How to Write a Good Antagonist: Full Recipe

Doug Landsborough
April 20, 2023

We know that stories are technically about the protagonist, but some of the best characters ever made are those working against our heroes: the antagonists. But making antagonists that steal the show (at least for some readers) is tough!

Don’t worry, friends. While writing a great antagonist differs from writing a good protagonist, it’s nothing you can’t handle. Especially with all the villainous information you’re about to read. In this article, we’ll cover:

  • What is an antagonist
  • The different types of antagonists
  • A recipe for a great antagonist

Get ready, because we’re about to get bad (I gagged a little writing that, but it’s staying).

First, What is an Antagonist?

Before we go any further, we need to establish our baseline information. So what is an antagonist?

An antagonist is a force—usually a character—that is actively opposing your protagonist.

This means that your antagonist can’t exist without your protagonist. They are essential to the stories and arcs of one another. Throughout your story, the antagonist is the biggest obstacle your heroes will have to overcome.

There a number of antagonists your character might go up against, and we're going to cover the four most common: villains, sympathetic antagonists, competitive antagonists, and unknowing antagonists.

A quick note: Many people think that antagonists are always characters, but this isn’t necessarily true. In some stories, conflict is created by natural disasters or other non-character phenomena. A hurricane can be an antagonist, technically. But for this article, we’re just talking about antagonist characters. For more information about non-character antagonists, check out this article on creating conflicts.

Villain Antagonists

Villain antagonists are the ones people think about most when they think about antagonists. They are the “bad guys” and the evil geniuses. They are the ones trying to take over the world or who harm others for fun.

Villains are usually the opposite of our protagonists in their morals and goals. As characters we love to hate, villains give us the opportunity to put the worst of our fictional worlds on full display.

But a villain that is bad for the sake of being bad is… well, boring, to be honest. Instead, think of villain antagonists as an opportunity to hold an evil mirror up to your protagonist. Give them opposing morals that actually make sense. Let them have their own motivations for going up against heroes. 

Villains aren’t just evildoers. They deserve their own story, arc, and everything else that goes into making a character. 

If you want to write a perfectly imperfect villain–and let’s be real, they’re the best—then click here to read our recipe for a great villain.

Sympathetic Antagonists

Some antagonists think that what they’re doing is justified, and they are arguably the most dangerous ones! A sympathetic antagonist is one where the reader can understand why they're committing these evil acts.

These characters think the events of their pasts make their actions appropriate. It could be that they were betrayed, suffered at the hands of someone who should have protected them, or have experienced some other tragedy.

Whatever the cause, sympathetic villains believe in their cause to right a wrong, and they often draw the reader in until we don’t know who is really on the morally good side of the conflict.

Despite their internal conflict, sympathetic antagonists often view themselves as the hero. Sometimes, we can’t argue with them.

Competitive Antagonists

Not every antagonist wants to stop your heroes. Rather, some adversaries thrive on competition. And who doesn’t like a good rivalry?

That’s exactly what competitive antagonists are: rivals. For those who grew up with Gameboy Colors like I did, think about your rival, Blue (or you might remember Gary from the show), when you pick up your starter Pokémon. For anyone who didn’t grow up like I did, think… I don’t know, sports or something.

For real, though, sports stories are teeming with competitive antagonists.

That’s because these rivals aren’t usually direct obstacles for our protagonists. Rather, they are something we use to measure our protagonist’s strength and growth. It is the desire to beat one another that drives a competitive antagonist and their corresponding hero.

If you choose to write a competitive antagonist, you’ll be looking at a similar goal–albeit differing motivations–shared by them and your protagonist. Your hero’s rival will usually be more skilled, stronger, faster, smarter, or more popular throughout most of the story, maybe until a sweet training montage (or its written equivalent) and an inspiring speech propels your protagonist to victory in the climax.

Unknowing Antagonists

Are you ready for a plot twist? Some stories have antagonists who are, at least for a while, unaware they’re doing the wrong thing. These unknowing antagonists aren’t like sympathetic ones who believe their morally questionable actions are justified. Rather, they truly have no idea that their actions are bad.

This happens when a character is tricked or misled by another into doing something that seems right at the time. Think about stories like Aladdin, where our titular character is tricked by Jafar into stealing the lamp. I’m not saying Aladdin was a villain, but for a while, he was an unknowing antagonist.

In some stories, that obliviousness can last until the very end of the book. You can come with a redemption arc to help your antagonist feel better about themselves, if you want. Or you can just let your unknowing antagonist wallow in the consequences of their actions. It’s up to you, cruel author.

Recipe for Antagonists

While we covered a handful of antagonist types, you’re allowed to mix and match them to fit your needs. Want a sympathetic villain? Go for it. An unknowing rival? Absolutely!

But before you get too deep, let’s look at a recipe for a good antagonist. You can take this recipe and flavor it to your specific tastes.

2 Cups Flawed Motivation

The most important part of any antagonist is their motivation. Even if you aren’t writing a sympathetic antagonist, a reader won’t care about or believe a character that doesn’t have realistic motivations.

The trick with antagonists is to make that motivation flawed. Flawed motivation is what differentiates heroes from their foes. If our baddies weren’t flawed, they’d be protagonists! So make sure your antagonist is full of flawed motivation.

For more info on motivation, click here. And check out another one of our articles on flaws by clicking here.

A Whole Bag of Proactive Drive

Another aspect of an antagonist that separates them from their goody-two-shoes counterpart is their proactivity.

If you’re an expert in story structures (and you can be if you read this article), you know that protagonists spend the bulk of most stories being reactive. They are treading water, doing their best to keep their head above the waves. Until they grow and change, they are simply reacting to everything going on around them.

Unfortunately for your hero, their adversaries are the opposite. Antagonists will go through their own journeys and arcs, but they are proactive from the beginning of your story. This is important, since antagonists are the biggest obstacle your characters will face. If they aren’t putting in the effort to make your heroes’ lives difficult, then you don’t have a very exciting story!

A Sprinkling of Opposing Traits

The whole point of antagonists is to act as a foil for your protagonist. They highlight your hero’s morals, flaws, strengths, and weaknesses. To that end, your antagonist should be the opposite of your hero, at least in some ways.

If your protagonist is book smart, maybe your antagonist is physically strong. If your hero is poor, maybe your villain is rich. If your group of college students wants to save an old forest, maybe their enemies are those who want to destroy the forest for personal gain.

Every time your antagonist shows how bad they can be, it highlights how good your protagonist can be—and vice versa. Use this contrasting to make great characters.

A Touch of Similar Traits

Just to make things fun, you want your main characters to share some similarities. When your protagonist and antagonist have similar traits, it adds a layer of complexity to both of them. Suddenly, your hero is just a few wrong choices away from being their enemy, and your antagonist feels as if they could have been a hero if life went a bit differently.

The best part is that you can show all of this rather than spending paragraphs telling it. Your readers are smart; they will be able to connect the dots between your main characters. Just don’t make them too similar or you risk making your story dull.

A Pinch of Meanness to Taste if You Like Spice

Not every antagonist needs to be mean. But, when making characters, being mean can be a lot of fun.

Just like everything you’ve read so far, there needs to be intention behind a character’s cruelty. What does being mean do for their arc? How does it highlight the tragedies they’ve experienced? Do your antagonist’s horrible actions make your protagonist look that much better?

Meanness is a spice because it draws out all the other flavors you have going on. But too much of it will leave a bad taste in your reader’s mouth. 

Craft an Amazing Antagonist in Dabble

Antagonists are an essential part of your story. While some great tales don’t have this kind of character, many of the best, most memorable books ever written have great antagonists.

So, if your story is lucky enough to have foes and rivals, treat them with the respect they would demand if they were real! The best way to do that is to truly bring them to life, and Dabble lets you do that.

Using the built-in Character Notes, you can create an antagonist that your readers will wish had their own series of books. Seriously, they might harass you on social media for it. In your notes, you can include some of the great downloadable resources we’ve made, including:

Combine those with Dabble’s Plot Grid, Story Notes, and so much more, you’re equipped to write an amazing antagonist. And if you haven’t tried Dabble yet, click here to access all the Premium features for free, no credit card required, for 14 days.

And happy writing!

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.