In the first Austin Powers movie, Doctor Evil’s son, Scott, informed his father that he didn’t plan to follow his career path and embark on a life of crime. Instead, Scott said he planned to be a veterinarian. “An evil veterinarian?” Doctor Evil asked.
Doctor Evil was an antagonist—and a funny one at that. Antagonists tend to be evil, but that’s not always the case. The main purpose of the antagonist is to prevent the main character from reaching her goal. In certain genres, like crime/mystery and sci-fi, it’s important to have an evil antagonist, but many antagonists in other genres are more multi-dimensional and some even have admirable qualities.
There are many ways to approach the development of an antagonist. Antagonists have many of these traits. They are:
- Powerful. A weak and ineffectual antagonist has no credibility.
- Charismatic. The best villains are charismatic; they are able to convince people to follow them. Which brings us to the next trait.
- Leaders. Antagonists are often leaders who have a devoted following. Think Lord Voldemort and the Death Eaters.
- In a position of authority or advantage over the main character. An antagonist may possess super powers, or maybe he just happens to be the main character’s mean boss at work.
- Haunted by inner conflicts. Just as the best main characters have an inner conflict, even the most evil antagonists have a small conscience. An antagonist who is pure evil with no remorse is not as appealing as one who turns to evil because of a bad childhood and still possesses a glimmer of decency.
- In conflict with the main character. This is what gives the story its tension as the main character must overcome the antagonist as she struggles to reach her goal.
- Possessed of something the main character wants or needs.
- Driven by the need for dominance, power and total victory. They don’t just want to win; they want to crush the opposition.
- Complex. The same complexity that makes main characters interesting is often present in the antagonist.
- Possessed with redeeming qualities. Lord Voldemort aside, an antagonist who has some redeeming qualities is more memorable than one who is all-evil. Even Darth Vader ultimately redeemed himself.
Although rare in fiction, the antagonist doesn’t even have to be a person. It could be a catastrophic weather event, or a towering mountain one must climb, or a crippling disease. In Ernest Hemingway’s classic, The Old Man and the Sea, the antagonists are sharks who feed off Santiago’s prized fish (or perhaps the sea itself or Santiago’s advanced age). It could be a life form from another planet. There could be multiple antagonists,
as we saw in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.
What’s important about antagonists is that they must continually thwart the main character and present the main character with ever more difficult challenges as the story progresses. It’s also important for the antagonist to have an inner motivation. Just as the main character may be motivated to act for love, honor or a host of other reasons, so too must the antagonist have a motivation that drives him.
Who are your favorite antagonists and why?