Writing Believable Antagonists
As long as I’ve been reading and writing, I’ve had a soft spot for well-drawn villains and antagonists. Even as a kid, I found myself sitting on the sidelines quietly rooting for cartoon villains like Wyle E. Coyote and Gargamel. It wasn’t because I hated the Roadrunner, or wanted to see Smurfs turned into precious metals and breakfast. I just imagined there was something deeper that made the villain tick.
Maybe The Smurfs really had it coming? Imagine Papa Smurf in his youth dabbling in some strange and mystical arts he’d never want the others to know about, and through those mysterious acts, good old Papa Smurf managed to create a wormhole that was responsible for swallowing little Gargamel’s mother. It could have happened. We don’t know that it didn’t. Okay, we’re relatively sure it didn’t, but I’m hoping you get my point.
Sometimes villains deserve a little sympathy. One of my favorite sympathetic antagonists has appeared repeatedly through historical retellings of the King Arthur stories: Mordred. A victim of circumstance, Mordred is often portrayed as this dastardly bastard out to usurp Arthur’s kingdom for all evil intents and purposes. As you come to know Mordred and discover that in most cases he’s the byproduct of incest, jealousy and greed. The son of King Arthur and his half-sister Morgause, and in later retellings of Arthur and Morgan La Fey, Mordred is played like a puppet for the vengeful gain of others until he snaps.
In the feminine Arthurian retelling, Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Mordred is shunned by his mother after she discovers that part of her priestess training entailed giving her virginity to her own half-brother. The pregnancy that resulted made her so ashamed she attempted to abort her own baby when she discovered the truth. Driven away from her and into his greedy Aunt Morgause’s keeping, Mordred’s confusion and hurt festers until the only satisfaction he can find comes from tearing apart his father’s kingdom from the inside out.
Much like when we hear on the news about a killer, we question the motivation behind an antagonist’s actions. If there is no motivation, that killer/antagonist becomes a monster in order to explain their behavior.
While I enjoy a good monster just as much as the next gal, there’s something powerful about a well-crafted antagonist with history and motivation. The motivation may have nothing at all to do with the protagonist directly, but a part of me wants to feel that motivation so I can connect with both the protagonist and antagonist on a personal level.
Maybe it’s the writer in me trying to find new and improved ways to relate to my own characters because writing a character you can’t wrap your mind around is impossible.
Unless, of course, you’re just writing monsters, in which case there’s no need to explain them unless you really want to. If you do, that’s okay too. There’s nothing like stirring emotional conflict in your readers as they stare between your conflicted antagonist with a tragic history and understandable motivation and your tormented protagonist who just wants to overcome the obstacle standing between him and his future.
Jennifer Hudock is an author, podcaster and freelance editor from Pennsylvania. Her first full-length novel, The Goblin Market, is currently available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords. For more information about Jennifer Hudock, including updates on upcoming fiction, visit her official website: The Inner Bean.