Guest Post: Bolstering the Antagonist7:00 PM
While having a strong protagonist is the start of a good story, a powerful antagonist leads to the end of a great story. The hero or heroes can only be as effective as the villain they fight against; if the antagonist is lukewarm, a one-and-done sort of enemy, then it didn’t take much to defeat and the heroes didn’t stress their limits. Boring.
But a hero that comes across a seemingly indomitable force, faces insurmountable odds, and clashes with strength and power previously unknown, well that would be one hell of a read.
As of this writing, I don’t have a set up for the overall villain for Urban Legend. Darius is the antagonist, but he’s just a tip of the iceberg. There is a whole chain of command within the Vampirum, and they aren’t the only enemies out there.
Heroes and Villains are separated with only the thinnest of lines. Some are vague and disappear entirely. Let’s explore what those similar differences might be.
Hero in Their Own Mind
A “villain” rarely ever sees themselves as the bad guy in a situation. Normally they claim to be the victim, therefore justified in their actions. They think of themselves as working for the greater good so horrendous actions justify an overall positive result. Or maybe they don’t even really think about it, setting aside ethics and morals to justify the logic of their actions. And maybe, just maybe, the antagonist knows exactly what’s going on, and doesn’t need any justification.
That’s where the antagonist’s head is at, the justification. Everyone knows the difference between right and wrong, and everyone’s got a reason why something at the “wrong” end of the spectrum is okay given the right circumstances. Most of them are harmless and inconsequential, like eating that bit of cake when on a diet because it’s been a hard week. When running pyramid schemes to bilk people out of their hard-earned cash or hacking an ex’s computer to spy on them, that’s when it gets a bit unacceptable.
The following three sections outline potentially the most complex and engaging villain archetypes, each more nefarious than the last.
The most tragic expression is arguably “what might have been.” Wasted potential or opportunity, we’ve all been there in one way or another. And how much more tragic is it when a good man goes bad?
Let’s consider the baddie to end all baddies: Lucifer. He was once God’s right hand man, His Riker, his Hamilton, the best and first among angels. Then Lucifer decided that wasn’t enough, he wanted to call the shots, God disagreed, one thing led to another, and Lucifer with a third of the angels fell were cast out of heaven. It’s heartbreaking in that context, in a way.
Think of a character that you would NEVER in a million years consider corruptible or selfish enough to fall into evil. Imagine if Captain America went not rogue, but straight up evil. Or maybe Harry Potter, throwing in with the Dark Lord. Not all at once, because that’s not how it starts: First it’s a little bit of pride, then a little bit of self-righteousness, then a little rebellion. Then at last, there is that point of no return, that line in the sand, and they cross it. They are committed, no regrets, no wavering of their position, all their justifications are lined up and they are set to take action.
While tragic, these are perhaps the most destructive. Their path is borne of conflict and possibly they see themselves as the tragic hero, fighting against the establishment that has fallen. While pity for this kind of antagonist is expected, mercy is not an option. They will use whatever tools they can to survive, including preying on the sympathies of others.
Do not bargain with a Fallen Angel. Shoot on sight; Shoot to kill.
Who doesn’t love and anti-hero? That roguish scoundrel who plays outsides the rules of convention, but still has a heart of gold. Robin Hood is such a figure, fighting a corrupt false king and willing to live in the outskirts of society with his merry men if it means he can rob the rich and give to the poor.
Now let’s reverse that: Instead of a hero operating a bit like a villain, how about a villain who operates like a hero?
Imagine a mob boss, running the crime of a major metropolis. He runs guns, drugs, hookers, is ruthless with those whom cross him, and has major government and law enforcement officials on payroll. Scary right? It gets worse:
He defends the children; anyone caught abusing kids in any way just disappears. He doesn’t run a sex slave ring, prostitutes are well cared for with health benefits (one of his brothels even fronts as a fitness center). He doesn’t like collateral damage, he finds it a waste and unprofessional. Anyone can run any scam they want, as long as they register with him and it doesn’t conflict with his existing policies. Hell, he might even have a legit retirement plan for his people, the white-picket-fence kind not the cement-overcoat kind. This kind of antagonist would be really complex to get at.
John Marcone, a character from Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, is such an antagonist. Ruthless and merciful, he is the best example of this kind of villain, the “civilized criminal”. How would a hero depose him without collapsing the whole thing and bring down chaos? The antagonist could even work more with the law than the protagonist might. And since the antagonist would fight to protect their interests, there could come a time the hero and the villain must team up to fight an even eviler evil.
The Anti-Villain is arguable the most insidious: bulletproof without even needing any kevlar. Proceed with caution.
The Greatest of These…
What is the most powerful emotion, the one that most changes the world? Hate and anger might lead to momentary action and conviction, but it is love that sustains a revolution. Love is what unifies us as a species, what lets us thrive, what drives us to explore our world and reach out to ones beyond it. It forges civilizations, builds communities, and binds together family. It is an extraordinary power and it's horrifying when it becomes a weapon.
Imagine someone grieves for the fate of a loved one, but that grief turns rancid and compels that person to do unspeakable deeds. Maybe the person loves from afar, but it wasn’t meant to be, so that twists into an obsession and that leads them down a dark path. Perhaps it isn’t even a person, but an idea like freedom, where they become so hyper-focused on that one specific outcome that they are blind to all the chaos that rains around them.
There is a quite a bit of overlap with this type of antagonist, the Fallen Angel, and Anti-Villain; they aren’t even mutually exclusive. But the main difference here is that the Antagonist is motivated by love. From that love there is purpose, and from that purpose comes that resolve. An antagonist who loves will be the last to break, the first to rise again, and is the absolute hardest to end.
When dealing with an antagonist who loves, be prepared to sacrifice all to defeat.
Many more antagonist types float around than those mentioned above. The flavors of antagonism are a buffet, each can be tailored to the protagonist and readers taste (or distaste). But two things must remain true for an antagonist: the first is that they are the hero in their own story, and second, their legacy rings out beyond that story.
No hero or villain seeks to cast a modest shadow, they work to change the world as they think it should be. Just as the legends of heroes are remembered, so are the villains.
This element is the least identifiable: what makes a person, hero or otherwise, ring out beyond the pages and develop a mythos of their own? Fear is a good place to start, the fear so great they can’t even say the name aloud. Or perhaps the antagonist was a devastatingly brilliant tactician and was brought down only after hope was lost and at a ruinous price. Maybe the antagonist had a power that transcended the laws of physics, possibly he could simply speak and others would do his will without question. And it could be the antagonist believed so much, so fiercely, that the peoples of the worlds he lit afire felt compassion and loved him, even as they threw his body to the flames he had wrought.
I hope you found an applicable idea or two from this! Antagonists are people too, with their flaws and virtues, though the flaws tend to stand out a bit in comparison. Next time, I’ll tackle how to Bolster the Minor Characters to expand the story cast and give it a richer texture.
Future Guest Posts:
- Bolstering the Minor Characters (March 29, 2017)
- Bolstering Character Development (April 15, 2017)
If you want to follow up with the author or purchase a copy of his book, please follow these links:
Find inspiration in J.P. Dailing's guest post? Tell us about it in the comments below!
* This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you click on one of the product links, I'll receive some type of commission. For more information, you can read our full disclosure here. *
Join the Ivy Cirillo Books Newsletter!
Sign up for our latest content, projects, and coupon codes!
Success! Now check your email to confirm your subscription.