mr. Maass has some questions to help us uncover The Good in the Bad:

  • What’s the worst thing your antagonist must do?  Make it against her principles. Make it unthinkable. Then make it imperative.
  • What does your antagonist believe in?  Who else shares those values? Why is your antagonist actually right?  When does your protagonist see that, too?
  • What does your antagonist most want to bring about? How is that something that everyone wants? Explain and add.
  • What do you like best about your antagonist? Demonstrate that in the biggest way possible.
  • In what way (big or small) is your antagonist like you? Show that one time.

6. The antagonist pushes the hero to act and to change.

“The antagonist forces the protagonist to take action,” says Peter Dunne.  “The antagonist is responsible for keeping the pressure on your protagonist to leave his comfort zone and deal with a matter he would rather not.”

“The antagonist’s job is to stand in the way of the protagonist’s desires and goals, thus forcing him to change,” says Ms. Morrell. “The antagonist’s main role is to force the protagonist to triumph over his real or perceived flaws in order to win the prize. Think of an antagonist as a sort of human roadblock, competitor, or nuisance who ultimately–and sometimes unintentionally–nudges the protagonist in the right direction.”

“By making things hard for the protagonist, they likewise create an environment in which transformation can take place,” says Ms. Marks.

So, “Make the opponent necessary,” says Mr. Truby.  “This has a very specific structural meaning. the main opponent is the one person in the world best able to attack the great weakness of the hero. And he should attack it relentlessly.  The necessary opponent either forces the hero to overcome his weakness or destroys him.”

Antagonists: Step up the Conflict

As Mr. McKee says, “When a story is weak, the inevitable cause is that forces of antagonism are weak.”  Here are two techniques to make them stronger:

1. Give your protagonist more than one antagonist.

As Mr. Truby says, “In average or simple stories, the hero comes into conflict with only one opponent. This standard opposition has the virtue of clarity, but it doesn’t let you develop a deep or powerful sequence of conflict, and it doesn’t allow the audience to see a hero acting within a larger society.”  For that, you need a web of oppositions, what Mr. Truby calls Four-Corner Opposition.

How do you make a web of oppositions?  By creating a hero, a main opponent, and at least two secondary opponents.  Keep these points in mind as you develop them:

  1. Each opponent should use a different way of attacking the hero’s great weakness.
  2. Try to place each character in conflict, not only with the hero but also with every other character.
  3. Put the values of all four characters in conflict.
  4. Think of each of the characters–hero and three opponents–as taking positions in the corners of a box.  Push the characters to the corners. In other words, make each character as different as possible from the other three.
  5. Extend the four-corner pattern to every level of the society. For example, you might set up a unique four-corner opposition within a society, an institution, a family, or even a single character.

2. Have your antagonist forces explore all shades of negativity.

“A story that progresses to the limit of human experience in depth and breadth of conflict must move through a pattern that includes the Contrary, the Contradictory, and the Negation of the Negation,” says Robert Mckee.  Here’s his process for how you do it:

Begin by identifying the Primary Value at stake in your story, the one that is preeminent and turns the Story Climax.  This might go back to your theme directly, or you might have to tease it out of your thematic premise. Mr. McKee uses the example of Justice.

Generally, the protagonist will represent the positive charge of this value; the forces of antagonism, the negative.  Life, however, is subtle and complex, rarely a case of yes/no, good/evil, right/wrong. There are degrees of negativity; it’s your job to identify them:

First, the Contradictory Value, the direct opposite of the positive.  In this case injustice.  Laws have been broken.

Between the Positive Value and its Contradictory, however, is the Contrary Value: a situation that’s somewhat negative but not fully the opposite.  The Contrary of justice is unfairness, a situation that’s negative but not necessarily illegal.

The Contradictory, however, is not the limit of human experience. At the end of the line waits the Negation of the Negation, a force of antagonism that’s doubly negative, a life situation that’s not just quantitatively but qualitatively worse. The Negation of the Negation is at the limit of the dark powers of human nature.  In terms of justice, this state is tyranny.

Positive Value: Justice
Contrary Value: Unfairness
Contradictory Value: Injustice
Negation of the Negation:  Tyranny

Generally, progressions run from the Positive to the Contrary in Act One, to the Contradictory in later acts, and finally to the Negation of the Negation in the last act, either ending tragically or going back to the Positive with a profound difference.  But you can start the negativity anywhere, so long as you explore all of its shades.  (We’ll get into Acts later, when we got to Plot.)

Last Bits of Antagonist Advice

The Ticking Clock.  “There is one accessory that no antagonist should leave home without: a ticking clock,” says Ms. Cron. “Nothing focuses the mind–not to mention the actions of the protagonist–better than a rapidly approaching deadline. This not only keeps the protagonist on track, but keeps the writer on track as well, by constantly reminder her that as much as she’d love to send the protagonist off on a soul-searching weekend…, all will be lost when the wrecking crew arrives at dawn.”

Compare and Contrast.  Give the antagonist “values that oppose the values of the hero,” says Mr. Truby. “The actions of the hero and the opponent are based on a set of beliefs or values. These values represent each character’s view of what makes life good. In the best stories, the values of the opponent come into conflict with the values of the hero. Through that conflict, the audience sees which way of life is superior. Much of the power of the story rests on the quality of this opposition.”

That said, Mr. Truby also advises that you give the antagonist “certain similarities to the hero. The contrast between hero and opponent is powerful only when both characters have strong similarities.  Each then presents a slightly different approach to the same dilemma [thematic premise]. And it is in the similarities that crucial and instructive differences become most clear.”

Top Books on Antagonists

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The book cover links above are Affiliate Links, which means I get a commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links, at no cost to you.  In other words, if you’re thinking of buying a copy of one of these books for your home craft library anyway, buying said copy through this link is a no-brainer way to help support this site. And I appreciate it. Thank you!


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Up next, on Wednesday

We’ll look at the antagonists of some of the stories we’ve read lately.  See you then!


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