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How to Write a Great Antagonist

Updated: Jun 5

Antagonists are people too!

Yes. Yes, they are. But sometimes writing the antagonist is a challenge.

The reader must hate them and like them. So, their motivations need to be understandable and relatable to your readers. Your novel will be that much more enjoyable with a well thought out and engaging antagonist.

To achieve this balance, there are some things to take into consideration when creating your antagonistic character.


Worthy adversary

Unique perspective

Qualities and vulnerabilities


Internal conflicts


Avoid stereotypes

Create complex motives

Give your antagonist believable and compelling reasons for their actions, ones that your readers can understand and relate to.

Avoid one-dimensional "evil for the sake of being evil" characters.

Explore their background, experiences, and desires that led them to become who they are. Complexity makes antagonists more interesting and nuanced.

Make them a worthy adversary

Your antagonist should pose a significant challenge to your protagonist. They should have strengths, skills, and/or resources that make them formidable.

Antagonists that have things in common with the protagonist work extremely well in establishing sympathy for both characters. Think Harry Potter and Malfoy!

A worthy adversary creates tension and raises the stakes in your novel.

Develop a unique perspective

Provide insight into the antagonist's perspective. Show their worldview, values, and beliefs, warped though they may be.

Showing their perspective helps readers understand their motivations and adds depth to their character.

It can also create opportunities for moral or ethical dilemmas!

Give them redeeming qualities or vulnerabilities

Even the most despicable antagonists, Hannibal Lecter, can have redeeming qualities or vulnerabilities that humanize them. It could be a flicker of empathy, a tragic past, or a personal struggle.

These nuances make for a more complex antagonist and can add layers to their character.

Readers will form a bond with them as they empathize with their past or current struggles.

Show their backstory

Delve into the antagonist's past and reveal key events or experiences that shaped who they are.

Understanding their history helps readers comprehend their actions, even if they don't condone them.

Reveal their backstory gradually to create a sense of mystery and intrigue.

Create conflicts within the antagonist

Just like protagonists, antagonists can have internal conflicts and doubts. Reveal the struggles they face within, such as conflicting desires or guilt.

Internal debates or moral conflicts make the character more relatable, despite their antagonistic role.

Utilize dialogue effectively

Make your antagonist's dialogue distinct and memorable. Give them a unique voice that reflects their personality and motivations.

Use their conversations with other characters to highlight their intelligence, manipulation, and charm. Engaging dialogue can make the antagonist stand out and leave a lasting impression on readers.

Personally, I enjoy intelligent sarcastic antagonists, like Moriarty!

Avoid stereotypes

Steer clear of clichéd or stereotypical villains. Instead, create an antagonist who feels fresh and original.

Challenge readers' expectations and subvert common tropes. Surprise your readers with unexpected twists and dimensions to keep them engaged.

A great antagonist is more than just a foil for your protagonist. They should be a full character with goals, motives, and complexity.

By investing time and thought into developing your antagonist, you can elevate the conflict and create a more compelling story.

Who’s your favorite antagonist?

I hope you enjoyed this article.

Happy writing and revising!

Kristin Noland - Speculative Fiction and Crime Fiction Editor and Ghostwriter

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