I saw some advice recently that bugged me. Bad advice always bugs me. For one, it usually takes someone off track. For another… THAT’S MY TERRITORY!
Someone was asking about how to sort out an antagonist’s motivations. One of the responses was that they imagine what they might want if they had no morals, and go from there.
Excuse me? No morals? NO NO NO.
If you want your story to sing, your antagonist needs to be a person, and not a caricature. There are exceptions, of course, and if your antagonists aren’t even sentient, then the approach is completely different. Whether it’s an all-devouring giant space rabbit, a magical fairy tornado, or a zombie-robot apocalypse, the opposing force against your characters becomes an all-encompassing force. In those cases, it’s not about the interaction between protagonists and their foes, but about the protagonists and all the other characters. If you have your moustache-twirling manic-pixie death wizard who acts according to either just their own whims, or just their own goals, you might have a great story element, but none of it is going to be about the relationship between the apprentice gypsy accountant squire and the MTMPDW. It’ll be about how the protagonist deals with what happens, and how they relate to the other real characters of your story.
If you want a quality antagonist, you need to give them morals, scruples and principals – and in the course of the story, they start breaking them. None of them should start with an outright lack of morality.
One frame of note with this (as all my advice tends to be framed), is that this is still concerned with the entire life of the setting and the characters in the story, of which only a fraction may be relevant to the story. What’s the benefit of this? We start to know our characters better.
We know that the supposedly evil witch is accumulating magic because she’s been told a prophecy about an unstoppable evil (and you could treat the prophecy in many ways – you wouldn’t need her to become the self-fulfilling subject of it). We learn that the manipulative yet civil businessman is buying up properties in the town because there’ll be a railroad built through Stoneridge before long, but if the hotelier won’t sell, it’ll go through Bakersfield instead and the town might dry up. Maybe the usurper wants to sacrifice the true king as a means to end death itself. They’ll still have their limits, though. The witch isn’t malicious about extracting magic from the other witches, warlocks and other magical creatures. The businessman has the power to just take the hotel, but wants to force a legitimate (if extorted) transaction. The usurper, I don’t know. He might just be an ass.
If there’s no conflict in the character, how can we take them seriously? If they have no morals, could they have a line they wouldn’t cross? Would they drown a puppy in the blood of orphans and then feed it to the downtrodded masses? There has to be limits. There must be things they don’t want to do, but will, as well as things they’d never do. The apprentice doesn’t intend to betray the scientist, but sees an opportunity for advancement. The musician is hard up for money, so swipes something valuable from the realtor. The sheriff wants to uphold the law and protect the young couple, but he’s in the banker’s pocket. There’s people acting out, against what they want to do, because they feel like there’s no choice. Each of these become a road, where the characters can feel like they’re locked into a set of choices that dig their holes deeper.
They’re not so much villains, but people who’ve either been in horrible positions, or made terrible choices. In a different world, they could have been allies, or at least, begrudging relatives. It could be their beliefs or standing that makes them think about how the world should be, about what really matters. Why does your mad scientist want to destroy the very world they live on? Do they intend to escape the consequences of it? Is the lawyer complicit in the cover-up for personal reasons, or does she think it will make the world safer? No, not many of these sound like big-note villains, but by extension they could be. It’s not necessary for the end of the world, universe or existence to be threatened to make the stakes matter. A character we care about losing their family, their livelihood, their faith… that means a lot more than a detached death-toll, and it’s the reason why we have characters to begin with.
What’s the difference between the antagonist and the protagonist? Just that the latter is usually the one we want to succeed. Paint the former in a sympathetic light, and make their goal much more important, and the story might work as well the other way around. It might even be possible to take one into a different story, and have them with the alternate role.
Our characters are just edited pages – a mix of blue mistakes and red corrections – and the closer to balanced they are, the more intense the conflict becomes.
Do you agree? Who is the best villain you’ve either written or read? Were they unstoppable forces of evil, or were they conflicted characters?