There’s a dirty little secret among many of us readers: well-written antagonists get our blood pumping. When a scene come along with them in it, well, we lean closer. Grin a little more. Not because we’re a bunch of budding psychopaths and this is some alter-ego role play–okay, maybe a little–no, it’s that deep down, there’s something we like about them. Maybe even admire.
What now? you say. How is that possible? He (or she) is the baddie, after all!
Indeed. And we know it. But just like a protagonist, the antagonist can have something special about them too. It’s not a hollow quirk, catch-phrase, or great sense of style that draws us in. No, it’s something deeper, something attached to their identity or life experience. We see this part of them and relate to it because it reminds us of something we’ve seen or experienced in our own real-world journey.
Is relatability only for protagonists?
A lot of airtime is devoted to building a relatable protagonist because it makes the character accessible to readers in a meaningful way. Relatability is a rope that ties the two together – in some significant way, readers see the hero or heroine is like them. Maybe they’ve both felt the same thing, been in the same situation, experienced the same heartache or sting of failure. This common ground helps a bond of understanding and empathy to form, and the reader becomes invested in what happens to the character. They root for the protagonist and care what happens to them.
We don’t see as much written on the subject of relatability when it comes to the antagonist or villain because writers are supposed to nudge the reader into the protagonist’s camp, not the antagonist’s. Unfortunately, though, this can send the wrong message about the importance of our darker characters, leading to some writers glossing over their development so they end up with cliché, yawn-worthy villains.
Antagonists should be as developed as protagonists.
They should have understandable motivations (for them), have a history that shows what led them down the dark alley of life, and an identity, personality, and qualities that make them a tough adversary for the protagonist to beat. The more dedicated, skilled, and motivated the antagonist is, the more of a challenge they will be, leading to great friction, tension, clashes, and conflict.
So, just as we want to show readers a protagonist’s inner layers and give them ways to connect and care about the protagonist, we should encourage readers to find something good or relatable about the antagonist so it causes the reader to be conflicted. They may not agree with the antagonists’ goal or how they go about getting it, but maybe they understand why this story baddie wants what they want, or they admire certain qualities they have.
When readers are torn over how to feel, they become more invested in the story.
Life is not always black and white, is it? So it’s okay if a tug of war goes on inside them over who is right and who is wrong in the story, or if they care enough about the villain to hope they will choose to turn from their dark path, and redemption may be possible.
So how do we make an antagonist relatable?
Common human experiences, especially ones that encourage moral confliction, are a great way to show readers they have something in common with the antagonist. For example, consider temptation.
Haven’t you ever been tempted to cross a moral line?
Did you ever want to make someone pay because they deserved it?
Have you ever ignored society’s rules because they don’t make sense, are unfair, or were built to benefit a select few?
Temptation is something we’ve all felt, and wrestle with. Sometimes we remain steadfast, other times we give in. So having a darker character be tempted in a way readers relate to will cause them to identify with the antagonist’s mindset.
Another way to use temptation is to get readers to imagine the what if, which can be another area of common ground:
- What if you could easily let go of guilt and do what feels right for you?
- What if you could break the law for the right reasons and serve a greater good?
- What if you could go back in time and erase someone who really deserves to be erased?
This can work well if you tie the antagonist’s desire to embrace the dark side because of a past trauma. For example…
- Maybe they do whatever feels right because they were enslaved by a cruel master as a child
- They break the law because those who make them are corrupt and entitled
- They go back and erase someone because that person killed their beloved and unborn child
Can’t we all relate to these dark motivations just a little? Don’t they help us understand where the character’s behavior is coming from? We may not morally agree with what the antagonist does, but we do feel some connection to them.
And I’m convinced this last one is the key because antagonists and villains have an Achilles heel: their role. As soon as it’s clear they are cast as the Bad Guy or Gal, readers put them in a box. They must be a jerk, a sore loser, a narcissist, someone who’s all about power and control. They must be unlikable.
And I don’t know about you, but when the antagonist or villain turns out to be exactly those things, I’m disappointed. Why? Because it’s expected: good guy faces off against typical bad guy, good guy wins. Yawn.
Relatability makes it okay to like the antagonist, even though they do bad things.
So, to recap and offer a few more ideas…
Craft a backstory that’s as well-drawn as the Protagonist’s. As the author, you need to know why they’re messed up and take the dark path. Use a past tragedy to help readers understand what led them to their role. Maybe you can even reveal this in a way that causes readers to wonder if they would be any different had they been in the antagonist’s shoes.
Give them a credible, understandable motivation. Even if their goal is a destructive one, they should have a good reason for wanting it. (For ideas on what this could look like, check out the Dark Motivations in this database.)
Give them a talent, something helpful or interesting. Just like a protagonist, your antagonist likely is skilled in some way. What talent or skill will help them achieve their goal? And you can always make this an interesting dichotomy, like an antagonist with a talent for healing who takes in hurt animals but lacks the same empathy for humans.
Give them a quality or trait that is undeniably admirable. It’s easy to paint a villain as being all bad, so skip the cliché and give them a belief they live by. Maybe they keep every promise or hold honestly in the highest regard and so are always truthful, even if it makes them look bad. Of course, the dark side might be that they don’t suffer lies of any kind, and punish them severely.
Make them human. Sometimes writers can go on a “power and glory” tear and forget their antagonist is as prone to “Average Joe” problems as anyone else. Does their roof leak, do they have visitors show up at an inconvenient time, do they get sick?
Antagonists can have a hobby or secret, struggle over what to do, or regret words said in haste just like the rest of us. So while you highlight their dark ways and volatile emotions, remember to also show how in some ways, they’re just like anyone else.
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
V.M. Sang says
What a great post. Most helpful.
I tend to like antagonists who are human. In my Wolves of Vimar series, the antagonist has great charisma and under normal circumstances he can be charming and likeable, but he is set on vengeance against the land of Grosmer and its people for perceived ill-treatment when he was a child.
Michelle Gregory says
My son (who is helping me write the antagonist for my current story) and I think Marvel did a great job doing this with Thanos in the last two Avengers movies. We’re using him as a model for our own antagonist.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
I agree! He had strong beliefs and a great moral struggle. I think everyone could identify with him a bit, even though they didn’t like the things he did or how he did them.
Jan Sikes says
Oh, Angela, this is SO good. It’s not easy writing a character the readers will love to hate. I have a series in which the main character is a narcissistic woman intent on climbing to the top of the social ladder. I’ve put off writing it because I’m not sure the readers would be able to relate to her or even root for her. I need someone in the story that will bring the reader in, and so far, I haven’t found that character. So, the story is sitting and waiting…Thank you for this!
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
I do hope this helps you, Jan! If you can make it work for the story, helping readers understand how she got to the way she is. Understanding what brought out her narcissism, and if it’s a defense mechanism to protect herself, could help readers see her as a person, instead of writing her off as a toxic force.