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Magonomia – Role-playing Game Review


Role-playing Game Review


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.



  1. Oh, I love a great, complex villain. The main character of my current ms actually began life as a villainess for a different project. I really wanted to get her right, and worked so hard to give her a backstory that made her choices and behavior logical or at least understandable… Ended up loving the story so much I made it the main project instead!

    • Oh, Lindsay, I love it when ANY character takes on a life of his/her own that way! I think that’s fantastic. 🙂 I have one like that–not a villain, just a guy who was supposed to be a minor character in my novel series, but I ended up not using him. I loved him so much I’m giving him a serial novella on my blog and hoping to turn his adventures into a series.

      Best of luck with your project!

  2. Avatar Khaldun says:

    Examples from Shakespeare are always appreciated, Amy. Another solid article!

    • Khaldun,

      Thanks. 🙂 I’ve had Hamlet’s soliloquy running through my head for about two days, which just brings to mind all kinds of other Shakespearean references. It’s like a literary earworm. 🙂

      Glad you liked the article!


  3. Hello, Amy Rose — I found this article through the SF Signal link. It reminds me of a panel on villains I was on somewhere in the distant past. We started with the SW phrase “scum and villainy” and took it into 3 categories:

    Mildew. The Dark Lord’s spear carriers, lacking the moral/intellectual wherewithal to contemplate their own actions.

    Scum. Smart enough to know what they’re doing, and often do terrible harm, but make lousy leaders because they lack transcendent vision. A lot of sadists and psychopaths here.

    True villains are charismatic and visionary, with the potential of greatness. Here’s where your suggestions come in, because they are heroes in their own stories, they have the capacity to see the larger picture, and they are definitely forces for good as they understand it.

    I love the idea that they can actually act for good, perhaps against the protagonist’s view of what that is. That opens up the whole question of what is good in one time and place being tragic in another, or vice versa, a “tragedy” turns out far better than the original goal.

    • Hi Deborah–thanks for the very insightful comment! Some good stuff in there. I agree–you kind of have the “red shirts,” the thugs, and the leaders. When we look at history, the worst villains have often achieved their great successes because of their vision and charisma and ability to inspire.

      Have you seen “The King’s Speech?” It’s a wonderful, wonderful movie. There’s one scene where the king, who has been struggling and working so hard to overcome his stammer, is watching a film where Hitler stirs a crowd into a frenzy. His wife asks, “What’s he saying?” King George replies, “I don’t know but… he seems to be saying it rather well.” So poignant…

      And thanks for letting me know you visited from the SF Signal link–I’m glad they’re picking up the articles on this site!


  4. Avatar Bailey says:

    Awesome article; thanks for posting it. I definitely needed some help sorting out my character.
    I like the idea of the antagonist having their own goals for good. I was thinking my antagonist do something to reform their world (because of all the discrimination), but then like twisting it from him being a hero to all of his kind to him being all trigger happy on power and doing more harm than good. It’s all really fuzzy right now, haha.
    Do you have any advice on how to give my antagonist a better…um…can’t find the word…well, just make him better? Seems I find a lot of antagonists that go crazy just on power, and I don’t want to rip off other writers.

    But really, thank you for posting this. Really. It helped.

  5. I know this is a very old article. But I have to thank you for this. After reading this article, I came up with the antagonist for a story idea I had that sorely needed one. Since then, the details and plots of this story have just come pouring out of my head. If the book that eventually comes of this plotting works out, it will be because I read this article.

    Thank you so much.

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