[originally published Jan. 2017; updated May 2021]
As discussed in the first post in this villain series, the whole purpose of your antagonist is to oppose your protagonist/main character (MC). In the second post, I talked about how to develop your villain so that their opposing your main character is believable and makes sense.
It’s super important to develop great villains, to know why they’re doing what they’re doing in the story. The whole middle and climactic sections of your story or novel are all about your villain (or antagonist) putting obstacles in the main character’s way as they both try to achieve their opposing goals. As a writer, it’s important to keep in mind that the role of your villain is to get your main character to act. So, that’s the next big question. What, exactly, should they do? How can they oppose and impact your main character and force them to act?
Four Strategies for Antagonists to Force Protagonists to Act
1) Create an Ongoing Looming Threat
You can use time or a villain that might appear and threaten the protagonist at any time. Action adventure stories use time effectively. If you think of The Da Vinci Code or National Treasure, there is a “race” to achieve the goal. Bombs will detonate or people will die if the MC doesn’t make it in time.
Or, the villain might be an ever-present and terrifying threat. Voldemort is an example of this. He’s not always around, but Harry dreams of him, people mention “he who must not be named,” the scar is prevalent on Harry’s face. Somehow, Voldemort continually makes appearances though he himself rarely appears.
Or, the the actual identity of the villain might remain a mystery. In this case, the MC doesn’t know who to trust which can be a great ongoing looming threat as it forces the MC to act on their own rather than rely on others.
2) The main character (MC) must protect themselves from the Villain
This is perhaps one of the most common strategies. The villain will threaten the safety or life of the MC which, of course, forces the MC to act or they die or get injured.
In part 2 of this series, I discussed the novel/movie Misery by Stephen King. In this story, the villain Annie Wilkes gets the main character to write a whole novel or die. The main character is terrified, so he writes.
3) The MC must protect others from the Villain
The entire Hunger Games series begins with this premise and Katniss finds herself in this situation over and over. First, she rescues her sister from the government in the Reaping. Then, she tries to help Rue in the Arena. She fails with Rue, but she does manage to save Peeta. Suzanne Collins does a great job of combining this strategy with Katniss protecting herself.
4) Give the MC and the Villain Similar Characteristics or Connection
The Sherlock Holmes/Moriarty stories are built on this idea. The two characters are brilliant, odd characters who have a mutual respect (and dislike/hatred) for one another. They’re arch rivals, both of whom want to win, but Sherlock is the moral one while Moriarty has no moral code.
These strategies are helpful when you actually start writing your story and are building your scenes. They can help guide your plot development too to make sure that your story has enough action and that your villain is driving that action. Also, be sure to mix them up. Most great stories use all of these strategies. If you think about the Hunger Games, we can find each of them.
The looming threat is Katniss’ and all the others kids’ impending death in the arena. The corrupt government is also a looming threat. Katniss’ own life is continually threatened beginning on the first pages when she must break the law to feed her family. She’s also constantly protecting others from the government, both in her own District and in the arena. Finally, like the government, Katniss is smart and willing to break the rules to achieve her goals. They have that in common but while Katniss uses her intelligence and bravery for good, the government uses it to control and kill.