Okay, so not all antagonists are evil. Not all of them are even human. Antagonists come in so many forms, but often times they are harder to nail down because you can’t get in their head. There’s nothing worse than an antagonist that doesn’t seem threatening to your protagonist. Actually there is something worse, an antagonist that is so evil and so impenetrable that there is no way for the protagonist to possibly succeed. Getting your antagonist just right can be difficult, but the more the antagonist is a flawed creation of absolutes the harder it will be.
Not what most think
When most people think of an antagonist they think of a bad guy. Some physical person who is out to make the protagonists life a living hell. Many times that is completely true, but there are plenty of situations where that assumption is so far from the truth that it is almost laughable. An antagonist is simply a force that is in opposition of the goals of the protagonist. That means that you can have a storm that isn’t corporeal be the opposition to your protagonist. It can be the slow and ever reaching touch of radiation as it spreads from a nuclear site that forces your protagonist to fight to flee and area before it reaches them. Heck, it could be a mother’s desire for a child to achieve a goal she deems admirable, while the child wishes to do other. And said mother may not have said an ill will against her child not listening, even encouraging, but that thought of what his mother wants lingers on in his mind. Like I said at first, the antagonist can come in many different forms and it is absolutely unnecessary for it to present itself in a physical form of any sorts.
Like an Onion
Pardon my Shrek reference, but the best antagonists are like onions, whether they are corporeal or not. An intriguing threat to the protagonist will present itself as more than just a single layered attack. There will be more for the opposition that drives the protagonist to do more, to evolve. If the antagonist is just a one trick pony it will become dull and repetitive, much like many of the really old Tekken or Street Fighter games, before they tried to insert some sort of story between the progression of fights. No one wants to watch for read the antagonist spam the protagonist with the same trick until either the antagonist wins or the protagonist wears the antagonist down (I’m looking at you Shao Kahn). It is far more interesting to see an antagonist lay its first attack only to realize that they now have a different obstacle to overcome if they are going to beat the antagonist. Rinse and repeat until the story reaches the point of no return and must enter the final stage. But until you reach that final level, there should be a new challenge presented. (Let’s make this clear, the new challenge doesn’t always need to be more difficult than the last, it should just be a different challenge than before).
He’s the Devil
Now you probably thought I was going to talk about giving an antagonist layers in the last section, sike. It is a topic that isn’t going to be ignored, I mean we are already bombarded with antagonist after antagonist that all have the same agenda, detroy the protagonist or destroy a group the protagonist is part of. When you have a corporeal antagonist, this presents itself frequently. Sometimes it is out of need from the hunter and other times it is from pure corrupt desire. Not to mention all the times that the antagonist was actually deceived and the protagonist was simply the misguided target. No matter how it presents itself when you have a corporeal antagonist, particularly another antagonist that has a level of sentience at least similar to the protagonist it’s important to give that antagonist some depth. Flesh out your antagonist. If they are evil for evil’s sake I won’t buy it. Something at least lead them to be evil. In a better situation an antagonist is backed into a corner, or has ulterior motives. There are so many ways to give an antagonist depth and make them more than a caricature.
Words of Advice
A great antagonist isn’t always secretly a good guy. A great antagonist isn’t always pure evil. And a great antagonist isn’t always out to get the protagonist, sometimes they are just getting in the way of the plan. No matter what the make up of the antagonist is, there is one thing that is certain, they are a character just as much as your protagonist. If I don’t believe your antagonist, just as much if not more than the protagonist there is a problem and the character is shallow. Your antagonist, whether a person or a force, must feel legitimate.
How do you work on antagonist? Who/what is your favorite antagonist of all time?