Saturday, March 10, 2018

Breaths of Power: Writing Antagonists, Part 1

We all know the cliche villain -- the evil lord, with a black cloak, who cackles maniacally. Yet unless he actually does something to hinder the protagonist’s goal, he causes no fear in the reader, and weakens the stakes. Threats might cause tension, but if the reader knows the antagonist has no power to carry them out, they’re just empty words.

As a writer, there are two key things you want your antagonist to do: 1) Make them a strong threat to the protagonist’s goal and 2) make them sympathetic, or relatable. But how do you make them more than an inconvenience? How do you make them sympathetic when they hurt the protagonist?

In my two part series, I hope to be able to give you ideas of how to craft an antagonist that has just as much of a chance, or more, of winning as the protagonist does, and making them human.

Our focus for today is: POWER. Without some form of power over your protagonist, antagonists are useless. Power isn’t limited to government, either. There are many types of power, and an effective antagonist will hold one of them over the protagonist, one that will damage them deeply. (Even better, they’ll have two or more!) An effective antagonist will breathe power.

(Side note: please note these types of power apply to human, or creature, antagonists. This does not specifically address ((but can)) non-human antagonists, such as the weather.)

#1 - Physical

Unless your character is immortal, and can never be hurt, physical power is always a viable option. We’re all mortal, and most people fear death. If your antagonist has the power to physically hurt your protagonist, they can cause them great pain, and this can stop them from doing daily actions, or stop them working against the antagonist’s goals.

- Threaten to kill (or actually kill) protagonist
- Restrict protagonist's movement, such as locking them up
- Maim or torture them
- Control their body, through magical or technological means
- Create famine in the land, ridding their and others’ bodies of food, and so their health

#2 - Emotional

While having power over someone’s body is adequate in hindering their goals, often times, the mind can be a greater force to stop someone in their tracks. Everyone is at the mercy of their brain. If your antagonist can get inside your protagonist’s head, and obtain power that way, your protagonist will be fighting battles both inside, and outside.

- Make protagonist believe they cannot exist without antagonist
- Cause them to doubt their every move
- Negatively affect their mental state
- Threaten to hurt someone they care about (combining physical and emotional power)

#3 - Economical

Economical power revolves around the antagonist hindering the protagonist’s income, or money flow, and in doing so, threatening their means for survival. Defeating antagonists often requires a large amount of resources, from weapons, to food for a long journey, to rent, to paying soldiers. Characters, unless extremely rich, do not have massive pools of money to dip their buckets in whenever they come up short. If the antagonist cuts off their income, they could effectively be crushing any opposition.

- Employed by antagonist, and rely on them for income
- If POV spends too much time pursuing antagonist, loses job, and thus means of survival for them and/or their family (economical, physical, and emotional)
- POV doesn’t have the funds/resources to fight back

#4 - Cultural/Authority

Finally we come to cultural, or authoritarian, power. I’ve combined these two, for if cultures and societies mark a certain individual as their ruler, they then make them an authority, and in doing so give them power. When the antagonist has control over an entire community, they are indeed an extremely powerful force, with many opportunities to harm the protagonist.

- Antagonist is the ruler, and by law can detain/imprison POV without consequence
- Because of antagonist’s community standing, can exile POV
- POV is labelled an outcast or traitor (emotional and cultural)
- Due to traditions of respecting those in authority, any questioning the government’s methods, can be crushed (possibly also physical power, if involves physical consequences)

And those are the four key types of power your antagonist can wield! They can be played around with or combined, to make your antagonist a true obstacle to your protagonist, and their goal. I hope this has helped you brainstorm some ways you can make your antagonist breathe power!

Let’s chat! What kind of power does your antagonist have over your protagonist? Do you enjoy writing antagonists, or protagonists more? Who is your favourite book antagonist?

~~Melissa Gravitis~~
Melissa Gravitis is a Christian teen writer with a Thai heart, Aussie heritage, and international blood. Growing up overseas, she developed a passion for following dreams, and crafting Young Adult stories with vibrant worlds and characters that pop off the page. Though she doesn’t own any pets (yet), she has imaginary friends called Characters that she spends most of her days with. When she’s not with them, she’s jamming to music, or burying herself in books. You can read her thoughts and follow her writing progress on her blog, Quill Pen Writer.


  1. AHHHH, this is SUCH a good post :). I tend to have problems with villian motivations and power struggles, this post puts it in plain English that I can understand.

    Awesome job, Melissa!!


    1. Aw thanks Catherine, I'm so glad it could help you out! :)

  2. This was EPIC.

    Great job, definitely will be referencing this in the future! :D

    1. Thanks Gray! I'm happy it will be able to help you! :D

  3. Great job!!! I love the point make your protagonist believe they can't get along without the antagonist. That is a super fun thing to work with (thinking about some plans...).

    1. Thanks Erica! :) Ooh I can't wait to see how you work that into your writing; best of luck with it!

  4. MELISSA, THIS IS AWESOME! I will most definitely be keeping this in mind for when I'm planning a villain, or trying to deepen the ones I already have. Great post! <3

    1. Thanks so much Lila!!! So glad you enjoyed it, and that it might be able to help you. <3

  5. SOOO GOOD!! Very helpful tips for the antagonist/protagonist relationship. I love it!

    ~Ivie|Ivie Writes

  6. I have a problem with making my characters "perfect", and they are really not relatable. So, this post was very helpful! Thank you! :D