Four Qualities of a Memorable Antagonist
All story is driven by conflict, and the struggle of the protagonist to reach their goals. Some of the most memorable characters are the ones that stand in the way of those goals. An antagonist pushing the main character to their limits creates tension, excitement, character development, and a compelling reason to keep watching or turning the pages. Sometimes they're strong and boisterous, sometimes they're charismatic and cunning, and sometimes they're psychotic and terrifying.
Not every antagonist has to be the same, but there are qualities they all should have in order to really jump off the page or the screen. Here are four of those qualities:
1) They force the main character to grow
Character development is vital. We love following the protagonist as they grow over the course of a story, but transformation doesn't happen without tribulation. Without someone or something to challenge a character physically, intellectually, or emotionally, there would be no growth.
Erik Killmonger from The Black Panther is one of the best examples of this I can think of. Our hero, King T'Challa of Wakanda, simply wants to follow the traditions of his ancestors. He wants peace, prosperity, and privacy in his country. Not only does Killmonger overpower T'Challa physically and take the throne, but more importantly, he forces T'Challa to question and confront his own beliefs. Even though Killmonger's tactics were deadly and wrong, he ultimately pushes T'Challa to change Wakanda's ideology by sharing their resources with the rest of the world.
2) They have clear goals of their own
John Barth once said, "Everyone is necessarily the hero of their own story." In one of my previous posts about supporting characters, I mentioned the importance of every character having their own aspirations. The antagonist is no exception.
Johnny Lawrence, one of film's quintessential bad guys, had two clear desires in The Karate Kid: Ali's love, and a karate trophy. Daniel LaRusso stood in the way of both of those goals. Johnny bullying Daniel was absolutely wrong, but he didn't do it because he was evil. He did it because of bad influences, and because he saw Daniel as the antagonist of his own story.
This is brilliantly explored in the Netflix series Cobra Kai, where Johnny is the main character. In The Karate Kid, we see how much pain he caused Daniel. But in Cobra Kai, we see his point-of-view, and realize just how miserable Daniel made him.
No matter if their goals are simple, complex, misguided, or detestable, every antagonist should have clear motives.
3) They have a backstory that explains their motives
Let's say your antagonist has clear goals, but those goals are dangerous and terrible. Even if their actions are not justifiable, they should at least make sense in the mind of the antagonist. Maybe there was a formative or traumatic experience that shaped their view of the world.
Thanos from the Avengers movies is a great example of this (Yes, I'm using another Marvel example). His goal of killing half of all life is obviously wrong, but his backstory explains why he believes he is in the right. His home planet was on the brink of extinction due to overpopulation and famine, and his idea of cutting the population in half turned him into an outcast. Nobody listened to him, and his people became extinct. This devastating experience shaped his view of the universe and fueled his primary goal of killing half of humanity.
4) They leave a lasting impression
An antagonist can be terrifying, mysterious, and even funny, but they should never be boring! Whether it's a personality trait, a distinct physical feature, or a unique ability, they need to stand out from other antagonists.
Annie Wilkes is a psychotic fan who ties her favorite author to a bed. Hannibal Lector is a charismatic intellectual who craves human flesh. Darth Vader is a seven-foot-tall cyborg who can strangle people just by lifting his hand.
"Boring" is the last word I would use to describe any of the characters I just listed. So when you're writing an antagonist of your own, get creative and make them stand out.
Who are some of your favorite antagonists and why? Let me know in the comments!