Motivate Me: A Primer on Writing Protagonists and Antagonists

In this series of articles on writing and developing fiction and sharing my own trials and tribulations on writing fiction, I will be discussing topics such as world building, constructed languages, writing protags/antags, understanding pacing, the concept of the “Mary-Sue,” self-inserts, discussing sex in fiction, and plot building.

Onwards, my unicorns!

Building protagonists seems like an easy job. Making a hero, telling their story, sharing their experiences. Sounds pretty easy. Now making an antagonist? That’s hard; how can you make a person unlikable, a real foe for your grand hero? How can you make them a challenge without making them trite or predictable? It can be a real challenge to write organic characters, especially if they are going to be interacting in rich and dynamic situations. I am going to explain how I make protagonists and how I make antagonists, as well as give some commentary on the heroes and villains I see.

One of my favorite villains ever is from the animated series Gargoyles. David Xanatos was the most intriguing, captivating and stimulating villains I’ve come to enjoy. Dynamic and involved, he was always in control of everything. All his plans synced up, despite him “losing” a few battles. His grand schemes seemed over-the-top and cheesy, but if you broke them down, they were quite simple in design. He is probably the best example of a well-written antagonist and he is going to be one that I am going to use as an example.

One of the more striking things about Xanatos is that his plans and the protagonists’ plans often intersect in interesting ways. They often shared the same goals and David is always willing to exploit the gargoyles if it benefits him in the end. When writing a protagonist or an antagonist, you need to understand both their motivations and their goals. They need to be solid for them to interact and build conflict naturally. In Xanatos’ case, his motivation was power and immortality was his goal. His plans were all varied and diverse, and his goal wasn’t a direct hindrance to the gargoyles, whose motivation was assimilation and goal was acceptance and equality in New York City. Each of the gargoyles had different motives and goal, but as a whole, their goals didn’t interfere with David’s so much. He was Machiavellian and dangerous, but only when they got in the way with his schemes. David always had an ace up his sleeve.

One motivation that I liked a lot was the goal and motivation of Amon, the villain in the Legend of Korra. He was paced a bit too fast and his backstory was an info dump, but his motivation was liberation and his goal was erasing bending absolutely. You want him to lose, but in some way, you could relate to his reasoning. In fact, many fan members actually sympathized with Amon and the Equalists. In some way, I empathized with David. He was a family man; he loved his wife and son and was protective of his family. He would do anything to save and protect the people he truly loved. A good antagonist is just as relatable and empathetic as the hero. It makes their goals and motivations more understandable and more realistic. Taking over the world and kidnapping princesses are great and all but the best kinds of villains don’t need to do “evil” things to be the villain. Their goals must in some way impede the goals of heroes. That’s what makes them villains.

In regards to more coldly logical villains, a good “chess player” is one who thinks five moves ahead. As a writer, it’s your job to think that far in advance too. Not only that, but a good writer needs to calculate “losses” as “wins” and move ahead in that fashion. If there is one thing I liked about David Xanatos, is that even though he lost, he still won. We are fooled to think his plan was thwarted when instead he was able to move ahead. Now, Azula, a villain from Avatar, had plans that always seem to succeed and she is always a step ahead of the protagonists. She wasn’t interesting to me because she was predictable. I knew what she was thinking and I saw her plans. She was still compelling; I just think that David was better at it than her.

As a final note, don’t make an “insane” villain so you can use his instability as a justification for his evil doings. That doesn’t fly with me, honestly. I am sick of seeing mental illness as an excuse for evil characters to be evil. It’s frustrating and just feeds into the hysteria that the “crazies” are trying to kill us. I avoid it at all costs. Write with caution.

So readers? Who is your favorite villain and why?

By Corbin

Corbin is a trans man living in Columbus Ohio with his fabulous ginger boyfriend and their two pet rats. He is a disability rights activist, fiction writer and collaborative storyteller, localvore and seeker of all things queer and geeky.

8 replies on “Motivate Me: A Primer on Writing Protagonists and Antagonists”

Good villains… interesting. I don’t think many of my favourite stories really have villains as individuals – they’re usually more systems or institutions, if that makes sense. Hmm….

That said, the villains in Discworld books are usually entertaining, but Lord Vetinari is the most villain-like of them all (except he’s a good one. We think).

I like villains you can support even though you’re completely opposed to what they’re doing because it’s simply well-thought-through/impressively motivated. I like hidden villains (cause of the huge OH SHIT cry outs) even better.

My “villain” in the story I’m editing right now is just a sad, arrogant guy. I think I subconsciously/consciously decided on just showing one side of him.

Predicable Heroes is a pretty easy mistake to make. I’ve done it before, so no shame Truly. My rule of thumb is keep the motivations non linear. Not everything is straight forward. Constitancy is hard to balance but if you have general guideline, you won’t worry about making his motives or goals seem off kilter or ‘out of character’, :)

I would have to say that Cardinal Richelieu is my favorite classic novel villain. His motivation is very simple: He wants more power than he already has and wants to keep Louis XIII under his influence.

Right now, since I’ve just started watching The Rose of Versailles, I’m really liking the Duc d’Orleans and Madame du Barry as villains. The Duc d’Orleans wants to be King, so it’s interesting to see what he does over the course of the series with regard to political unrest and the beginning of the Revolution. Madame du Barry just wants Antoinette out of the French court because of the power struggle there, but she’s willing to kill to do it.

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