Craft Corner: The Mighty Antagonist

Welcome to the Class of 2k21 Craft Corner! These posts will be dedicated to sharing writing tips and tricks we’ve picked up on our journeys to publication. Each month features a new theme with insights from members of the Class of 2k21; this month, we’re sharing tips on writing strong antagonists.

Whether you are a long-time creative with too many ideas to wrangle or a beginner with no idea where to start, we hope you’ll find something you can apply to your writing journey. Let’s get started!

Megan E. Freeman: The irony in this month’s topic is that my book ALONE doesn’t have an antagonist in the traditional sense of the word, assuming we define “antagonist” as the character who inhibits the protagonist’s will (or progress or goals or growth.). Because Maddie is left behind when her entire town is evacuated, I had to come up with other forces to create problems for her and cause her to be tested and grow and evolve. Fortunately, the Colorado landscape provides plenty of year-round opportunity for hardship, and the challenges inherent in spending so much time alone, whether in physical danger or emotional turmoil or navigating existential and spiritual dilemmas, more than made up for the lack of a human antagonist. The most important thing was to find ways to challenge Maddie and to lay the groundwork for her to try and fail and try and succeed and build resilience and character and independence. Those are the gifts the best antagonists offer, fictional or otherwise.

Jessica Vitalis: Strong antagonists can often make the difference between a “meh” novel and one that can’t be put down. When I’m working on my antagonists, I like to look for ways to humanize them; even if they are a “villain,” they likely don’t think of themselves that way, and even the most awful of human beings usually have some redeeming quality. (Okay, I can think of some instances in which I’m not sure this is true, but for the sake of good literature, giving your antagonist a sympathetic characteristic might help differentiate them from a stock villain and make the story all that much more compelling.) In my debut, The Wolf's Curse, my antagonist routinely sentences innocent people to death; I give him some humanity by showing how much he pines for his dead wife.

Sam Taylor: Like Jessica mentioned, villains seldom see themselves that way. The most compelling antagonists are often the protagonists of their own story. To themselves, their motivations make sense and they have compelling reasons for everything they’re trying to achieve. I think it can be especially interesting when antagonists and protagonists have similar end goals (look at Pran and the imperial alchemist Rootare in my debut WE ARE THE FIRE!), but very different methods of going about those goals, which get in each other’s way and contribute to the story’s conflict. After all, there’s much more potential for deep and engrossing character development when protagonists are grappling against someone who’s perhaps very like them in some uncomfortable ways, than squaring off against a villain who is purely evil.

Thanks for joining us! Craft Corner will be back in October with thoughts on writing strong sidekicks. See you then!