January 2023: The Anatomy of an Antagonist

Not every good story needs an antagonist, but most do. So long as the story itself has an protagonist whom the audience is supposed to relate to or empathise with, and a goal which that protagonist wants to achieve, that narrative also needs something which prevents the protagonist from achieving that goal, something which the protagonist overcomes, and by doing so changes – either as a character, or in the reader’s perception, or both. This is the basis of what some of you might recognise as Campbell’s “Monomyth”, but it also exists in forms outside that model as well. A ‘hero’ does not have to go on a journey to change, they merely have to face difficulty, be that difficulty an opponent, the conditions of an unfamiliar environment, or even simply the changing circumstances of a changing world. All of these factors can be pitted against a protagonist or protagonists and make a good story, and all of these things can be written as antagonists.

Of course, the common definition is a bit more specific than that. It’s very easy in a lot of cases to conflate ‘antagonist’ with ‘villain’, but these are not necessarily the same things. A villain is a type of antagonist, particularly, a single character which is portrayed as a moral inferior to the protagonist, and works directly against either the protagonist themselves, or the goals which they represent. Antagonists do not have to be villains. They can be disinterested or neutral or even attempting in their own way to aid the protagonist in achieving their goals. They may be a moral equivalent, or even morally superior (at least, from the perspective of the reader or creator) to the protagonist. So long as the antagonist is an entity, treated by the story as a character, and in opposition to the protagonist’s interests, it is an antagonist of one kind or another.

The important question isn’t whether a character is an antagonist, but the kind of antagonist they are, and that depends on how the audience feels about an antagonist – which means, it depends on the creator’s ability to shape that antagonist in a way which hits the right emotional notes. This, I think, boils down to answering three basic questions about a given antagonist:

1: How much should your audience sympathise with your antagonist.

2: How much should your audience respect your antagonist?

3: How much should your character fear your antagonist?

For a lot of stories, the question of sympathy is the easiest one to answer, because if a creator wants to tell a story about a loathsome, utterly irredeemable villain of an antagonist, then the answer to “how much should the audience sympathise” is simply “not at all”. If you want the audience to feel only antipathy towards an antagonist, to be completely and totally on the protagonist’s side every time the two clash, and to cheer for the antagonist’s destruction (or lament his victory) without any second thoughts or misgivings, then the key is to make an antagonist entirely unsympathetic is to make their interests, their goals, and their methods not only unacceptable to the audience, but utterly alien as well. A species of alien invaders who launch an unprovoked attack on Earth to crack open the skulls of human babies and feast on their brains will garner little sympathy from almost anyone. Even if that alien civilisation has what they believe to be a good reason for their actions, the audience certainly won’t sympathise them – at least so long as that reason remains inscrutable.

This was, in a lot of ways, how old-fashioned stories about “civilisation against barbarism” would often frame themselves, where the familiar, “civilised” protagonists would go up against “mysterious” or “alien” antagonists belonging to a culture which had been hollowed of its actual dynamics and nuance, leaving only a shell of a people behind. While the representatives of this empty shell of another culture might still possess qualities and virtues which the audience can respect, the cultural forces and societal incentives which animate them and determine their actions are homogenised and flattened into something alien and incomprehensible to the audience. This is how you get racist stereotypes of the “savage indian” and “inscrutable oriental”, where the motivations of an antagonist from another culture are framed as alien and unrelatable, which in turn renders that society itself unsympathetic, an undefined and incomprehensible ‘other’ which serves only to make otherwise respectable characters do bad things, and is thus worthy only of destruction by the more “enlightened” protagonists.

Of course, if you want to do the precise opposite, to make your antagonists more sympathetic, then you do the opposite. Instead of making their motives alien and antithetical to the audience’s own value system, you make them relatable, and in turn make the audience consider the possibility that the antagonist might have something of a point. This is one of the reasons why one of the most powerful ways of making an antagonist (even a villainous one!) sympathetic is through showing the events of the story through their perspective. By immersing the audience in the worldview of an antagonist, they are shown the reasons why the antagonist acts the way they do, and if those reasons are ones which are made comprehensible and relatable to the audience, then they become more sympathetic – perhaps even so so sympathetic that the audience begins to cheer for the antagonists, rather than the intended protagonists.

This doesn’t mean an antagonist has to be sympathetic for the audience to engage with them as something other than a purely malevolent evil. There are times when you might want to make an antagonist which isn’t sympathetic, but is worthy of the audience’s respect: there’s an element of poignancy in that, and a lot of great stories can come out of a dynamic of a protagonist who is required for one reason or another to oppose or destroy an antagonist which both they and the audience have come to respect.

Some of the best examples of these sorts of antagonists come not from specific characters, but from forces of nature. After all, a storm doesn’t have motivations or loyalties. It can’t really be relatable. But that doesn’t mean the protagonists – and the audience – can’t respect that storm, not only for its power, but for the way it operates under consistent rules, for its incapacity for malevolence or cruelty. It is a force which the audience can never really hold in contempt, even if it cannot be sympathised with.

This is because these attributes map to human qualities, ones which most of us have been taught to accept as virtues. The storm’s consistency and impartiality would appear as a sense of honour and fairness in a human, and likewise, those are great virtues to ascribe to a human antagonist which you want your audience to respect – even if you don’t want them to sympathise. If done properly, then your audience will see this sort of antagonist as one which can be admired for their “noble” qualities despite their opposition to the protagonist’s goals. These the sort of antagonists which are often described as “love-to-hate” thanks to those aspects of them which make them likeable and worthy counterparts to the protagonists. These are the kinds of antagonists who your audience will look forward to seeing in action, even if it means clashing with the protagonists.

Then there are the antagonists your audience doesn’t want your protagonists to run into: those dreaded forces which will certainly inflict a great deal of harm on the people the audience are supposed to care about if they run into them unprepared – or at all. These are the antagonists which the audience is supposed to fear.

Thankfully, we already have a whole genre of media where the ability of the antagonist to evoke fear is the most integral element – one which we can examine not only for examples, but for case studies in why fearsome and dread antagonists are as feared and dreaded as they are: namely, the horror genre.

It’s easy to take a look at Horror films or novels or games and imagine that the key to making an antagonist which is feared is darkness, or particularly outlandish design, or jump-scares, but the truth is that these are ancillary factors, intended to facilitate that feeling of fear, not to create it. Someone who knows what they’re doing can create a feared antagonist in a story set in broad daylight, with an entirely ordinary appearance, and no jump scares at all, so long as they remember the key – that fear is is ultimately about powerlessness.

As humans, fear comes from the intersection of two perceptions: that something wants to do us harm, and that we don’t have the ability to stop it. The Thing in the eponymous movie is scary because nobody knows how to reliably detect and kill it. Survival Horror games often restrict the weapons and ammunition the player has to make it clear that they can’t take on enemies in a straight-up fight. Dunkirk seems more like a horror movie than a war film because the audience never sees the human faces behind the death and violence inflicted on the protagonists, while Aliens seems more like an action movie than its predecessor because Ripley and the Colonial Marines are armed to the teeth with weapons that – occasionally – are able to beat the Xenomorphs back. 

Of course, none of these parameters are mutually exclusive, in fact, it’s better if they weren’t. An antagonist which is sympathetic can more easily gain the audience’s respect – and likewise, the audience will be more likely to accept the sympathetic motives of a character they already respect. Indeed, some of the most complex and nuanced antagonists are ones which are dangerous enough to elicit fear but relatable enough to elicit sympathy, and as a result, gain the audience’s respect. Of course, maintaining all three of those aspects makes for something of a precarious balancing act on the part of the creator. Most of the ways in which an antagonist can be established as fearsome also distance them from the perspective of the audience, making them more difficult to sympathise with. Likewise, sympathising with an antagonist often means coming to understand them, which makes it more difficult to make them quite as fearsome. The more complex you want your antagonists to be, the more plates you have to keep in the air, to ensure that those antagonists are able to balance the fear, sympathy, and the respect of the audience (and the protagonist) in the appropriate levels.

One of the strongest tools a storyteller has to establish these proportions is through the scene in which they introduce a given antagonist. First impressions tend to land hard, and it’s important to take care that they land properly, so that they might be built on – or subverted as the rest of the narrative develops.

When I have enough coming in to resume this column, that’s one of the topics I’d like to tackle in more detail.

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