Writing Advice Article by Will Greenway: Beyond Villains -- Addressing Antagonists in Detail

Beyond Villains — Addressing Antagonists in Detail

Writing Advice Article by Will Greenway: Beyond Villains -- Addressing Antagonists in Detail

Beyond Villains –Addressing Antagonists in Detail

By Will Greenway

‘Villain’ is a dated term. It brings to mind a particular kind of bad guy that has become kind of a toothless foil in both the minds of writers and their audiences.

Blog Picture 1: Snidely Whiplash

These affably evil tropes portray some over-the-top black hat who has an inexplicable demagogic ability to attract hordes of henchmen, cronies, and minions. They bumble around carrying out their latest master plans with their enablers, dishing out head thumps and intelligence burns with comedic flare.

Blog Picture 2: Lex Luthor

It’s fun, but it’s been overdone and sometimes the audience wants real tension. Nobody believes these kinds of villains will actually succeed in their plans.

For a point of reference, let’s look at the whole villain in black as a visual motif. Consider this guy:

Blog Picture 3: Darth Vader

Black hat, black cloak, behind that mask he might even be leering. Darth Vader was never intended to be a camp character. In his initial appearance in Star Wars though, he’s barely more than a stock villain trope (The Black Knight — see the stock character section). The detail and backstory that made the character more compelling came later. Vader is essentially a fallen hero (anti-hero), his implementation or backing archetype is “The Aggrieved” (discussed in the antagonist archetype list). Anakin Skywalker has a hero origin and sympathetic beginnings (born a slave, loves his mother, dedicated to doing good stuff). His tutelage is corrupted by Palpatine, and the loss of his mother unfetters his anger causing a descent into murder and mayhem. As a stock character antagonist, Vader is barely worth mentioning. It is the bolted-on backstory of a fallen hero pulled from the path of good by personal tragedy and subsequently corrupted through manipulation that makes him more interesting. He has all the good things we look for in an antagonist, a divided loyalty to good and evil, a tragic backstory, and a possibility (however slight) of redemption.

Quality Antagonism

Let’s first talk about the somewhat misunderstood role of the antagonist in a story. I’ve seen many questions asking about the protagonist switching roles with the antagonist. This underscores the core misunderstanding of what the antagonist is and exists to do.

A villain CAN be an antagonist, and an antagonist CAN be a villain. However, not all villains ARE antagonists, and NOT all antagonists are villains. I am confident that didn’t clear anything up, but I throw it out there as fodder to torment semantic purists.

Defining the Antagonist

Good story structure predicates that antagonism must exist within the narrative.

So, what is it?

Blog Picture: Antagonism definition


So, let’s get to the core of the antagonist. Here’s an everyday scenario. You’ve had an exhausting shift at work, everything that can go wrong has, and you are done. You just want to go home and go to bed. As a matter of coincidence, your apartment is on the 14th floor. You get in the building and discover every single dang elevator is out of service. Your only recourse.

The stairs.

Twelve flights of them.

Unless you are a fitness enthusiast, if you don’t think of those staggered risers of peril as opponents at the bottom, by the time you reach the top, you will be reconsidering.

The stairs aren’t sentient. They aren’t going out of their way to make you feel bad. Still, if you are already in a cruddy mood—twelve flights of stairs won’t make an exhausted person feel better.

It’s possible that this exact thing or something similar has happened to you. It’s a kick in the shin of your calm. A crummy afternoon capped off with a frustrating slog to get to your door because some elevator tech decided to quit early for the day. How many yelling matches has this sort of thing fired up? It’s relatable and why even small antagonists can have an outsized effect on the narrative.

Man has a bad day, climbs twelve flights of stairs, gets into an argument with his wife, and something unfortunate results. One dumb but believable thing that leads to a tragic aftermath.

That is the core of storytelling.


Blog Picture: For Want of a Nail


Never undersell (or underestimate) the chain of cause and effect. The inciting event can be as innocuous as a man stubbing his toe. Because he was a heavy drinker, he gets gangrene. Because he hates doctors, he doesn’t get treatment. Thus, a stubbed toe puts him in a grave.

Silly, right?

That was my uncle. (Yes, co-morbidities and other factors played into it.)

The main thing I want you to take away here is that a story isn’t limited to one antagonist. Even the most inconsequential seeming thing can touch off drama. Your world and the worlds of your characters are FILLED with potential antagonists—so there is NEVER any excuse for a flat story that lacks instances of adversarial energy.

More, as I have just shown, the opposition can be literally anything from inanimate objects to nature, a disaster, or even the character’s own guilt and redoubt.

  • The rain that ruins the perfectly planned wedding.
  • Pets shredding the new couch that still isn’t even paid for.
  • Bosses who dock pay even when the entire city is snowed in.
  • Co-workers stealing your lunch from the breakroom refrigerator.

They seem trivial and dumb, but all of them have been part of stories. These kinds of things can be a bad omen, the first straw… or the last one.

This brings in another point.

A narrative where there’s no struggle isn’t a story.

Traditionally, we say a narrative without conflict is weak and potentially unviable. Opposition or resistance is a type of conflict. So, when I make the blanket statement that good story will always have at least one antagonist… this is the all-encompassing paradigm.

A narrative is a man rolling a rock. A story is a man pushing a boulder up a hill. Drama is the angry mob ready to lynch him if he slides back down.

Blog Picture: Man Pushing a Rock Uphill

It’s such a simple paradigm, yet the discussion comes up over and over.

Sentient Antagonists

I primed this discussion by showing how anything can be an antagonist and that drama can be derived from even the most banal occurrence. So, intelligent opposition is its own kind of dynamic.

Dynamic is key here. Antagonists don’t always have to stay that way. The point of the story can be the protagonist convincing the antagonist to stop being an adversary.

Where non-sentient antagonists can be mere plot devices, opposition characters should be more. By this I mean, the character has a purpose beyond simply making life difficult for the protagonists of the story. An antagonist can be a foil, a reflection, a good example, a bad example, an object lesson, a challenge to be met, or a test of restraint. Protagonists have an arc of change (or failure to do so). Antagonists should also evolve and reach epiphanies.

“Stock” Characters

Stock characters or character tropes are the first stop in the exploration of sentient cast members in the story. Many of them won’t be antagonists in the fullest sense of the role but many of them will “contribute” to the authenticity of the story. These are characters that may be incidental adversaries– the chain-smoking landlady in curlers, bathrobe, and slippers always demanding the hero’s back rent for instance.

Blog picture: Kung Fu Hustle

(In Kung Fu Hustle, she was a primary character but that movie is a parody anyway.)

The thing about these characters is they tend to be exaggerated, visually distinct, and even have typical mannerisms and dialogue. While this can be attacked as cliche, it’s not when it’s a background character. When they are essentially part of your setting, the curse is set aside.

List of Character Tropes: (list by no means exhaustive)

Blog Picture: List of Character Tropes

The tropes are listed here to get you to a starting point. In the most basic sense “the kind of character who is (a(n)) … <trope>”. For many background or walk-on characters this is more than good enough.

More Originality — Personality Archetypes

For more developed supporting cast or significant antagonists, you might need to capture the essence of their behavior. This wheel gives you twelve seed models.

Blog Picture: Personality Archetypes

The outer ring here is the type’s moniker, the next ring in is their representative theme. At the hub, is that character type’s operative motivation. As the second born, the protagonist might have an adversarial relationship with his (caregiver) mother, who favors the older brother. The nature of the opposition is the mother resents the younger brother’s independence and sees it as a betrayal. She will harp on how she’s trying to keep the family together, why can’t he like his older sibling, and how she’s sacrificed so they can have a good life. (See how it’s starting to sound like a stock character?)

A father in that same situation will be the ruler. The family man. Do what I say, not what I do. All about control and realizing unfulfilled dreams through their children.


Since it isn’t talked about enough, let’s start with antagonist rivals and their tropes. There is a super list on TV Tropes here: (Rivalry Tropes). The key thing about rivals is that they often want the same thing as the protagonist. They don’t need any malice toward the protagonist to be effective as in Rivals for Acclaim where they just want to be acknowledged as being the best. In cases such as the Unknown Rival, the antagonist may have no conscious acknowledgment of the protagonist whatsoever. Making their early defeats of the protagonist, despite the viewpoint’s best efforts, particularly galling (and motivating).

Part of what makes rival antagonists so effective is they are easiest to design as sympathetic or relatable characters. So, an added difficulty is that the protagonist may not even want to win over them. An example of this trope is where a tragedy strikes the rival and their personal struggle becomes an additional difficulty for the empathetic good-hearted fairness-driven protagonist. These kind of bitter-sweet relationship tests can create poignant stories.

  • Betty and Veronica: Two girls are rivals in being the main character’s love interest.
  • Cain and Abel: Brothers who don’t get along well.
  • Evil Counterpart: A villain who is essentially an evil version of the hero and may be a rival with their heroic counterpart to accentuate their nature as the hero’s moral opposite.
  • Feuding Families: A rivalry between two whole families.
  • Rivals for Acclaim (respected adversary): Rivals who are otherwise chummy but put aside friendship trying to “be the best” in their specific realm of talent or athleticism.
  • Kids Versus Adults
  • Personal Hate Before Common Goals: These characters now have similar mindsets, and could actually be allies, if it weren’t because at least one of them hates the other too much.
  • Rival Dojos
  • Rivalry as Courtship
  • Shadow Archetype: When the rival is a more unscrupulous version of the other guy.
  • Unknown Rival: One person sees another as a competitor, but the other person either doesn’t know that this guy exists or is oblivious of how this guy feels about them.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Best friends who express their friendship in ways that make them look like bitter rivals.
  • Welcome Back, Traitor: Once the ace or G.O.A.T of the organization, returns after a long separation and some secret circumstance, is now a reviled and isolated loner.
  • Working with the Ex: A couple who have broken up are forced into a position where they have to work together.


Antagonist Archetypes Menagerie

As mentioned earlier the more sympathetic or relatable the adversary is, the easier it is to generate a mixed response in the audience. If they want the hero to win, but also hide a secret desire for the antagonist to somehow come out ahead… you are doing your job as the author.

The difference between a hero and an anti-hero can be one mishap, a fork in the road that turns faith into disillusionment. They may believe in betterment for everyone, but no longer believe the powers that be can be trusted.

I give this list with a bit of irony, humor, and over-the-top exaggeration to encourage you to engage with the ideas. It’s given to help you formulate the psychology of the opposition characters that exists in your world.

Activist Extreme: Spiking trees is for pussies. Ramming whale hunters is for lightweights. Real activism is nuking corporations and plunging society into a holocaust that reduces humanity to stone age subsistence. Botany nerd. Loves carnivorous plants.

A.I.s, Androids, Computers, and other “logicals”: A creation at odds with its creator. There’s a trope that just won’t die. Humans are easy to see as inherently harmful creatures: we destroy our environment, kill each other, and make sport of violence. The logicals just want to clean up the mess. Usually through mass extinction, domination by various mechanisms, or just having us bow to them as our mechanical overlords. In many ways, the logicals are like a specific form of kaiju in that they can’t typically be reasoned with. Unlike the kaijus, many logical stories are resolved by some revelation of human value or some paradox that exposes a weakness in their logic in the climax of the story.

Anti-hero: The antagonist is a hero in the process of falling, fallen in search of redemption, or fallen in search of taking others with them. The soon-to-be or ex-hero mourns the loss of their glory days. Dwelling on that one failure or moment of weakness that started them down the slippery slope. For added punch, the antagonist may be someone the protagonist admires or looks up to as a mentor.

Axe to Grind: The antagonist has suffered a “mortal embarrassment” (real or imagined) that they simply can’t let go. This can be a climactic rivalry gone wrong or any number of social or political falls from relevance that can be pinned on the actions of the protagonist (their friends, or their relatives). [In fact, the protagonist might have just happened to witness the mess and is simply condemned by proximity.]

Demonized: Some tragedy and/or personal failing continuously amplifies this character’s internal voices to the point of instability and beyond. In the more extreme cases, schizophrenia develops or physical manifestations where the character appears ACTUALLY possessed. These antagonists are usually caught up in resolving their own internal conflict and some aspect of that battle affects the stakes of the protagonist. Common themes and subthemes of the demonized are sources or exacerbating factors like addiction and substance abuse.

Ever-present Threat: Defined by their anonymity and increasing stakes, the threat can be almost any other antagonist on this list. Their specific characteristic is their talent for being a chameleon that goes undiscovered or unnoticed until the later acts. The threat doesn’t necessarily need a high headcount to function well in the story. They just have to generate tension the protagonists feel.

Goon Squad (henchmen / cronies / minions): Where The Heavy isn’t invested, Goon Squaders just try to get through the day without getting abused. The pay is good but the medical is terrible. The Goony’s primary function is to fill up a movie frame and to give a squad of toughs to back up the boss during photo opportunities. They typically come in threes, a mesomorph tough who stands back with a stern expression, a skinny ectomorph who grins and nods, and a flabby endomorph who is usually the first to swing and the first person to get clobbered, first by the protagonist and later by the boss. As a trope, goons are strongest in the first act, able to take on or capture the protagonists. Goon power fades fast into the later acts. Goons occasionally have redemption arcs and may secretly be a fan or admirer of the protagonist (because tropes).

Hoodlums: A group to capture the various forms of troublemakers, thieves, ruffians, muggers, drug dealers, enforcers, extorters, pimps, hustlers, con artists, and malcontents that act solo or in concert with a gang.

Mobster: Distinct in that this antagonist occupies a position in the hierarchy of organized crime. Where the The Heavy may simply have a contract or agreement with their boss, the mobster may be cradle to grave with his/her clan. Of course, mobs come in different flavors: American Mafia, the cartels of Central America, South America, and Africa. Japanese Yakuza, Korean Jopok, Chinese Triads, or Russian Prestupnaya. Each group has its particular earmarks, tropes, and worldview. Yakuza, in particular, have a different relationship with their public than some of the others.

Monster: Used to capture a broad swath of antagonists and their enablers. Monsterism can be literal or figurative, camp or deadly serious. Monsters can be innocuous like the “little monster” brat child that drives a side-character crazy. Monsters can be physical, mental, and spiritual in their expression. Monsters are driven by things like victimization, narcissism, self-loathing, or frustrated desire. Monsters are about extremes. In that, they are often seen at the heights of power and ability, driven by desires for validation and recognition or deep-seated insecurities. Common monster tropes: brazen billionaire, creature creation, curse-afflicted malcontent, envious obsessor, evil genius/inventor, glutton, god-complex, heartless patriarch/matriarch, mad scientist (e.g. Jekyll/Hyde, Frankenstein, “The Fly”), narcissistic manipulator, righteous retributor, serial killer, vicious victim, xenophobic over-achiever.

SPECIAL CLASS MONSTERS: These include actual monsters that run outside the typical narrative context.

Aliens: Chimeric implementations of xenophobia or xeno-fascination that generally serve as either a plot element or a specific form of an Ever-present Danger. Aliens can function in packs like a Kaiju as in War of Worlds. Solo predators double as a specific form of mighty malevolents with the near-magical ability to corner and kill off cast members.

B-movie: Second-rate versions of the other special class monsters added for camp or simply to advance the plot. Essentially, the literary form of the monster of the week. Also captured in shipped-in hollow implementations of fodder monsters that protagonists sharpen their weapon skills on.

Boogies: These are a more benign form of mythical malcontents. Where the malcontents are a real and present danger, boogies are the misunderstood monsters. They are maliciously maligned and vilified (generally because of their appearance) and usually live in the story to extoll some thematic elements such as the long cliched thing about books and covers. The Hunchback of Notredame is a classic implementation of the boogie. Beauty and the Beast is another twist on the same idea. Boogies are frequently driven into a situation (or caught in some coincidence or circumstance) that generally results in their stigma. Frankenstein’s monster is another example, initially a creature of no particular ill intent until pushed to violence.

Kaiju: A sentient manifestation of calamity pursuing a bucket list of disasters. Typically, these monsters often represent some revenge fetched on humanity as a punishment for their collective sins (essentially karmic backlash). This is the purest expression of the plot type of overcoming the monster. Godzilla tearing up Japan is karma for humans experimenting with atomic weapons. (There’s actually a lot deeper stuff going on, but for purposes of this discussion, leave it at that). The key thing here is the kaiju in all their different forms generally cannot be reasoned with. If they are the central plot device, the story resolution tends to revolve around some form of sacrifice to bring an end to their rampaging. Scylla, Charybdis, and the kraken are examples of kaiju from oral tradition and mythology who are popularized incarnations of what were likely natural phenomena or creatures exaggerated by retelling.

Mighty malevolents: essentially, serial killers on steroids with plot-armor. They just– won’t– die. Tropic examples from popular culture include Freddy from Nightmare on Elm Street, Jason Voorhees Friday the 13th, Michael Myers Halloween, and Chucky from Child’s Play. More a movie thing than a literary phenomenon, the malevolents drive the story via jump scare, corralling hopelessly outclassed protagonists who can’t seem to figure out the whole isolation equals mutilation paradigm. With a malevolent hunting your cast, sex equals death, drugs and alcohol will get you executed, and saying “I’ll be right back” is a sure indicator you won’t. Literary equivalents are more defuse and tend to be mystery novel antagonists modeled after shadowy creepers like Jack the Ripper. Science fiction and fantasy are rife with sentient predators with a predilection for chowing down on cast members. It’s nothing personal, they’re just hungry (or want to put an egg in you).

Mythical malcontents: creatures of folklore who create havoc in the story world typically driven by primal need. This can be (and has been) spun in many ways, particularly with vampires and were-creatures. The Mummy is an example of a scaled-down kaiju blended with the curse-afflicted malcontent and given star billing as a plot-central foe. Gods, demi-gods, angels, demons, devils, and all their occult brothers, sisters, cousins, and cross-pollenations all generally push plot by poking their influence into the narrative via curse, possession, wishes, or other magical shenanigans. Notable outliers from lore are witches (who can be stock characters or derivations of the Baba Yaga myth) who tend to be more opportunistic. Wish granting djinns outlie in another direction as a more benign form of “actions have consequences” object lesson (at least Disney versions).

Nature’s revenge: angry elements of nature that bite back for human disrespect for the environment or their alpha predator arrogance. Note that these monsters are rarely your run-of-the-mill threat, they often possess some supernatural cunning or ability to ambush from the shadows. JAWS is probably the most well-known example of this kind of antagonist.

Necromaniac: The deader the better. If they aren’t already undead, they worship death or serve an undead master. The necromaniac is a distinct implementation of the monster obsessed with the dead, either someone departed or the whole life/death cycle. It’s a compulsory transformation of the typical person’s FEAR of death, into a love or worship of it, be it literal, figurative, or metaphorically. In camp implementations, maybe all three for a sense of dramatic over-kill.

Novel Nihilist: There is no meaning or purpose in life. You can’t be accused of breaking rules that you don’t acknowledge exist. Anarchy is too structured. The nihilist fixates on one thing. The only rule is to achieve that goal, and no amount of blood, torment, or money is too excessive in the pursuit of that.

Over-achieving Entropist: Everyone in the world is a “prisoner” constrained in the dying universe by their lack of knowledge. By our actions, we increase the entropy of the Universe. By our entropy, we seek salvation from the coming dark. The entropist is convinced the universe is going to die. So, why not get a several billion year head start? Irrationality based on a distant certainty. Wants to save the world but doesn’t quite understand the meaning of “imminent” the way everyone else does. Entropists want to accelerate things. Are fascinated with decay. Are surprised that they wake up each morning.

Sinister Psychopath: Really just the serial killer variant of the monster. The difference is the psychopath generally has more acting chops. Like Psycho’s Norman Bates or The Shining’s Jack Torrance there’s more pathology and tension. The story is as much about studying the antagonist’s descent into madness as it is anything else. Where serial killers tend to be the subject of a search (often hiding in plain sight). Sinister psychopaths hunt the protagonists. While I have listed Freddy, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Chucky as mighty malevolents they could be in this type as well. More Freddy and Chucky because they have speaking roles and specific motivational pathos.

The Aggrieved: Some person or other psychological attachment of great importance has been taken from this character and they will go to extreme lengths to balance the injustice. Somehow, the protagonist gets caught in the middle or assumed guilty by association.

The Heavy: It’s nothing personal. This character usually has no malice in particular toward the protagonist (and may even hold them in regard), but he/she has a job to do. Many sub-tropes of the heavy exist: the assassin, the honorable debt-bound protector, the merciless merc, the sanctimonious scrapper, the dangerous arm candy, fallen / blackmailed hero, two-screws loose/rabid dog/batshit crazy.




Will Greenway

First published in 1983, Will Greenway started his creative career wanting to draw and script comics. After a number of years, he found writing better suited to his skills. Aside from writing and art, Will is a self-taught programmer, PC technician, and network troubleshooter. He enjoys skiing, racquetball, Frisbee golf, and is steadfast supporter of role-playing games. To date, he has completed eighteen novels more than twenty short stories, and numerous articles on writing. He resides in the Spring Valley suburb of south San Diego.

You can find Will at his author page or his “universe” page at Writers Exchange, or you can find all his books at Amazon here.

Below is one series in his incredible Ring Realms Universe…

A Ring Realms Novel: Savant's Blood Saga Cover spread


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