When you’re writing a book, you have to determine how the protagonist’s and antagonists will interact with each other. The Emerald Tablet has two antagonists. One starts out antagonistic, the other transforms into an antagonist. The first is driven by justice. The second is driven by ego and a feeling of self-worth. During the study of alchemy and hermetic law, the Egyptian mythology teaches us that there is no good and evil. Everything is just action and reaction. Everything is one and the same with varying degrees. This principle can be difficult to grasp when it comes to good and evil but I want you to take it to heart because when you create your antagonist, you’ll need to remember it. David Prowse said, “Nobody forgets the villain.”
So how do you create a memorable, believable, and relatable antagonist that people will love to hate?
1. This one is the most important rule. Your book doesn’t have a villain. Get the whole notion of hero/villain out of your mind. There are only protagonists and antagonists. Going back to what we said about the study of alchemy, everything is one and the same. Everything is action and reaction. Your so called “villain” doesn’t think he’s a bad guy. He believes he’s perfectly rationale, logical, and justified in his actions. He’s the hero of his own story – so in a way, you’re not writing about a good guy and a bad guy, you’re writing about two good guys with opposite points of view and opposite wants. Example: In the Emerald Tablet, Ankar doesn’t believe the murdering of thousands of people is evil because he believes they wronged him and is seeking justice. He sees himself as fighting for equality and justice. He uses his rationalizations of justice and equality to substantiate his murders. But he thinks he’s the good guy.
2. Know your antagonist’s why. Every character in your book has to have a why. If they don’t, get them out of your book. But the antagonist can’t have a vague “I want to conquer the world” why. Start with something small and relatable and then build it up. Example: From Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, Javert, a police officer, hunts down Jean Valjean, who is an escaped convict. In the Emerald Tablet, Ankar’s why is that he was exiled from his home-land and seeks justice for those crimes.
3. You must know as much about your antagonist as your protagonist. And you must feel as passionately about him/her as you do your protagonist or else it will show in your writing. This means you have to create as much of a backstory about your antagonist as you do your protagonist. Even if your story is not written from the antagonist’s point of view, as an exercise, write at least 5 chapters from the antagonist’s point of view. It will get you into their head like nothing else.
4. No person is completely evil or good. We are all a combination of both. Antagonists can do very sincere and thoughtful things and protagonists can act totally irrational and make mistakes. Example: Roy Batty in the movie Blade Runner. He is a bad guy – murders people, tortures, but is also incredibly intelligent and self-reflective – even philosophical. We feel sympathy for Batty in the end. “All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain. Time… to die.” Roy Batty. In the Emerald Tablet, both antagonists are capable of great passion and love, even fighting to save another character’s life. That’s not an action of an all-bad person.
5. You don’t have to create a big hulky, muscle-bound, or scarred man/woman as the antagonist. Sometimes the best villains don’t look mean or ugly or scary. My personal favorite example of this is Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter. She is a small pudgy woman who wears excessive make-up, smiles all the time, speaks in an upbeat chipper voice, and wears an egregious amount of pink. And despite all of this she is a minion for the Dark Lord, Voldemort. She’s great because she’s relatable. You don’t have to look scary to be scary.
6. Bad guys generally start out with good intentions. Think about the Nazgul in Lord of the Rings. They were kings who wanted to use the power of the rings for good. But as they say, power corrupts.
7. Never create an antagonist who wants power just for the sake of power. That is not a redeeming quality and will garner no sympathy from your readership.
8. Never create an antagonist that poses no credible threat to your protagonist. Which means your protagonist can’t be so super awesome that he/she has no vulnerabilities. Expand your mind on this one. It doesn’t always have to be muscle vs. muscle. Lex Luther may not be able to fly, or have super strength and speed, but he’s smart as a whip and has enormous amounts of money, which gives him unlimited resources. In this way, he is every bit the equal to Superman which makes their cat and mouse worth it.
9. In total opposition to tip 8, don’t make the antagonist so powerful he can’t be stopped. Notice that I’m not saying the good guy has to win. I’m just saying that the good guy has to have a believable chance at winning.
10. The antagonist is the mover and shaker of your story. Without the antagonist messing things up, the protagonist would be home with the lady-friend (or guy-friend) and having a “movie night.” As Mr. Incredible said in the movie, The Incredibles: “No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved! You know, for a little bit? I feel like the maid; I just cleaned up this mess! Can we keep it clean for… for ten minutes!” See? Give your protagonist something to do.
11. Your antagonist must have his/her own story arc. All characters start in one place and end up in another. They grow, they learn, and they adapt. Your antagonist has to do the same thing. He/she cannot be stagnating. That’s boring. Nobody likes boring. Make him/her evolve.
12. Want to blow your reader’s mind? The antagonist doesn’t have to be a “bad” guy. Think about that. Remember Javert from Les Miserables? He is a police officer just doing his job, catching the criminal, yet he is the antagonist of the story. Nothing he does is inherently mean or evil – it’s just that we feel far more sympathy to Jean Valjean, the criminal protagonist, than the police officer. Role reversal at its finest. That’s great writing.
13. But don’t forget the prodigious “kick the cat” moment. You’ve spent all this time building a relatable sympathetic antagonist but every once in a while you have to remind readers that he is the antagonist. This has been coined by Blake Snyder as the “kick the cat” moment (just as the protagonist has a “save the cat” moment). Have him do something naughty.
14. In that spirit – let the antagonist win. It’s no fun if the antagonist keeps losing – where’s the challenge? In Star Wars, Darth Vader destroys Alderaan. Hannibal Lecter escapes. The Joker murders Robin (Jason Todd) in the Batman comics. Give him a few victories.
15. And finally, if you’re going with whole “redemption” route. Keep in mind that once your antagonist redeems himself/herself and thus becomes “good” again, your story is over. So save it as the last scene or the next to last scene. Three scenes before the end of Star Wars Episode VI, Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader turns and kills the Emperor to save his son, Luke Skywalker. Redemption always comes at the very end. There shouldn’t be a whole lot of story left if you get there.
So these are just a few tips I have learned along the way while I was writing a book. Hopefully you learned something.