Hannibal Lecter. Mrs. Danvers. Moriarty.
Strong antagonists play a large role in making a book unforgettable and can galvanize its sales. Yet, many authors give antagonists short shrift, spending far more time and words developing their protagonists. The antagonist is, quite simply, the person who acts to keep your protagonist from achieving his or her goals. When that person is a cliché, a caricature, or evil incarnate—in short, when the antagonist isn’t three-dimensionally human (even if he’s a robot or she’s werewolf)—the reading experience is less satisfying (and your chances of hitting the NYT list are equally unsatisfying).
As you’re developing your characters, keep in mind these three techniques for humanizing your antagonist.
1. Create empathy for your antagonist from the get-go
When readers can’t empathize with the antagonist even a little bit, or believe in her motives, or understand why he’s dishing out evil, then they’re apt to put your book aside. Flesh out your antagonist. Give us an origin story (how he became the way he is), or show that she regrets something and might change if given a chance. Show him doing something nice. Even villains love their mothers or gerbils, volunteer at soup kitchens, or help snow-stuck motorists push their cars out of intersections. Do this early on. Give him or her believable, even laudable, motives. Inspector Javert from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is a strong antagonist because his obsession with finding Valjean stems from his belief that stealing is wrong. Who doesn’t? Instant relatability.
2. Make your antagonist a viewpoint character
Giving your character a chance to tell his side of the story works because no character is the villain in his own story. George R. R. Martin knows this. In his Game of Thrones, Jaime and Cersei Lannister, the incestuous brother and sister, seemed to be evil personified. In subsequent books, however, they became viewpoint characters, making it virtually impossible not to empathize with them a bit more.
If your book’s structure makes it impossible to give the antagonist’s viewpoint, have a viewpoint character place himself in the antagonist’s position and try to understand his perspective. Or, create parallel events in the hero’s and villain’s lives and show how their reactions or feelings are similar. Perhaps your heroine is struggling to find daycare for her infant while your villain is looking at nursing homes for his father. Or they could both lose something dear to them, or confront job-related problems. It could even be something small, like your protagonist getting stuck in a traffic jam and your antagonist having her flight weather-delayed. The point is to show similarity, humanity, an overlap of feelings and experience. It can’t help but enlarge the reader’s perception of the antagonist, even if sub-consciously.
3. Put a human face on the abstraction
Abstractions make for distant, unrelatable antagonists. If you think “organized religion” is your hero’s antagonist, or “corporate greed,” your story might be more effective as an essay. Put a human face on the abstraction. A hypocritical pastor might make a good antagonist in the first instance, or a ruthless Wall Street type in the second. Gordon Gecko, anyone? Those people can represent the abstraction, and can take action against the protagonist. In Anton Myrer’s Once an Eagle, it would be easy to think of “war” as Sam Damon’s antagonist. Yet, “war” does not act against Damon; it is war’s human face, Courtenay Massengale, that maneuvers to defeat Damon. If your work-in-progress features an abstraction as the antagonist, re-work it to give the abstraction a Massengalian face.
Make your antagonists three-dimensional by using these humanizing techniques and watch your sales soar (okay, maybe inch upward).
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