Don't Be an Antagonist to
Your Readers

Do you know what an antagonist is and how to create a good one?

If you do know what the term means, you're probably wondering why I just said you should create a good one. No, I'm not crazy, but many novels make me crazy when they don't take the time to make their bad guys as believable as their good guys.

So let's see how "bad" can be "good", when done right.

The Bad

The antagonist is the bad guy. The anti-hero (or heroine). The one in the way of the protagonist getting what he or she wants.

Maybe the one trying to kill the heroine.

Every good novel needs a good bad guy. No, not one who behaves nicely, but one the reader can believe in. One who's not a flat, two-dimensional depiction of "evil".

That's a pet peeve of mine. Wonderful novels have been written where the hero and his nearest and dearest are fully fleshed out, living breathing characters, and the bad guy is just there. He's bad, that's all the author has to say about it.

I don't buy that. Yeah, I might finish the book if the other characters are well done, but I won't be nearly as happy as I am reading one where the bad guys are real, too.

The Bad News

For me, the bad news when creating an antagonist is that I'm a goodie-two-shoes. Sheltered, life's been relatively easy, no great tragedies.

And I certainly didn't mix with the less savory elements that might have been lurking nearby if I'd only seen them.

So how on earth do I create a believable bad guy?

By buying plenty of writers' resource books about how criminals think. How to poison someone (or the symptoms of various poisons, anyway). What happens when a person is wounded in such a way.

Yeah, my reference library reads like a crime spree.

But I'm better for it. A better author anyway.

So if you aren't good at creating bad, I suggest you try some of the "Howdunit" series of books from Writer's Digest Books. They're great help.

The Good News

The good news about creating an antagonist is that he or she needn't carry the burden of the story. Yes, that bad guy needs to be lurking in dark alleys, waiting to spring out at your protagonist, but she doesn't need to be the star of the show.

That doesn't mean she shouldn't seem real. And real people aren't two-dimensional. They have faults and they have traits anyone else could admire. They have agendas, just like the good guy, and they follow them doggedly, usually to the detriment of the good guy.

I have an entire stable of antagonists in my fantasy series. One is "bad" because he no longer has a choice. He'll die if he doesn't continue down the wrong path. Yet he wishes he could join the side of "good" and quit the "war" that's been going for centuries. He's intelligent, compassionate when it doesn't cause him harm to be so, and a loving father.

Another of my bad guys is bad because he could never measure up to his parents' expectations for him, and his "chosen" career (the one his parents pushed him into) doesn't come easily to him, as it does to many around him. So he's bitter and jealous and hurts others to compensate. And he's in a position of power, which makes him doubly troublesome.

While he was a decent leader, he has fewer good traits, because as he has aged, his bitterness has eaten away the good from him. But he does have reasons in his past that make him what he is now.

A third bad guy of mine is a woman. One with low self-esteem and designs on one of my heroes. Because she believes she can make him love her, she continually does things that end up hurting him or getting him in trouble. In order to try to make him see her as his "match".

Her good traits include a great talent for dance and an exacting method of teaching dance. Not always pleasantly, but well.

None of these three people are completely bad. All of them have (or had) good traits to go with the bad. And all of them have reasons for acting the way they do.

That's what makes a good antagonist.

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