The “Villain” Spectrum: Creating a Layered Antagonist
I’m sure everyone remembers the scene in the first Shrek movie where Shrek tells Donkey that “ogres are like onions” because they have layers. Donkey wants to know why they can’t be like parfaits, because “everybody loves parfaits.”
It’s a funny scene in a very entertaining movie that takes a really good look at heroes, villains, and fairy tales in some fun ways. Our protagonist is a character who would typically be an antagonist—or at least a bully or an obstacle in another story. Who would think an ogre could be the “good guy?” But Shrek has layers—just as any good character has layers.
So how does a writer create a good, layered antagonist?
First, remember—the antagonist doesn’t have to be human. The antagonist is the thing that prevents the protagonist from getting what he wants. In addition, the antagonist doesn’t even have to be evil or villainous. The antagonist just has try to keep the protagonist from getting what he or she wants.
As writers, I think we are sometimes tempted to spend too much time on our protagonists—figuring out their wants, their back-stories, their needs, etc. The truth is, you need to know that stuff about the antagonist as much or more than with the protagonist. It’s the antagonist who puts conflict and obstacles in the way of the protagonist. Without an antagonist with clearly defined goals, the protagonist is just a character wandering around chasing some amorphous dream. Keeping in mind that the best characters are the ones with layers, how can you create an antagonist that isn’t just a traditional moustache-twirling villain?
Make the antagonist a hero.
My favorite example is still (and will probably always be) Macduff from Macbeth. Shakespeare turned structure on its head and gave us a villain protagonist and a hero antagonist.
Make the antagonist morally equal to the protagonist.
I just published a new novella in which the antagonist and protagonist are moral equals—meaning, neither is especially bad or especially good. The two young women are friends, in fact. But the actions of the antagonist throw the protagonist into imbalance—they force the protagonist to react and react and react until the very end, when she’s finally able to take charge and act. In truth, she doesn’t get what she wants, but the world is a better place because of the antagonist’s actions.
Make the antagonist amoral.
Here’s where we go back to non-human antagonists, mostly. The island, weather, wild animals—they’re amoral characters. They don’t really have wants or needs in human terms (well, I suppose a bear might want dinner or to protect its home, but those are more instinctive needs).
Better yet, make the antagonist a force for good.
Take it a level deeper and think about how amoral or morally ambiguous antagonists can act for both good and ill in the protagonist’s life. Consider the psychology of captives—the Stockholm Syndrome kind of thing. The antagonist might kidnap the protagonist, but perhaps the antagonist treats the protagonist well. The protagonist knows that the antagonist is the source of food, clothing, shelter, etc. These kinds of actions make it harder for the protagonist to fight against the antagonist.
Ask what your antagonist wants and how that’s in opposition to what the protagonist wants.
Story is all about conflict, and a well-defined conflict will sharpen the antagonist so that he/she/it is more than a clichéd villain. Remember, the antagonist is the hero of his/her own story. His or her wants may be unacceptable, but they make sense to the antagonist.
Give the reader some reason to sympathize with the antagonist, even if he’s a villain.
Maybe your antagonist is an environmental terrorist. It might be hard for us to sympathize with his or her terrorist activities, but we can appreciate his motives—preserving a natural environment for future generations. Maybe your antagonist is a serial killer, but he volunteers at a pet shelter every weekend. Those might be simple examples, but you get the point—there are simple ways to make your antagonist sympathetic. Even Macbeth was brave and loved his country.
The bottom line
An antagonist can range from evil personified to hero to amoral, and there’s nothing wrong with anything in that range. Just take the time to add as much depth and layering to your antagonist as you do to your protagonist, and let the reader decide whether he’s an onion or a parfait.