5 Tips for Creating Great Antagonists

Silhouette of man in front of red smoke

The antagonist is an essential character in any great story as this is the character that creates conflict and challenges the protagonist's goals. Unfortunately, many times the antagonist is not given the same consideration received by the story’s protagonist and they are reduced to a mustache-twirling villain. However, a great antagonist is not just a one-dimensional villain, but a fully fleshed-out character with their own motivations, flaws, and backstory (Try our Character Questionnaire know your antagonist inside and out). Here are 5 tips for creating great antagonists to use in your screenplays. 

Give the Antagonist a Goal
The easiest way to make sure your antagonist is an interesting and engaging character is to give them a goal of their own. This goal should be in direct opposition to the goal of the protagonist. This is based in the concept of unity of opposites which dictates that conflict and tension is borne from the interplay between opposing ideologies. The antagonist should have their own goal that is in opposition to the protagonist's goal. The antagonist's goal doesn't necessarily have to be completely related to the protagonist’s goal, but these goals should be mutually exclusive. This will create increased conflict.

Make the Antagonist a Worthy Opponent
This may seem simple enough, but oftentimes screenwriters will feel the need to make their protagonist the clear superior. Don’t do this. The antagonist should be a worthy opponent. They should be intelligent, resourceful, and possess skills that make them quite formidable. The audience should see the antagonist as a real threat to the main character and their goals. If the antagonist is too weak or incompetent, the story will lack tension and the audience will lose interest because they know there is no chance the protagonist will fail. 

Related: The Unity of Opposites in Screenwriting

Give the Antagonist a Backstory
A great antagonist usually has a rich and layered backstory that explains who they are and how they became the villain of the story. It may seem like unnecessary exposition, but a little information can go a long way. The antagonist’s backstory could relate to a past traumatic event or a series of failures that have led them to their current goal. Remember that the audience doesn't need to sympathize with the antagonist, but they should understand where they are coming from. This will make the antagonist feel like a real person rather than just a plot device.

Create a Strong Motivation for the Antagonist
This motivation can be based in the antagonist’s aforementioned backstory. Whatever the event may be it has created the motivation that set the villain on their current path. It could be revenge, power, a personal vendetta, or something else entirely as long as the audience understands why the antagonist is doing what they are doing. The more compelling the antagonist's motivation, the more invested the audience will be in the story. A great way to give the audience this understanding is by showing the antagonist’s point of view. This means putting the audience in the antagonist’s shoes and showing a perspective different than the protagonists. Sometimes the protagonist can be the villain of the antagonist’s story.

Give the Antagonist an Arc
Finally, make sure to give your antagonist an arc just like you do for your protagonist. Take your villain through their own “hero’s journey” where they learn something about themselves and evolve as a character. They don’t have to become a better person, but by showing growth in your antagonist you will create a much more dynamic and engaging character. A good example of this can be found in Star Wars. Darth Vader grows over the course of that trilogy, and it makes him a much more compelling force in the films.

More: Using the Hero's Journey in Screenwriting

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