7 Qualities Found in a Formidable Antagonist

Today I want to talk about a subject that I haven’t really addressed much before: Bad Guys. And there’s a reason for that, because for a long time, I struggled with creating good antagonists for my stories. They were weak, and weak villains make for weak plots. It’s not easy to write a gripping novel when your bad guy is a pushover.


On Monday, I discussed five ways to spot a good character – and this applies to villains as well. If you have a great protagonist, but your antagonist sucks, it creates imbalance in your story world, and makes people wonder why the good guys are having such a tough time winning. This is why it’s important to give your hero a worthy opponent.

In order to understand what makes a villain great, I need to ask a question: why do we fear them?

Some might say it’s because they’re cruel, or vicious; unfeeling, or distant. But I would argue that, often, the most fearsome antagonists are those whom we can see ourselves in. The ones who are not so charred that they cease to be human.

Part of giving your hero a worthy opponent is in creating a character who readers will fear—not because they are simply evil, and are always doing things to prove it, but because they can be taken seriously by their humanity. Good villains don’t need to constantly reiterate the fact that they’re “the Bad Guy.”  

 Today, I want to share with you guys seven things that can be seen in good bad guys. (You know what I mean.)

 1.    An Understanding of Emotion

In Monday’s post, I discussed the importance of letting your characters be real with their emotions. And, believe it or not, that goes for the bad guys as well. If you take a minute and think about it, a lot of the best villains are the ones who aren’t blind to emotion. They get it. And they know how to use it. Knowledge of emotions and manipulation skills make for very intimidating antagonists. And there’s no rule that says villains can’t feel emotion, too. Maybe it’s the guy’s job to go around assassinating specified targets, but he has an emotional breakdown when his dog gets hit by a truck.

 2. A Display of Human Characteristics

Just because they’re evil doesn’t mean that good villains aren’t humans. A good number of them are. And even if they aren’t, certain human characteristics often give them a fair boost in the scariness department. Because, remember, the most frightening villains are the ones who reflect humanity. Why? Because we understand them. And so we fear them.

 3. Possession of a Good Quality

There’s no rule that says the only ingredient in a scary villain is pure evil. Just like flawless heroes don’t resonate with readers, 100% evil usually doesn’t either. One of the best antagonists I’ve read was von Linden from Code Name Verity. The guy was a freaking Nazi, but he was deeply sensitive and caring for his young daughter. While capable of obscene cruelty, as one would expect of a Gestapo Officer, whenever his daughter was mentioned, it was clear you’d struck a chord. He wasn’t without heartstrings to pull. Allowing a villain to have good qualities doesn’t make them seem weak. On the contrary, it often doubles the fear-factor, because now we see the other side of the coin. It’s all part of making them real. Twisted, but human.

 4. Solid Motivation

He’s not a bad guy because he wants to be. He wasn’t hired for the job. Even the most sinister villains believe in something they’re fighting for. Remember, every villain is the hero of their own story. No antagonist sees himself as the antagonist. Just like the hero, he has something he’s fighting for. It’s his twisted (but still believable) motivation that makes the difference. It is what drives him to commit his various atrocities. Villains who lack solid motivation automatically lose any claim to being a truly formidable foe.

 5. Logic

Villains aren’t stupid. At least, good ones aren’t. If they’re expecting an attack from the hero, they don’t just “forget” to lock the back gate, or post their most useless and easy-to-kill guards. Formidable antagonists have a plan. They know how to be an evil overlord without getting pushed around by the hero.  In order to write good villains, you’ve got to learn to think like one.

 6. Traits in Common With the Protagonist

Not all good villains have this quality, but a lot of them do. Even if it’s something as simple as a past connection, such as going to the same college, or enjoying the same literature. The strong point in this quality, (and why it made it onto this list), is that a shared trait gives the protagonist the opportunity to see himself in the antagonist. This can be a powerful tool when it comes to creating character arcs. And perhaps it’s not necessarily a common trait, but simply something that both parties agree on.

 7. Well Suited for the Story

Finally, a good antagonist is one that fits with your story. Darth Vader would not make a good villain in Lord of the Rings, any more than Sauron would fit into Star Wars. Bad guys only flourish if they are compatible with the world and plot. You can’t just mash all of these qualifications together and tell yourself you’ve got a good villain. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. He’s still got to be right for your story. Which might mean adjusting some of the measurements of the ingredients. Don’t hem your bad guys in. Just as with protagonists, you’ve got to give them a chance to reveal themselves.

Who are some of your favorite antagonists and why? Leave a comment and tell us!

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23 thoughts on “7 Qualities Found in a Formidable Antagonist

  1. For example: Javert

    He is, in my mind, the best antagonist. The way he did his duty was simultaneously admirable and frightening. I loved the way he valued justice, like a protagonist would, but the absence of that one vital little element: mercy, made him the antagonist.

    Every time I get started, I find it difficult to stop talking about it!

  2. Really good post! I’m bookmarking it for future references. ^ ^ One of my favorite villains is Ozai from Avatar: The Last Airbender. He’s a big, bad guy who was cruel enough to scar his own son, but his motivation is for the betterment of his nation–at any cost. In turn, he fostered the villainy of his daughter Azula whose motivation is to please her father and remain his favorite.

    Stori Tori’s Blog

  3. Thanks for the great post! This is going to be really helpful to me while I’m writing my mystery novel.
    When I was reading this, I couldn’t help but think of Moriarty. The “Logic” section especially seemed to apply; Professor Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes were so perfectly matched in intelligence that it seemed nearly impossible for Holmes to win. That’s what makes their rivalry (in my opinion) one of the best in literature.

  4. Thanks for the great post!

    I loved Lucy Steele in Jane Austen’s ‘Sense & Sensibility’ as an antagonist (in the 1997 movie). She wasn’t the obvious ‘catty bitch’ (like many movies do) but her double meanings while pretending/acting concerned truly show how some (smart) women can be when jealous. She was constantly holding onto Eleanor (caring) and taking extreme delight (we secretly know) from making her squirm under her “constant provocations”. Pure brilliant.

    Also, I think hypercritical characters make very interesting antagonists, as again, they’re subtle and not in your face. Like Mr. Harrold Skimpole in Charles Dickens ‘Bleak House’. Skimpole knew exactly what he was doing but milked his friends of their money by claiming to only have the innocent naive mentality of a ‘child’. I loved that Esther and her man, Allan Woodcourt, saw straight through his charade and saw his actions as purely manipulative.

    • Those are both great examples! I definitely agree with your points on hypocritical antagonists. They are much more subtle, but everybody hates a hypocrite. Thanks for commenting! (:

  5. I really enjoy these character articles that help define what makes a good character. I agree with you completely, a weak villain makes for a poor story. I have often pointed out that the villains that are simple killing machines, or stupid, or just dry often make a story feel flat.

    I would say some of my favorite villains include Count Dooku, Guy of Gisbourne, Red Skull, and of course, Loki. Yes, I know these are all from movies, but their characters still had to be written. That, and I am blanking on literary villains at the moment. I appreciate Dooku and Red Skull because in my opinion they are fun villains, they don’t do things for no apparent reason, and they have a sense a humor along with a dose of respect for the hero. I love Guy and Loki because they are characters that pull and tug at your heart, one moment you hate them, the next you want to give them a hug. They definitely feel things deeply and you can clearly see the life and death struggles going on within them.

    Great article!

    • Those are good examples, Grace!
      Your mention of Loki and Guy of Gisbourne and their abilities to alternate between making the audience hate them, and almost feel sorry for them reminded me of another great villain. Rumpelstiltskin from Once Upon a Time is brilliant that way. He’s so evil and so twisted, but once you know why, you almost sympathize with him. Those are some of my favorite types of villains.

  6. Phenomenal. The two things I had not thought of are the display of emotional and the understanding of emotion. I see that it applies to principal characters as well, not just ones with negative motivations. I am charting my four principal characters, one of whom brings evil and its consequences.

  7. Hey! Very interesting, thought provoking article. As far as the villain fitting with the story, how can you tell if a villain fits in a story?

    • That’s a hard question to answer, as it’s not formulaic. The best way to determine whether or not a villain fits with a story is to ask yourself what would change if he wasn’t there. Does he impact the plot and other characters? Is he a driving force in the story, or does he need to be changed so that he can better drive events?

  8. Great article! I prepare to delve into developing my antagonist, and this post reminded me of what I need to focus on! (And, just to let you know, it popped up on Pinterest on the first row when I searched “villain inspiration.”)

    Rumplestiltskin (OUAT), Gollum, and Ward (Agents of SHIELD) popped into my head first when I thought about “good” villains. They all attract both our hatred and sympathy in an emotionally confusing way that we all love!

    • Awesome, Hannah! Good luck with that!
      Oh wow! I’m honored. That’s seriously amazing!

      I love Rumpelstiltskin. He’s such a great and compelling antagonist. In fact, all of the characters from OUAT are amazing. Love that show!

  9. Really helpful article, Susan.

    The point about having a solid motivation is extremely important. The motivation has to be honest and strong enough for audiences, readers, and viewers to sympathize. I expanded on this point in my article called “5 Traits of the Sympathetic Villain”, based off of Vladimir Ranskahov from the new Daredevil Netflix series: http://millieho.net/2015/05/19/5-traits-of-the-sympathetic-villain/

    Bad guys can connect with us just as much as the good guys can. It’s all about execution and emotional accessibility.

  10. I love love love your blog. It is so overwhelming and so very true.I just wanted to request you to write on stream selection after our highschool s done . It really is a very crucial decission and me and my friends have had talks with our concellor but we still are confused…i am sorry if what i am asking for is more .you can always relpy here I woudnt mind at all.
    And I have some suggestions too…i will let you know .
    And ps. did anyone tell u you are really pretty (not flattering you , but saying the truth.)
    ALWAYS will read your blog.
    your my secret idol and inspiration because i love writing poems and short stories..so..
    anyway i know you are busy and all and i am so sorry if i am a bother but please reply whenever you can Ms. Emily.
    Have a lovely day !
    A Confused Teen .

    • Wow! Thank you very much, Ayesha! You are so sweet. (: And I’m glad you enjoy the blog!

      Can I ask you to expand a little on what you mean by “stream selection”? I’d love to offer advice if I have any, but I need to understand what you’re talking about a little more clearly. Thanks so much for commenting, and I hope you have a wonderful day! (:

  11. I personally like the antagonists that once turned on their head are the protagonist. This exists in the parallel between Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Hamlet believes wholeheartedly that he is doing the right thing and saving his kingdom from the ‘villainy’ of his uncle/stepfather. However, he also sentenced his two best friends to death, killed his fiancee’s father, and destroyed the entire ruling family of Denmark. None of those things seem like particularly protagonistic qualities to me.

    • That’s a good point. Antagonists who have some emotional connection to the reader like that are incredibly powerful. If you’ve ever watched Once Upon a Time, you’ll find several who fit that description, including Regina and Rumpelstiltskin. Great characters all around in that show!

  12. One of my favorite antagonists is Valentine Morgenstern from The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare. He was the heroin’s father and he still cared for her (or at least pretended to) as he ruptured her world she was comfortable in, plunging it into something unfamiliar. Another great antagonist that isn’t from a book is “L”, or Riuzaki, from the Japanese anime The Death Note. He possesses almost the same personality as the main character except the fact that they are both trying to kill each other.

  13. I really love Mustapha Mond in A Brave New World. He’s so logical, and thinks what he’s doing is right and can prove it, but what he’s doing is so twisted and just wrong feeling. You can understand how he might be right but it still feels so completely and utterly wrong. He doesn’t even seem like an antagonist, you can understand his perspective so well.

  14. I don’t know about other people but my favorite antagonist is Moriarty from Sherlock. He is a perfect villain because he is a lot like Sherlock but they choose different choices that make Sherlock a hero and Moriarty a villain. Because Moriarty is similar to Sherlock he knows how to defeat Sherlock making one of the only villains in Sherlock that can knock the hero down a few pegs.

    I do have one question though. In your post you talk about how it is good to make them similar so that they see themselves in the villain. Well, in my book that I’m working on my hero thinks that he is this giant monster when he really isn’t, so he sees himself in my villain who really is a monster. Would that work?

    • Hi, Aurora! Yeah, I think that would work great. Heroes who struggle with things like that are even more compelling, IMO. I like it!