How to Create a Powerful Antagonist: The Epic Villain Breakdown
Do you remember when I mentioned that Lizzie Bennet was one of my favorite main characters?
Well, today I'm talking villains and let me just say - I love Jadis the White Witch from The Chronicles of Narnia!
Jadis is the baddest of the bad. A practitioner of sorcery and the dark arts, she killed every living thing in her home world in order to beat out her sister for the throne. She later usurped the seat of Narnia, cast the world into eternal winter, turned everyone who opposed her into stone, and tried to kill Aslan and the Pevensie children.
She's scary stuff, guys!
But Jadis isn't the only type of villain out there. Take a moment to scan over your bookshelf. See how villains come in all shapes and sizes?
You won't be able to throw any old villain into your story and make it work. You have to tailor your story to best accommodate your antagonist, giving them the room they need to grow into a powerful threat for your hero. It's a lot to think about, so let's break it down step by step!
An Introduction to Villains
Almost every villain can be placed on a graph based on two sets of opposing identifiers.
- Your villain can either be human or abstract. Human (or human-like) villains are characters that the hero must defeat in order to gain their happy ending. On the other hand, abstract villains are something, rather than someone, that your hero must overcome to achieve their success.
- Your villain can either be emotionless or emotional. Some villains are cold-hearted; they feel no guilt over their crimes. They simply want to win. Alternatively, emotional villains are motivated to hurt others because of emotions they experienced in their past.
One identifier from each of these sets can be used to classify story villains into 4 main categories.
- The Pure Evil. The Pure Evil are emotionless human villains. They show a complete lack of mercy and remorse, making them the perfect antagonist in a classic good vs. evil story.
- The Grey. The Grey are human villains who are motivated by emotion. Their stories are neither black nor white, meaning readers will be able to find justifiable motivations for their actions.
- The Self. The Self is an abstract and emotional villain (more appropriately: an antagonistic force) that manifests itself in many different forms. In essence, your character is their own worst enemy and must overcome their Self to find true happiness.
- Corruption. Corruption is an emotionless, abstract villain (more appropriately: an antagonistic force) that poses a threat to the main character's safety. No matter where Corruption is found, the hero must take down the entire organization in order to rid the world of its taint.
Here I've plotted a few popular villains on the graph to give you a better idea of who is who:
Now that we've got the basics out of the way, let's take a closer look at our villains and how we can make them the biggest threat they can be.
Part One: Human Villains
Who are they?
Track: The Pure Evil
Psycopaths suffer from Antisocial Personality Disorder. They aren't necessarily shy, but they do lack all empathy and can easily manipulate a crowd. They are highly educated, take calculated risks, are often violent, and feel absolutely no guilt after breaking social norms. This doesn't mean that all Psychopaths are serial killers, but many serial killers are Psychopaths.
Track: The Pure Evil
Similarly to Psychopaths, sociopaths suffer from Antisocial Personality Disorder, feel a complete lack of empathy for others, and show no remorse after breaking social norms. However, sociopaths are extremely impulsive and suffer from bouts of rage and other erratic behavior. Sociopaths are often uneducated and aren't able to hold a steady job.
Track: The Pure Evil
These are villains whose hate is so profound that it blinds all other senses. They cannot see the opponent's point of view, nor understand their perspective on a situation. Their need to make others suffer for a crime, even if they did not directly commit it themselves, is the driving force behind the emotionless actions of the Hater.
The Power Hungry
Track: The Pure Evil
The need for power dominates the lives of the Power Hungry. They view themselves as superior to others and have no qualms with hurting anyone that gets in their way. They don't care about their reputations so long as they make it to the top.
The Warped Good
Track: The Grey
The Warped Good might seem like a protagonist at first. They have been severely wronged and wish to make things right. But soon that desire will turn into blind rage. They become overwhelmed with the need to eradicate all those who did them wrong. For the Warped Good, there is no end but complete destruction, which they see as justified because of their victimization.
Track: The Grey
The Fighter started their life at the bottom. Born into poverty or subjugation, the Fighter lifted themselves out of despair and began anew. Now they feel the need to fight back against whatever held them down in the first place. This obsession will drive them to unthinkable deeds against their oppressors.
Track 1: The Pure Evil
Some Insane villains are Pure Evil. They may resemble Psychopaths or Sociopaths in their actions, but the Insane recognize that their actions are wrong and simply believe themselves beyond saving. They are often ruthless in their follow-through with threats and should not be treated lightly by other characters.
Track 2: The Grey
Other Insane villains have sad backstories. Their insanity is a result of abuse or neglect, and now they want revenge. The Grey Insane believe themselves to be justified in their evil actions, even if they understand that others would consider their actions wrong.
Track 1: The Pure Evil
A rivalry is headed up by two opponents who may or may not be Pure Evil. The Evil Rivalrous are out to destroy their opponent at any cost. They don't feel any remorse for how their actions affect others. They only care that they are the winner in the end, even if that win comes at the cost of their own happiness.
Track 2: The Grey
The Grey Rivalrous are a bit milder. Their rivalry exists because there is something that they desperately want to protect. They may feel guilty as people begin to get hurt, but the Grey Rivalrous continue to battle on. They will do everything in their power to protect the things they love, even if they destroy everyone else in the process.
My #1 Tip For Writing Powerful Human Villains:
Amplify the Emotion
Everything in your plot is built on a foundation of cause and effect. Circumstances change and spurn tension. This tension leads to an emotion that acts as motivation for further action. In effect, new tensions and emotions are born.
Your plot should look like a rollercoaster, and you'll notice that emotions are at the heart of the hills and the valleys.
Amplifying the emotions may seem like odd advice when a third of human villains are completely emotionless, but remember that your villain's opponents have emotions, too. Place extra attention on these emotions.
Make them the prominent motivation for both your hero's and your Grey villain's actions. Your reader will form an attachment to the characters in your story once they recognize these emotional drivers.
4 Ways to Amplify Your Characters' Emotions:
- Raise the stakes. Think of 5 awful things that could happen to your character throughout the story and then make at least one of those things occur. That is when your character will be at their most vulnerable, putting their range of emotions (shock, fear, guilt, anger, etc.) on display.
- Place your character in between a rock and a hard place. At some point in your story, your character will have to make a choice. To amplify the emotions during that time, ensure that the choice isn't clear. No matter what your character chooses, something valuable must be lost because of it. This will make their decision more gut-wrenching and suspenseful.
- Make their personalities clash. Your main character and your villain should not be capable of being friends in an alternate reality. They need to drive each other mad! When people are angered, they make rash decisions and act against their true nature. This needs to happen to up the emotional ante of your story.
- Demonstrate their fear. Fear is one of the most primal, and thus most powerful, motivators. Many people lose their good sense when they are afraid and make decisions they later come to regret. Give your characters something realistic to fear and your readers will be downright terrified.
Part Two: Abstract Villains
Abstract villains don't take human form, but still serve to spark conflict in your story. As such, there are more appropriately known as "antagonistic forces."
What are they?
Villainizing mental Illness certainly isn't okay in real life (mental illness is normal, and you are not alone), but it can cause conflict in your story if your MC is, in essence, fighting against their own minds.
If that's the case with your book, then your main character's mental illness is what's acting as the "villain" or antagonistic force.
To learn more about mental illnesses, check out my friend Faye Kirwin's amazing blog, Writerology. She has a plethora of articles on identifying and writing mental illness into your story in her Psychology and Storycraft series.
Doubt is a Self villain that keeps your MC from interacting with others, opening up to the ones they love, taking part in social events, and going after their dreams. Your MC believes that they are unworthy of success and are constantly worried about what others say or think about them.
And although they may recognize that their doubts are unfounded, they'll have trouble working up the confidence to overcome them.
Desire is a Self villain that manifest itself in forms like greed, vanity, and lust. Desire could even turn into an obsession with other characters. Whatever the case, your MC knows that their Desire is wrong and must spend their story fighting off and eventually overcoming this Desire.
Past mistakes may lead your MC to face a Demon of guilt, shame, or regret. This Self villain will loom over your MC, making them feel less than deserving of a happy life. Your MC must confront their mistakes in order to defeat their Demon, but the thought of it will paralyze them with fear.
Religion plays an integral role in nearly every culture, with many people believing their religion to be a core part of who they are. When a religion or its leaders are corrupted by greed, the entire culture will begin to crumble. False teachers or radical leaders may arise, convincing worshipers to hand over exorbitant amounts of money or commit unjustified deeds to make things right.
Judicial corruption takes place inside a society's law and order system. In the courtroom, juries are rigged, judges paid off, and witnesses bought to lie on the stand. In prisons, guards are paid to give prisoners undue privileges or look the other way while further crime is committed. When justice is corrupted, proper criminal prosecution and incarceration procedures will fail.
Governments allot massive budgets for their education systems, making them particularly prone to corruption. Unqualified teachers are hired for lower rates, textbooks are sold to students or aren't used at all, and undue fees are charged, all in order to make more money. And as for the education itself, brainwashing and false teachings are used to mold the minds of students.
Political corruption is widespread in many governments. Bribes are made for endorsements, powerful positions given to unqualified relatives, money passed under the table in return for criminal favors, and scandals covered up by paying off the media. Your MC will need a lot of support to take down Political corruption because it may result in protests, rebellion, or war.
My #1 Tip for Writing Powerful Abstract Villains:
Embody Them in a Human Figure
But wait, these are supposed to be abstract villains/antagonistic forces, not human ones, right?
Well...yes and no.
Think about The Hunger Games. Katniss's enemy is Political Corruption in the form of the Capitol, but that Political Corruption is embodied in the character of President Snow. And as for Self villains, Dr. Frankenstein's Mental Illness is personified in the creation of his Monster.
By embodying your abstract villain in a human figure, you are giving your MC a physical villain to fight. This makes your story stronger by creating a clear pathway to success for your MC. Just remember, it is your abstract villain that is the true antagonist of the story, not the human embodiment.
Killing President Snow wouldn't have made a difference in Katniss's life if the Capitol had lived on.
4 Tips for Successfully Embodying Your Abstract Villain:
- Concentrate on one motivation. What is your Abstract Villain's biggest motivation? Take that motivation and make it your embodiment's most notable personality trait. That will create a direct tie between the abstract villain and their embodiment.
- Give the embodiment some backup. If your embodiment is trying to defeat your MC alone, then your true villain probably isn't Abstract. Give your embodiment some backup characters to act as secondary support. This will show that the embodiment isn't the villain itself, but simply a figurehead for it.
- Make something terrible happen that isn't the direct result of the embodiment. Your embodiment shouldn't be the force behind every terrible thing that the MC faces. That's your Abstract Villain's job. Make something awful happen that isn't your embodiment's fault to show that a bigger villain lies in wait.
- Make a clear connection between the Abstract's defeat and your MC's success. The embodiment's defeat shouldn't be the end of the line. Always remember that your MC will get their happy ending when, and only when, the Abstract Villain is brought down. You can make this clear to your readers by having the Abstract villain and their embodiment meet separate defeats.
If you made it this far, can I just give you a round of applause? *claps enthusiastically* This has been She's Novel's longest post to date so I'm sorry if I've made your brain hurt. I assure you it will get better!
So, do you have anymore tips for creating a powerful antagonist? And who are your favorite literary villains? Comment or send me a social media shout-out to let me know! And if you aren't too busy, would you mind taking a moment to share this post with all your writer friends? Thank you!