The Wicked Witch of the West. Count Dracula. Cruella de Vil. What do these three megalomaniacs have in common?
They’re all classic storybook antagonists that have stayed with us for generations—often leaving even more of an impression than their heroic counterparts. (Remember Jonathan Harker? The hero of Bram Stoker’s Dracula? Me neither.)
Many antagonists have a larger-than-life appeal that fascinates and seduces us, even as we watch in terror as the world of the hero crumbles around them. So how do we bring that horrifying charisma into our own writing? How do we create a nightmarish character out of nothing?
What is an antagonist?
An antagonist is a living, (usually) breathing obstacle in your plot. The word “antagonist” comes from the Greek word antagonistēs, which means “opponent” or “rival.” The hero of your story wants or needs something, and the antagonist is the person standing between them and their goal. Conventionally, the antagonist is the “bad guy” of the story while the main character is the “good guy”—though, as we’ll see a little farther down below, this isn’t always the case.
Whether your antagonist is evil, sympathetic, broken, or just very annoying, their role in the story is to give your protagonist something to overcome.
What’s the difference between an antagonist and a protagonist?
Our primary player is the protagonist. The word “protagonist” is another word handed down to us from our literary ancestors, the ancient Greeks: prōtagōnistēs, which means “first actor,” or the headliner of a stage drama. The protagonist is the center of the story.
The antagonist is someone whose primary objective is in direct conflict with the primary objective of the protagonist. They either want the same thing which only one of them can have, or they want two very different things that cannot coexist in the same world. By the end of the story, someone (probably the antagonist) will either end up with nothing, or learn to want something else.
When crafting great antagonists and protagonists, one of the most important things to know is that the antagonist and protagonist need to complete each other.
The most memorable antagonists aren’t just people whose desires happen to be in conflict with our hero; they’re people who show us what would happen if those desires were twisted either completely beyond recognition or just slightly, gently off center. Antagonists show us who the hero could have been if they had taken a different path, made a different choice. The antagonist and the protagonist are complimenting light and shadow, each a part of a balanced whole. We’ll look at this idea a little more in our antagonist examples list down below.
It’s also very important to note that just because the protagonist is the center, and the antagonist is the conflict of this story, it doesn’t mean that the antagonist is always evil and the protagonist is always good. It simply means that the protagonist is the one that this story has chosen to follow.
As far as the antagonist is concerned, they’re the hero of their own story and the protagonist is the one standing in their way. This is why it’s so important for both the antagonist and the protagonist to be equally developed and dynamic characters.
What’s the difference between an antagonist and a villain?
The quick take: all villains are antagonists, but not all antagonists are villains.
Confused? It’s cool, we’ll break it down. As we’ve seen, an antagonist is someone who wants something that’s in opposition with the protagonist. If a villain is after world domination and the hero would really rather that didn’t happen, that makes the villain the antagonist of the story. The antagonist wants something, the protagonist wants something, and their two desires cannot exist at the same time.
But your antagonist might also be someone who really thinks they’re doing their best—a best friend who tries to push the heroine into dating too soon after a failed marriage. They might be a teacher who doesn’t see the hero’s potential and rejects their application to a coveted program, or a rival athlete on a local sports team with their own reasons for needing to win, whatever the cost. Often the strongest antagonists in storytelling are very real people, trying to make their way in their world by doing the best they can with what they’re given.
In your own writing, it’s helpful to avoid thinking about your characters in terms of black and white, good and evil. Instead, think about what your antagonist wants, what they need, and what experiences or circumstances have brought them to wanting and needing these things. This will give your antagonist depth and dimension while still filling an essential role in opposing the protagonist of your story.
How your antagonist supports your story’s theme
Theme can be intimidating to both new and experienced writers, but it doesn’t need to be scary: Theme is simply the driving force behind the creation of the story. Theme is the story’s reason for existing, the message the writer is trying to convey—consciously or unconsciously—as they bring their story to life.
Common themes in stories might include the importance of justice, the tenacity of love, the rocky road of redemption, the battles of faith and doubt or fate and free will. In a story’s theme, there will usually be a broad idea that the writer wants the reader to come away with—for example, that justice is always worth fighting for, even when the odds seem impossible. The antagonist of the story might stand against this idea, they might give the protagonist something to overcome on their way to understanding the theme, or they might show the reader the reverse image of the theme’s idea to help us see it in a new way.
Your protagonist and your antagonist both play a part in crystallizing the theme in the reader’s mind, showing us why it matters and the place it has in the world.
Antagonist examples: 7 great foes and villains in literature
(To read about the protagonists that correspond to these antagonists, see our article on protagonists.)
1. Professor James Moriarty
For a character that only appeared twice in Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes stories, Professor Moriarty has made an impressive mark on the legacy of the world’s greatest detective. Why? Because in many ways, despite his very human failings, Sherlock Holmes is a larger-than-life unstoppable genius. We need to see him fight a villain who is just as unstoppable and larger-than-life as he is.
Professor Moriarty is a reflection of Sherlock Holmes. He shows not only the reader but the detective himself what he could have become if he had taken a different path. In a story, these two work well together because it takes what makes Sherlock Holmes so fascinating and turns it just slightly off-kilter.
2. The Joker
The Joker, perhaps more than any other villain who has come before him, is the personification of anarchy and chaos. He destroys things for the childlike pleasure of watching them as they fall. In any other narrative this sort of mindless madness would probably leave the reader feeling cheated—where’s the context? Where’s the motivation? Where’s the story? But in this world it works because Batman and the Joker are reflections of one another.
Batman hides in the shadows and tries to restore order to a disorderly world. We see this not just in his actions, but also in his black costume, and where he spends his time (the man lives in a cave full of bats). The Joker, by contrast, lives life to the fullest in bright colours and fireworks. One of the most enduring villains in literary history isn’t one who brings darkness and shadow—it’s one who lives off of light. It’s this juxtaposition between the two characters that makes their dynamic so compelling.
3. Père Francis Reynaud
The primary antagonist of Joanne Harris’ Chocolat is the village priest, Père Francis Reynaud (fans of the film version may recognize him as the village mayor, played by Alfred Molina—concerns were raised about the reception of depicting religion as an antagonistic influence in the story). Francis Reynaud likes his role as priest for the stability and sense of purpose it gives him—the arrival of an enchanting, free-spirited chocolatiére threatens all that.
These two work well together because, like so many other great protagonist and antagonist teams, they’re a reflection of one another. Père Reynaud’s need for stability is an inversion of Vianne Rocher’s fear of settling down, and her gift for embracing sensory pleasures contrasts the priest’s view of indulgence as a guilt-ridden weakness. Unlike other hero and villain teams, however, their enmity helps them both learn and grow, and by the end they come to a sort of peace with one another.
4. The Sheriff of Nottingham
If only a forest outlaw could get a little peace to sleep off his mead-soaked hangover. Alas, it was not to be. The Sheriff of Nottingham, the central villain of the Robin Hood stories, imposes a sense of law and order that threatens Robin Hood’s way of living. And, in return, the existence of a man who lives by his own set of laws, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, helping those who cannot help themselves before vanishing into the shadows of the greenwood, threatens everything the corrupt sheriff stands for.
These two represent two very different sides of humanity—wilderness and civilization, freedom and constraint, generosity and selfservience, disorder and discipline. All of these things exist within us at different moments, which is why the dynamic between these characters is so powerful.
5. The Adderhead
In the Inkworld trilogy, the Adderhead is an evil king made up of the world’s darkest faerie tales. He rules with cruelty and craves what all villains crave when they near the end of their lives and have run out of things to take: immortality. And he’s convinced that Mo Folchart, the protagonist of the story, can give it to him.
This antagonist is born out of classic archetypes in stories. What really gives him dynamic strength, however, is how the Adderhead shapes the path the protagonist needs to take. Coming from what we know as reality and fighting his way through a faerie tale story, the hero faces an embodiment of all the evils they have ever read about in books—only this time it’s real. And in order to survive and protect the ones they love, the hero needs to become a part of the story with them.
The great fire-breathing dragon of Tolkien’s The Hobbit is everything a formidable hero’s opponent should be: strong, proud, and avaricious, eloquent and ferocious in turn, almost impenetrable, and propelled by values in direct juxtaposition to those of our hero. Smaug, the dragon under the mountain, is all of these things and more.
While Smaug would be scary in any context, he’s made particularly impressive by his contrast to the small, homely hobbit looking up at him. In addition to their differences in stature, Smaug’s greed, indulgence, and solitude are a direct inversion of Bilbo’s humble and open generosity. This dynamic works well because each character highlights the inherent strengths of the other.
7. Mr. Hyde
What do you do when your greatest enemy is a part of you? This antagonist is a personification of the “protagonist vs. self” conflict, and the most extreme example here of a villain who is a direct reflection of the hero. This dynamic has worked so well that we see it in many other stories, including Bruce Banner and the Hulk, Harvey Dent and Two-Face, and Norman Bates.
Although present in short stories and novels, this type of antagonist lends itself particularly well to the comic book medium because we get to incorporate a visual component as well. In some stories the protagonist and antagonist eventually destroy each other; in others they learn to live with some sort of peace.
3 ways to write a great antagonist
As we can see from our antagonist examples above, great antagonists in literature are as varied as human weakness itself. Your antagonist might be a dark, towering warlord woven together from a combination of malevolent cruelty and the sale rack at Hot Topic, or they might be a school bully, or a corrupt politician, or even a family member or a friend.
Regardless of where you draw your inspiration from for your story’s villain, there are a few things you can keep in mind to make them believable and memorable to your readers.
1. Give them a motivation
The absolute worst (read: the most boring) antagonists in literary history are those who are evil for no reason. The best antagonists are the ones who are doing bad things for reasons that we can understand, and even relate to. They make us ask ourselves what we might do in their situation—how far we would be willing to go, if it were us.
Sometimes these reasons might be deep, dynamic plot points, like a father who begins seeking out money in increasingly immoral ways so that he can fund his daughter’s medical treatment. Others might be simple, universal facets of the human condition, such as a bully who torments others because he’s afraid of what he’ll become if he shows any weakness. Sometimes your antagonists may be people who have embraced what they see as a fundamentally broken world; for instance, an army general who has seen so much pain and corruption that they no longer try to change the world, instead benefiting from what it has already become.
When constructing your story, you’ll most likely come up with the antagonist’s actions before you discover their motivation. For instance, your story may open with your antagonist robbing a jewellery counter, and you know that this plot point needs to happen because it kicks off the dominoes that get the rest of your story going. Once you have a clear idea of what your antagonist is doing, try asking yourself why—why are they doing this, what will they gain from it, and what will happen to them if they fail.
These motivations don’t have to be things that you as a writer personally agree with; but, like an actor slipping into the skin of a particularly dastardly psychopath, you should do your best to understand them. This will make the antagonist seem much more human to you and then, in turn, to the reader.
2. Give them a weakness
If your antagonist is a classic villain, they’ll need a weakness so that your hero can defeat them in the end. For instance, if your villain is either a.) a green-skinned hydrophobic witch, or b.) an electrician who, through a freak accident and comic book logic, has developed the power to control electricity, their weakness might be a strategically aimed bucket of water. If your villain is a psychotic xenophobic sorcerer, their weakness might be a magic ring, a sacred spell book, or a series of objects with bits of the antagonist’s soul hanging off them.
In more contemporary stories, an antagonist’s weakness might be a secret from their past, a vulnerable relative, an old battle wound that they try to keep hidden, or even their own hubris. The weakness or weaknesses that eventually lead to their downfall can be physical or they can be psychological, or a combination of the two.
3. Give them humanity
As we mentioned in our article on protagonists, humanity is essential in making any character resonate with the reader. In general, the less human your antagonist—for instance, if they’re a trickster spirit, a goblin warrior, or a talking giraffe—the more important it is to show the humanity within them.
As we discussed above when talking about the antagonist’s motivation, this includes showing how their actions come from a very human place. Though your antagonist will probably approach their needs and weaknesses differently than we would, those needs and weaknesses will still be things that we can recognize from within ourselves.
In many cases, the antagonist’s weakness will also be something born out of their humanity. For example, a tough-as-nails mob boss might be brought down by a threat to his aging mother. A powerful warlord may let his guard down a moment too long while he protects a beloved pet. The dynamic created by our protagonist and our antagonist shows us that love and vulnerability can be both our greatest weakness and our greatest strength; it’s from this juxtaposition, one we all live with every day, that stories are born.
Antagonists bring your story to life
Your antagonist may be one of the most important characters in your story, but there are as many ways of crafting antagonists as there are people in the world. Your antagonist might be a creature of debonair, debaucherous nightmares, or a villain constructed of human pride and greed. Or, alternatively, they may be someone who sees themself as a tragic victim of circumstance who’s only doing what they need to to survive, to help a friend, to be the person they aspire to be. Any one of us could be an antagonist in someone else’s story. That’s what makes them so fascinating.
When creating the antagonist of your story, remember that just like your protagonist, the antagonist needs a reason to fight, something at stake, something to lose. They need depth and dimension and hopes and dreams, twisted just slightly beyond something we might recognize as our own. That’s what makes these characters stay with us long after the book is closed.