As I’ve recently started brainstorming and worldbuilding for a new story, I’ve thought a lot about antagonists. Where, when, and how does my antagonist come into the story? What does my antagonist want? How does that conflict with my protagonist? How do I make my antagonist multi-faceted and interesting, but also antagonistic?
Personally, my antagonist and corresponding conflict often take me the longest to think up. My protagonist, potential love interest, and plot hook come easily, but I spend long hours staring off into space while brainstorming an antagonist. Unsurprisingly, staring at a blank notebook or a ceiling never seems to help, so I’m going to share what eventually does—and then how to get to know your antagonist once he/she/they have a place in your imagination.
The antagonist and protagonist are closely tied together, so if you are already in the process of getting to know your protagonist, start there. Who is your protagonist? What does your protagonist want? What drives that character within your story? What scares him/her/them?
Now, what kind of antagonist would stand in the way of those goals or fuel those fears? What might your antagonist want that conflicts with the wants of your protagonist? These wants cannot coexist, hence the conflict.
If your protagonist wants to win a competition, does your antagonist want to beat them? Or end the competition entirely? If your protagonist wishes to procure a magical artifact in order to heal a friend or lover, why might your antagonist stand in the way of that goal? By asking these questions, you can evolve your antagonist alongside your protagonist.
If looking directly at your protagonist does not reveal your antagonist, consider the world in which your story takes place. What sort of society exists in this setting? What is the history? What is the conflict? How might social and historical conflicts breed an antagonist? Does your antagonist want a new social order? Or a return to an older one?
Once you have an idea of who your antagonist is, you should spend time thinking about what he/she/they want and why. Don’t let your antagonist be a one-sided trope. The best antagonists are those that the readers can learn to understand or even sympathize with, although they stand against the protagonist.
My best advice for getting to know your antagonist is to write a scene or chapter from your antagonist’s perspective. This exercise does not ever have to go into your actual manuscript, but it forces you to think through your antagonist. What is your antagonist’s perspective on a certain event or situation? What are his/her/their inner thoughts? How do past life events affect your antagonist's perspective, thoughts, and goals?
Hopefully, if you struggle with antagonists just as I do, this advice pushes you a little closer to discovering the right antagonist for your story. If you have your own methods for fleshing out an antagonist, make sure to share, because I would love to hear them.
I write YA fantasy and contemporary fiction. This blog is dedicated to thoughts and advice on writing and publishing, as well as various interests related to the world of Young Adult.