A bearded man in profile snarls at a microphone.

Antagonists

Of the many qualities that antagonists have in my favorite stories, I most enjoy the qualities of outsiderness, relatability, and integrity.

That is, I like to watch antagonists (or actual villains) who perceive themselves as fundamentally different — whether it’s true or not that they are — who seem like me or someone I know, and who are not hypocrites but philosophically and morally consistent.

It’s clearly problematic to write anatagonists who fall demographically outside of your audience’s majority identity. That way leads to stereotypes. And so by outsiderness I’m referring to some quality besides basic demographics. Maybe an antagonist seems himself as different because he’s college-educated and his brothers aren’t. Maybe an antagonist sees herself as different because she practices what has been preached to her — and others, in the same faith group, are damnably lax.

Other kinds of difference: being anti-establishment; doing one’s own “research”; having traumatic wounds that few can relate to.

The antagonists that stick in our minds, I think, are the ones we relate to. We understand why they’re so stubborn and so mean. What’s universally relatable isn’t easy to say, but there are lots of relatable conditions: on the verge of being broke; being friendless; unlucky in love; self-deprecating; fixated on past mistakes. Stories can get richer, too, when the antagonist’s misfortune is the mirror version of the protagonist’s good fortune, and we see that it could have gone another way for the protagonist — that they, perhaps, got their advantages through nothing but social bias, nepotism, or inheritance.

I also try to write by this dictum: Give the best arguments to your antagonist. Or, at the very least, give them arguments as persusaive as your protagonist’s. Let them speak more eloquently than their real-life counterparts. There’s nothing less satisfying than hollow and obviously bankrupt ideas in the mouths of antagonists. The best antagonists are moral to a fault, not stupidly immoral. The best antagonists have compelling—and memorable, sympathetic—reasons for doing what they’re doing.

What finally separates the antagonist from the protagonist, maybe, is that the antagonist goes too far. While morally consistent, they act unkindly or even violently. They stomp over norms. And break laws. The audience might understand that those laws are unjust, and want those laws to be broken, but in the end kindness matters.

Or so I’d argue.

Why? Well… My only explanation here is that we’re social creatures. From our sociality, we root for the person who’s most pro-social. That gets complicated, of course, when the story is set inside a heartless society…. But it doesn’t have to get too complicated: there are lots of stories in which the very caring antagonist is what motivates the protagonist to do better.