The Four Main Types of Epic Antagonists
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Every story needs a good villain, right? Well, not so fast…
Stories need conflict, certainly, but conflict doesn't have to come at the hands of a cackling, mustache-twirling supervillain. There's more than one way to shape your story's antagonist!
In fact, there are four main types of antagonists that appear in fiction, and I can't wait to break them all down with you today. Which type of antagonist is best for your story? How can you make each type a true stand-out success? Read on for more, my friend.
Type #1: The Evil Villain
Let's begin with the type of antagonist readers know best: The Evil Villain.
You know what type of villain I'm talking about; the dark lord, the witch, the usurper, the criminal mastermind, the bully, the ancient evil… This type of antagonist truly is a villain; they are intent on harming others, whether to further their own desires, to take revenge, or to simply cause chaos.
The Evil Villain is most often found in fantasy, science fiction, and action-adventure novels, though they can appear in other genres as well. Oftentimes, the narrative surrounding The Evil Villain antagonist develops into one of light vs dark, with the protagonist playing the role of a noble-hearted hero.
This type of villain is considered by some to be played out, but there's a reason it has stood the test of time to remain so popular today. The Evil Villain and its resulting narrative speak to our most basic human instinct: fear. To see fear made manifest—and subsequently defeated—in the pages of a book can make for quite the satisfying read.
Examples From Literature:
• Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
• The White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
• Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
• Miss Trunchbull in Matilda by Roald Dahl
• Sauron in The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
How to make your Evil Villain stand out:
Evil isn't born; it's bred. One of the best ways to keep your Evil Villain from falling too far into formulaic territory is to spend some time crafting their humanity. If you can highlight the why behind your Evil Villain's actions, you'll make them a much more believable (and terrifying!) antagonist.
Type #2: The Everyday Antagonist
Not all antagonists are bent upon evil for the sake of evil. Some simply act in opposition to the main character, creating conflict without a distinct goal of setting the world on fire. This doesn't make The Everyday Antagonist any less of…well, an antagonist. It just sets them apart from the true bad guys of literature.
This type of antagonist usually shows up in more character-driven stories, such as romances and contemporary novels, but they can also appear in stories that break away from their more traditional action-driven genre standards (see: examples below).
The Everyday Antagonist can create conflict in a number of ways, including having the same goal as your story's protagonist (in which only one can succeed), discouraging the main character from pursuing a goal they find dangerous or irresponsible, creating emotional or physical roadblocks that hinder the protagonist, or otherwise stirring up trouble.
Examples From Literature:
• Richie in Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
• Allie's mother in The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks
• Severus Snape & Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
• Jaime Lannister & Sandor Clegane in A Song of Ice And Fire by George R. R. Martin
How to Make Your Everyday Antagonist Stand Out:
Because Everyday Antagonists aren't necessarily out to destroy the main character and their way of life, you may not think that the conflict between them will have enough tension to keep readers reading, but this doesn't have to be the case!
You can keep tensions high by having the Everyday Antagonist do something uncharacteristically unthinkable to drive a wedge between the protagonist and their desires, by making your protagonist view the antagonist as far worse a human being than they actually are, or by encouraging readers to admire or feel sympathy for the antagonist, so much so that they're left unsure of whom they should root for.
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Type #3: The Immoral Entity
Sometimes, the protagonist doesn't find conflict with a single human being, but rather a group of people or an even larger entity, such as an organization, a government, or a social system.
More often than not, The Immoral Entity wants to harm or suppress the protagonist—whether directly or simply because the protagonist belongs to a certain people group—as a way to attain power, wealth, revenge, or success.
The Immoral Entity most often appears in action-heavy fantasy, science fiction, thriller, and adventure stories, in many ways acting as a more systemic version of The Evil Villain.
Examples From Literature:
• The Capitol in The Hunger Games by Susanne Collins
• The Chandrian in The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss
• The Republic of Gilead in The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
• VFD in A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
Some stories, however, use an Immoral Entity that isn't necessarily evil, but still creates conflict with the main character, mimicking The Everyday Antagonist in this respect. This can be seen in The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, in which the protagonist is the sole witness to an unjust police shooting, highlighting the problem of police brutality in America.
How to make your Immoral Entity stand out:
Because Immoral Entities are more nebulous, they can be difficult for the protagonist to fight. That's why many authors choose to personify The Immoral Entity as a villainous character. Take, for example, President Snow from The Hunger Games, Ava Paige from The Maze Runner, or Jeanine Matthews from Divergent.
In each of these cases, the protagonist must still fight the group or system as a whole, but by personifying the entity, the author gives their protagonist someone specific to interact with during scenes of conflict.
Type #4: The Internal Struggle
On occasion, a story's antagonistic force doesn't happen to be human, but rather some element of the character's own self.
This is most often seen in character-driven stories such as romances and contemporary novels, where the protagonist must confront a doubt, fear, flaw, or regret in order to overcome their struggles and find happiness or success.
• Elizabeth & Darcy's pride and prejudice in, you guessed it, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
• Briony's guilt in Atonement by Ian McEwan
• Landon's pride in A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks
Though most often acting as an antagonistic force rather than a physical antagonist, some authors choose to personify or objectify their protagonist's struggle with self. This occurs in The Picture of Dorian Gray as Dorian's vanity is represented by his portrait, as well as in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein when Victor's grief and loneliness are made manifest in his monster.
How to Make The Internal Struggle Stand Out:
Because an Internal Struggle is, like The Immoral Entity, more nebulous, it may seem difficult to create defined moments of conflict for your story. The key lies giving your protagonist a distinct dissatisfaction with their life or a strong story goal (or both!), then crafting an Internal Struggle that specifically hinders their attempt to improve their life or achieve said goal.
A few final notes on antagonists…
While these four types of antagonistic forces are the most popular found in fiction, they aren't the only sources of epic story conflict. Your story may benefit from a different type of antagonistic force, such as:
• Nature. Example: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
• Technology. Example: iRobot by Isaac Asimov
• The Supernatural. Example: The Shining by Stephen King
• A Physical Condition. Example: The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffeneger
Just like The Immoral Entity and The Internal Struggle, any of these types of antagonists can stand on their own or be made manifest as a physical character in order to heighten your opportunity to craft direct conflict.
Also, keep in mind that some stories can make good use of multiple types of antagonists.
Take for example, the aforementioned A Walk to Remember, in which Landon's pride is the main antagonist to his happiness in the first half of the novel, while Jaime's physical illness provides the conflict in the latter half of the book. This also occurs in A Song of Ice and Fire as many of the characters act as antagonists, while the White Walkers are the true villains of the series.
Having multiple sources of conflict in your story doesn't necessarily make your story stronger, but it can provide your protagonist with different troubles that force them to their physical, mental, or emotional limits in their fight for happiness or success.
Which type(s) of antagonist is best for your story? Take a look at your protagonist's story goal and personal struggles. Which type could give them the most grief throughout your story? There, my friend, lies your answer.
Writers, I hope you've enjoyed this breakdown of the four main types of antagonists often found in literature. Do you have any questions? Any additional insights you'd like to add? Let me know in the comment below!