Ten Ways to Make Readers Loathe Your Antagonist
Your story’s antagonist will make or break your book.
What’s that? What about the protagonist, you say? Well, yeah, he’s kinda important too. But, without a worthy opponent, he’s not going to have much of anything to do except sit around and admire his hero hairdo. As important as it is to create lovable protagonists, it’s every bit as important to create antagonists who can stand in your character’s way, prevent him from reaching his goals, and, as a result, create conflict.
Just as your good guy doesn’t have to be a perfect person, there’s also no rule that says your bad guy has to be heinous. In fact shades of gray are almost always going to make him that much more of an interesting a character. The only true qualifier for an antagonist is that he be an obstacle interfering with the protagonist’s pursuit of his story goal. As such, the antagonist could be a nice little old lady, a sick child, or a virtuous social reformer.
But, with that said, it’s also true that most readers enjoy an entirely loathable bad guy just as much as they do a lovable good guy.
1. The Cruel Antagonist
Nasty bad guys who are nasty just because they can be are always going to be scary. We all fear pain (physical, mental, or emotional), so the thought of someone who not only doesn’t mind inflicting pain, but even wants to do it is downright despicable.
Example: William Tavington in Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot
2. The Hypocritical Antagonist
Hypocrisy is loathsome. It’s one thing to bad and be proud of it. It’s another level of “eww” to be bad and pretend you’re really a saint. This façade can be something the antagonist honestly believes in or a pose for the sake of respectability.
Example: William Dorrit in Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit
3. The Relatable Antagonist
Sometimes the scariest, most loathsome thing about a person is how much they remind us of ourselves. When readers are able to glimpse even the smallest bit of themselves in the motives or actions of an otherwise horrific person, it will make their reactions to him that much stronger.
Example: Commodus in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator
4. The Arrogant Antagonist
Bad guys who hold all the cards—and know they hold all the cards—and want to rub the protagonist’s nose in that fact—are just plain obnoxious. Bad enough that they stand in the protagonist’s way, but do they really have to be so smug about it? Yes. Yes, they do.
Example: President Snow in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games
5. The Domineering Antagonist
A close cousin to arrogance is dominance. When an antagonist holds power over the protagonist and abuses that power in a way the protagonist can’t easily resist, he becomes not only obnoxious, but rightfully scary. Domineering antagonists come in all flavors, but often their most chilling manifestation is as a family member.
Example: Countess Rodmilla de Ghent in Andy Tennant’s Ever After
6. The Frightening Antagonist
Some of the best antagonists are those whom we don’t so much hate as fear. Serial killers, freaks, psychos—yep, they all have the potential to be visceral and powerful antagonists. As Carmine Falcone puts it in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins: “You always fear what you don’t understand.”
Example: Darth Vader in George Lucas’s Star Wars
7. The Imperturbable Antagonist
Bad guys who are so bad that nothing ruffles their feathers may occasionally walk the line of being boring. But when their authors pull it off, these bad guys can be infuriatingly, terrifyingly inhuman. Even though they undoubtedly have their weaknesses, they seem unstoppable.
Example: Frank in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West
8. The Skilled Antagonist
Presumably, your hero is pretty awesome in his own right. As such, he’s going to need an antagonist who can go toe to toe with him—someone who’s maybe even a little better than he is. Readers respect skill, even when they don’t like the guy wielding it. Skill is intriguing and, when used for evil, sobering.
Example: Syndrome in Brad Bird’s The Incredibles
9. The Insane Antagonist
Insanity means unpredictability. Unpredictable evil is always gonna be hard to resist. It puts the protagonist at a disadvantage, both because it does the unexpected and because it goes places the protagonist, in his sanity, would never dream of. As such, it make for one downright scary antagonist.
Example: The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight
10. The Traitorous Antagonist
What hurts worse than a friend or family member who suddenly turns against us? Hate is often just love flipped on its head. A loved character who goes rogue can often become one of the most hatable of all bad guys.
Example: Nizam in Mike Newell’s Prince of Persia
Mix and match these traits until you come up with a bad guy that gives even you goosebumps!
Tell me your opinion: Which category does your bad guy fall into?