This week we are talking about another important character in creative storytelling – the hero’s nemesis – the villain or antagonist. Like the hero, a storyteller needs to learn how to create a dynamic and memorable villain.
Our world is experiencing unprecedented attacks from many out of control villains, and it seems that many of these villains are escaping the true justice they so rightly deserve. But in the fictional world, the villain will always get his just rewards and face defeat. Evelyn from The Mummy got it right when she said to the comedic style villain, Benny,“You know, nasty little fellows such as yourself always get their comeuppance.” (The Mummy, 1999)
The fictional world is attractive to writers because it offers an author complete literary control. You can be the master or mistress of your own special micro-world. All of the storyworld elements: the plot, the characters, and story symbols are yours to command.
At the scratch of a pen or at the tap of the keyboard, the journey the characters take and the ultimate destiny they face – all of it is in your hands. Being able to dictate who, when and where in the narrative world is a literary luxury that real life does not allow us mere human beings to have.
So anyway, let’s get back to the fictional villain.
Last week I mentioned that all of the storyworld characters (seven archetypes, remember?) revolve around the hero and his universe, and are designed to function as either a help or a hindrance to his journey.
The antagonist is the hero’s main opponent. As our hero embarks on his journey he will have one primary opponent who opposes him – the antagonist or the villain of the storyworld. The antagonist is designed to provide the main source of conflict for the hero.
Creating a dynamic and terrifying antagonist is like gold for the writer, because this character provides the story with its necessary form. And above all, the antagonist provides the opposition and the many seemingly insurmountable obstacles to the hero’s journey. This opposition is important for our hero, because the greater the opposition, the greater your hero will grow.
Here are Four tips on how to create a dynamic and memorable antagonist.
1. The antagonist will have a strong moral argument relating to his narrative purpose.
Like the hero, the antagonist will firmly believe that his chosen path is the right way, and his thinking will be along the lines of – “it’s my way or the highway.” This blinkered psychology, although hopelessly flawed, defines his characterization and cements his place in the narrative.
More often than not, the antagonist does not see himself as the bad guy. He believes that he is right and consequently he becomes part of his own created myth.
Sometimes he will have a moral argument that sounds plausible, and this will create conflict not only for the hero but also for the reader. This character-driven tension keeps us glued to the page or to the screen. But at the end of the story, the antagonist’s real motives are revealed and his flawed argument falls to pieces.
2. The antagonist is cast almost as the hero’s double.
When I say ‘double’ I mean the hero and the antagonist will have certain similarities. They will mirror each other in some areas such as: having a singular vision, distinctive values or they have had a past traumatic experience. Although these visions, values, and experiences will differ significantly, they work to define these characters and will propel them through the story.
3. Use the ‘double reversal’.
Another interesting technique that can be used for creating a dynamic villain is called a ‘double reversal’. A ‘double reversal’ is when the antagonist has an epiphany or revelation towards the end of the narrative, which is contrasted with the hero’s revelation. The ‘double reversal’ allows the antagonist and the hero to learn an important lesson from each other.
The antagonist’s revelation makes him appear stronger due to his apparent capacity to change, and also provides the reader or viewer with a chance to question this revelation. Has the antagonist been redeemed? Will he turn away from the dark side of the force and become good? Can both the hero and the antagonist live in the same world?
It is in this pivotal moment of the antagonist’s false epiphany that the hero is able to overcome his nemesis and achieve his ultimate transformation.
Every antagonist/villain has his vulnerable side – think Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker. Here we are presented with an antagonist who has shown a sudden and remarkable capacity for positive and permanent change. The writer, George Lucas, provided hints throughout the film that signified that change was possible for this conflicted character.
Although he was menacing and terrified the other characters, Darth Vader had originally started off his journey well. As a young man, he had allowed himself to be ‘seduced by the dark side of the force’ in his quest for power and control. And once he had been totally consumed by darkness, he wreaked havoc at every turn. But when he was faced with the destruction of his only son, Luke, by the evil emperor, he finally realized his mistake. How unvillain like! Of course, unlike Darth Vader, there are many antagonists who do not change. They stay unrepentant to the very end.
4. Create an antagonist who generates sympathy.
As you begin to create your antagonist you might decide to create one who generates sympathy.
Again I am going to refer to the Man of Steel film. Although I am not a big fan of the Superman films – a man with his underpants on the outside of his tights really does not appeal to me – but when it came to this latest film edition, I was impressed. Not with the costumes, but with the characterization.
The primary antagonist – General Zod – was the epitome of the classic villain. He was cruel, ruthless, driven, and passionate about his cause. But he also generated sympathy. Why? Because the primal desire that lay at the heart of his destructive plan for planet earth was to resurrect his native people who had been destroyed after his home planet, Krypton, exploded. Sounds like a good desire – right? But at what cost to planet earth? Do two wrongs make a right?
Although Zod was designed to generate sympathy and to keep the audience in suspense, he remained a villain to the end. Zod was not interested in joining Superman in calling earth his new home. Or in letting go of his tragic past ( the destruction of Krypton). He was not interested in embracing a bright future like Superman had. It was going to be Zod’s ‘way or the highway’. His dark self-was hell bent on total genocide and there was no turning back for his megalomania.
But it was in this cataclysmic moment that Superman, our bizarrely clad hero, won his victory.
Again, like the hero, there is a wide range of techniques available for you to create a dynamic antagonist in creative storytelling. I have only provided just a few.
Both the hero and antagonist are important characters within a story and it is their combined function to drive the story’s plot forward.
So what kind of antagonist will you dream up, the classic ‘evil to the bitter end’ villain or will you create a dynamic villain who generates sympathy?
Next week: Secondary story characters.