Not many people like antagonists. The antagonists are supposed to be antagonizing — that’s their whole purpose. They are designed to aggravate the protagonists; to foil the plans of the heroes and create conflict. They are supposed to be a villain for our heroes to defeat, right?
Sure. But what if they could be more?
What if — stick with me here for a second — what if they showed depth, wrestled with internal conflict, had a backstory, displayed their feelings, and struggled with doing the right thing, just like our protagonists? What if the reader even came to — gasp — love them?
Sounds weird, I know.
But think about it for a moment: If the antagonist shows their human side, maybe the reader is conflicted about the end of the story. If the reader knows that the antagonist suffered a devastating loss in his childhood or has been discarded by every lover she’s had, maybe they’ll feel sorry for them. Maybe they’ll empathize.
The best writing makes the reader feel. Period. There’s so much more you can do with it, but, at its core, the reader picks up your story to feel things: sadness, joy, frustration, love, elation, anger, etc. Your job as a writer, therefore, is to create a story that does just that.
And creating an antagonist that everyone loves accomplishes that in spades.
Why I Did It
I fell in love with stories at a very young age. I loved the discovery, the backstory, the plot, the climax, the conflict — I didn’t even know some of the “official writing terms” back then, but they intrigued me anyway. When I wrote The Secret of the Codex, I realized that there were so many things about the stories I loved that somehow unintentionally ended up in my story.
And one of those things was a likable antagonist.
But why write a likable antagonist? I realized that the stories I loved the most showed character depth.
What’s most scary in a story is not the villain who’s pure evil — it’s the one we could become ourselves.
Think about it. The best stories leave us wondering: If we made different choices, could we end up as the bad guy?
That’s what’s truly terrifying.
Okay, I Get the Why. Now How Do I Do It?
Writing an antagonist everyone loves isn’t actually too difficult. If you’re a writer (and I suspect you are if you’re reading this), you already know how to develop characters — display their human side, show (not tell) their emotions, watch them interact with others, write their internal conflict. So why not translate that to your antagonist?
Let’s break this down. Your antagonist is always after your heroes. But what’s his motivation?
Sure, maybe it’s because he’s pure evil, but that only works in one circumstance: if your antagonist is actually the Devil. (And even that’s not an excuse; the TV show Supernatural gives the Devil relatability; you can do it, too.)
What if, instead, you give your antagonist a backstory that shows why he hates the heroes so much?
Maybe they have something he’s always wanted. Maybe they unknowingly hurt him in the past. (Nerd revenge trope, anyone?) Or maybe they haven’t done a single thing, but he’s somehow offended anyway. The possibilities are endless.
Let’s take it a little bit further.
What if he’s constantly struggling internally, fighting with himself to do what he thinks is right? What if she’s not crazy at all, but is actually completely — scarily — sane? What if his thoughts and the conclusion he reaches are utterly logical?
How scary would that be?
The most recent story that showed a likable antagonist astoundingly well was Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War. I won’t give any spoilers, I promise, but if you haven’t seen it yet, go check it out. Thanos is an antagonist that you really connect with.
Even though you hate to, right?
Do you love your antagonist?
I love all the characters I write. Every. Single. One. They all hold a special place in my heart.
And yes, as you’ve seen, even the antagonists. Because making them human, making them fallible, defeatable, relatable, and even likable, makes them so much more than just one more obstacle for our heroes to overcome. Just the setting can do that if you want it to.
No, a likable antagonist means the heroes may not win, which ramps up your conflict quotient by a thousand. But it also means your reader may not want the protagonists to win, which ramps up the reader’s internal conflict.
And that, my friends, is writing gold.
Writing an antagonist that everyone loves is actually all kinds of fun. And it’s not really that difficult! Just by being a writer, you already have the tools you need.
So go try it!
Would you consider writing a likable antagonist? Why or why not? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
First, write out at least five characteristics a likable antagonist would have. (Bonus points if it’s an antagonist you’ve already written!)
Then, write a scene in which your antagonist has a chance to show off a few of those traits. Maybe he's cooking up his next dastardly plot in his evil lair, or maybe she's closing a powerful deal in her New York office. Whatever the case, give us as much opportunity (or more!) to like your antagonist as to dislike them.