How to Write a Compelling Antagonist

How to Write a Compelling Antagonist

When I first started writing, I used to visualize antagonists like those old-school cartoons, where they’d be chilling in the corner either A) maniacally laughing for no good reason, B) rapidly twiddling their fingers from pinky to thumb and back again with a wicked grin on their faces, or C) endlessly twirling a mustache while pondering all the ways they could thwart the main character. And while some of those things might happen in your novels, they’re probably not the cornerstone of your villain. And if they are…well, I’m here to offer some potentially different options for writing a compelling antagonist.

Now, when it comes to writing romance specifically, I think antagonists can generally be broken down into one of two categories:

  • The antagonist as an actual, viable character that actively opposed the main character
  • The situation itself

Yup, that’s right: the situation itself. We’ll get into both of these, but let’s start with a familiar concept: the antagonist as a person.

How to Write a Compelling Antagonist When They’re an Actual Character

How to Write a Compelling Antagonist Character

As much as I love a good mustache twirl, well-groomed facial hair does not a villain make. I’m not saying you can’t give your antagonist a mustache. Go for it. Give ‘em a beard while you’re at it and luscious locks that glint in the sun (because honestly, that would just make me even more jelly as my hair does not have that luster). But physical appearances aside, here are a few things to keep in mind that could make your antagonist even more believable.

Give Them Motive

Simple enough, right? Believe it or not, too often people (myself included) will simply write characters into existence whose sole purpose is to stop the main character. The question you should ask yourself is why? Why are they out to stop your lovable lead? What is it about them that sparks their desire to sit in a dark, shaded corner and plot your hero’s demise?

Some of the best antagonists I’ve seen aren’t the ones who are out to specifically ruin the day of the main character, but rather have their own individual motives that conflict with the lead’s goals.

In other words, they’re not just out to get them for the sake of being evil. Giving your antagonist their own goal that opposes the protagonist is a fantastic way to create a well-rounded, three-dimensional character.

Make the Antagonist Believe They’re the Good Guy

This is a fairly straightforward tactic that can go a long when when you’re thinking about how to write a compelling antagonists. Basically, all you need to do is make your bad guy believe they’re the good guy, no matter how skewed their morals are or how effed up their choices end up being. If they think they’re doing something for the right reasons, that makes them view your protagonist as the bad guy, since they oppose their main goal (re: motivation). This creates a delicious conflict and makes the character more believable.

Fill Out a Character Sheet/Profile

Even if you don’t see the villain on the page that often, I highly recommend filling out a character sheet for them. Aside from the fact that you get to detail their physical description (mustaches!), a good sheet will also prompt you to think about the following:

  • Physical mannerisms (twiddling their fingers, anyone?)
  • Internal conflict
  • External conflict

The internal conflict goes back to what we just discussed: motive. What does your antagonist want that they’re not getting? How does that shape their actions? When it comes to the external conflict, what outside forces (your main character, perhaps?) are opposing their goals?

When you start to think about your antagonist as a real person with their own desires, you end up creating a compelling bad guy.

Remember, whether they’re your main character, secondary character or antagonist, they’ll have their own individual driving forces that make them real, believable people on the page. Capture that.

Perhaps your antagonist will even have morals and beliefs that your audience or readership could align with, and that results in a read that is both exciting and heartbreaking, as each character is fighting for something they believe in to their core (i.e., the bad guy thinks they’re the good guy).

How to Write a Compelling Antagonistic Situation

More often than not, you’ll see actual antagonists on the page as characters in genres like fantasy romance, sci-fi romance, and paranormal romance (of course, other non-romance genres as well, but since we’re All The Kissing, we’ll stick to our romance subgenres). Now, that’s not to say that there won’t be a physical villain in other genres like romantic suspense or historical romance, but it’s far more common to see an antagonistic situation, especially in contemporary romance.

Most contemporary romances have to do with the two main characters’ journeys and the internal conflicts they face. As your two main protagonists aren’t likely your antagonist, then what, actually, is? The situation.

Commonly, the antagonist is the external situation, as heightened by the internal conflicts experienced by the main characters. But wait, how do you write a compelling antagonist when it’s an experience/situation/event and not a person?

Create a Ticking Time Bomb

This could very well be a physical bomb depending on your genre, but I’m referring to the broader concept of creating a situation that must come to an end. This creates a sense of urgency that often exacerbates the internal conflicts of the main characters. Some examples:

  • A vacation with a limited amount of time for the love interests to sort their issues out
  • A deadline of some sort, whether it be work-related or personal (a decision to move across the country by a certain date in order to accept a job)
  • An event (this is vague and slightly ties into “deadline,” but think of an external situation your main character is working toward, say, a wedding or school reunion, and they want to accomplish something before then)

So no, there doesn’t have to be an actual bomb (but there could be!). The key is to create an external circumstance that heightens the stakes. It can’t be stopped (or is very difficult to stop), and therefore could oppose the main characters’ goals.

Be Vigilant with Your External Conflict

In other words, pay really close attention to your plot. The external conflict absolutely needs to be a believable situation that can’t be easily resolved. If your characters get into a silly fight and can solve the entire conflict of the book by simply picking up the phone and calling each other, then your antagonist scenario isn’t very strong.

Create a situation that, if unresolved, would drastically affect your main characters in some way, shape or form.

What’s at stake if Sally doesn’t return from vacation? Will she lose her job? Does she have a family back home who’s depending on her? What will she gain if she stays? Is it true and everlasting love? Is it a surefire thing? What problems could she still face with her romantic interest? Just like when it comes to writing a query letter, it’s all about the stakes.

Antagonists Make Stories

Hopefully, this article gave you some ideas about how to write compelling antagonists. I’m a firm believer that, whether they be a person or a situation, the best stories have the best antagonists. Why? Because they’re so believable! And after all, when the main characters finally triumph over whatever is opposing them, you’ll feel that win in your heart.

What advice do you have for writing antagonists? Share them in the comments below!

Maxym M. Martineau
Maxym M. Martineau is a staff writer and editor by day, and a fantasy romance author by night. When she’s not getting heated over broken hearts, she enjoys playing video games, sipping a well-made margarita, binge-watching television shows, competing in just about any sport, and of course, reading.

Following her passion, Maxym earned her bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Arizona State University. She is represented by Cate Hart of Harvey Klinger Literary Agency. Her debut, Kingdom of Exiles, is out now.
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