Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Allure of the Antagonist

I have read many posts about the MC (main character). I have learnt a lot about the protagonist. How to make him/her more likeable,  memorable, rounded and grow  by the end of the book.

 I think in our mad rush to create wonderful and lovable protagonists, we are forgetting a very important character in our manuscripts. The Antagonist. Who single handedly drives the conflict. Who creates tension. Who is responsible for creating obstacles in our character’s life; of plunging their  lives in darkness, for dumping problems and anxieties in their lives.

The protagonist and antagonist are two sides of the same coin. Without them our manuscript is incomplete. Having a strong antagonist is as important as  having  a strong  protagonist. While working on my current WIP, I realized that I had paid a lot of attention to my protagonist, but, where my antagonist was concerned, I had a weak one. It  was no wonder then,  that the  conflict  in my manuscript was  tilted in the protagonist’s favor. Alas, that would not make for a good  and  intriguing book.

To have a tough  conflict the antagonist has to be as strong as the protagonist. If the protagonist is powerful, then the antagonist has to be equally powerful. If the protagonist is clever and resourceful, then the antagonist has to be equally clever and resourceful. If the balance tilts in one person’s favour, the conflict loses its appeal. But if we have two powerful forces, that’s when the conflict becomes interesting and the battle  between them engrossing and intriguing. Till the last minute the reader must keep guessing who is going to win the war.

We have to constantly ask ourselves  what are our antagonist’s strengths? What are the advantages he has that give him  an edge over our main character. Is he able to capitalize  on his strengths and advantages to thwart their  attempts? Is he able to push them  into corners? What about his weaknesses?  Is  the main character aware of   the chinks in his armour? What is the antagonist’s safeguard against the protagonist?  

To  have a strong conflict,  I have to  give both the protagonist and the antagonist  an equal number  of strengths and weaknesses. A battle grips us when there are two powerful  forces; forces pitted against each other, forces who would go to any length  to win. Who is about to find the chink in the other’s armour  first? Who is able to capitalize on the other person’s weakness first will decide the winner?

In a nutshell to create an edge of the seat conflict and a memorable antagonist we need:

1.      A lovable protagonist opposite a dislikeable antagonist.

2.      A strong and clever protagonist against an  equally strong and clever  antagonist.

3.      The strengths of the protagonist equal the strengths of the antagonist.

4.      The weaknesses of the antagonist is on par  with the weaknesses of the protagonist.

5.      Who is able to find the other’s weakness first? This will decide the outcome of the conflict.

I loved Harry Potter as much as I disliked Voldemort. I wanted Harry to kill Voldemort  come what may. Both were equally powerful forces and their clashes were page turners. They were two formidable forces with an equal number of strengths and weaknesses.

Is the antagonist on top of your character development? Do you believe  that powerful antagonists drive the conflict better? What are the things you all are doing to  create powerful antagonists? We all would love to know.


  1. What a wonderful post! It's also very helpful. Will bookmark it as a favourite.

  2. Right! The antagonist has to be rich and well rounded too, otherwise he/she/it ends up being flat and caricature-ish.
    Great post, as always Rachna!

  3. Great post, Rachna! So often it's tempting to simply make the antagonist a foil for the protagonist's virtues and they both fall flat.

  4. Ack what a creepy picture! =) He still weirds me out!

    I'm going to mold my antagonist with love in my next WIP. So much so he might actually become lovable. ;)

  5. Yes! You're exactly right when you say that the antagonist has to be the equal of the protagonist or the story is not balanced.


  6. This is good info! I have much to learn in this area; thanks for the input:)

  7. Anonymous, thanks!

    Lydia, a rich and well rounded antagonist makes perfect sense. Anything else looks caricaturish, weak and uninteresting.

    Elizabeth, many times I have noticed that the antagonist is just a foil for the protagonist's virtues, that's when I lose interest in the book.

    Anne, I am moulding my antagonist with so much love that now it has started freaking me out. I want my readers to hate him, not fall in love with him.

    Jai...two powerful opponents who clash often make for a good story.

    Karen, we all are still learning. Everytime I work on my WIP, I learn something new.

  8. Ooh great post and so true :)

    I love creating both characters. Yes, even memoir has 'characters'

    And thank you for your lovely comment on my blog post today. It was very encouraging :)

  9. Interesting post.

    I think it depends on the book. In Kristin Cashore's best-selling GRACELING, the first antagonist was left behind at the end of Part One, and the second antagonist lurked in the background (and sent out minions) while the protagonist struggled to reach him in Part Two.

    A great example of an antagonist starting out boorish and becoming sympathetic can be found in Clare B. Dunkle's THE HOLLOOW KINGDOM.

  10. Excellent post as I am now just developing my antagonist in this present book and as you said, I need him to be as strong as my MC. I am weak in this area and so your points were very useful to me!

  11. Loved this post, Rachna. Your passion shines through yet again. :)

  12. Great post, Rachna. Your point about having a lovable protag pitted against an ugly antagonist is well-taken. This past year, I read three books that did not appeal to me for the very reason that the PROTAGONIST was very unlikable - perhaps better suited as the 'villains.' I think you can have dark, edgy MCs, but they have to have a redeemable quality/trait that allows the reader to relate. Same as with your villain. He can't be ALL bad... he, too, needs those redeeming qualities you mention.

  13. Thank you so much for sending this link! I love your points about the antagonist, and it's another reminder that I have lots of work to do on mine. This was wonderful, thank you.