[originally published Nov. 2016; updated May 2021]
Every great story has a powerful and hateful villain. Or do they?
The answer to that question is actually much more complicated than it might seem at first glance. So, in honor of the Christmas season and one of my favorite all-time villains, The Grinch, I’m kicking off a three-part series on antagonists.
A villain/antagonist is a necessary member of any story’s cast. In fact, it’s often called an “archetypal” character which just means that it’s a standard character in any story.
What is a Villain/Antagonist?
The antagonist is any force that somehow opposes or puts obstacles in the way of the main character, or protagonist. The antagonist doesn’t have to be human, or even alive, for that matter. It could be a terrible storm (as in The Perfect Storm or the short story “To Build a Fire“).
Most often, the antagonist is a human and quite villainous, like Voldemort from Harry Potter or President Snow from The Hunger Games.
But they’re not always bad guys. We often have a variety of characters who play the role of the antagonist for a scene or two. For example, in Harry Potter there are scenes in the novel where Harry’s two best friends play the role of antagonist as they try to convince Harry not to do something or try to thwart him in some way. But we would never say that Ron or Hermione are the villains.
So, we can have a variety of antagonists in a story, but generally, we only have one really solid villain, the character who opposes our main character every step of the way.
While the antagonist opposes the main character, they don’t do it just for the sake of opposing the main character. A good villain has their own goals and motivations. We’ll get into developing those in the second post in this series.
Interestingly, the Grinch is the villain and the main character in his story. In the original Dr. Seuss version (not the full length film), The Grinch is opposed by all kinds of things: the Who’s, Christmas itself, the mountain, the snow, his little heart. But, he’s really the villain of the story because it’s his small heart that he must ultimately overcome; he’s his own greatest obstacle.
Why do you need a good villain?
From here on out, I’ll be referring to the antagonist as the villain because that’s the character archetype I want to focus on developing, not just the characters that put obstacles in front of our main character.
We need a good villain to continually thwart our main character to force our main character to grow, to figure things out, and to ultimately reach their goal. But we can’t make it too easy for them.
The key to a great story is conflict, and your villain will create the major conflicts in your story. Nobody wants to read about a character who’s life is perfect and safe and lovely. That’s BORING. We want to read about characters who overcome daunting odds to achieve greatness, right?
A good villain creates those daunting odds. Think about your favorite all-time stories. Who’s the villain? I’m sure you thought of your favorite immediately because these characters are KEY to great stories.
When should you introduce your villain in your story?
Introduce the villain early in your story, in the first quarter if not earlier. You can do this either with a face to face introduction or you can allude to the villain or the idea of the villain.
For example, we meet the Grinch on the first pages of Dr. Seuss’ classic story, but we don’t actually meet Voldemort until the end of the first novel. We only hear about him, BUT we start hearing about him in the first chapter.
Here are a few more examples of how this works, even if your villain doesn’t appear until later because you can refer to the villain whenever you mention whatever is stopping your main character. Think about a mystery. We don’t actually find out who the true villain is until the very end of the story when they’re revealed and the fun in reading a mystery is trying to figure out who the bad guy is, but we do know what crime happened and what the villain did, so the villain has been introduced through the introduction of the crime.
Or think of a story like A Fault in Our Stars where the villain is actually cancer that is killing the two main characters. We know, from the first page, that Hazel has cancer and has been fighting it. The disease is the bad guy.
In your story, you don’t necessarily have to refer to the actual character but you can allude to your character’s main obstacle or what they’re trying to achieve in the story. For example, in Hazel’s case, she’s trying to live like a normal teenager but the cancer keeps getting in the way. Harry Potter just wants a family who loves him but he’s got this evil uncle who doesn’t believe in the main villain’s existence or even magic…until he does and we also figure out that Harry has been “hidden” with the muggles to protect him from the true villain.
Your villain might not become a key to the action until later in your story, but he or she must be introduced early on, and this is how Harry Potter works. We hear about Voldemort on the first pages. But Mr. Dursley serves as the antagonist until Harry gets to Hogwarts where Snape and then Voldemort become much more active as the villains.
Put it in Action
1) Re-read the first scene from your current work in progress.
2) Have you introduced the villain by either referring to that character OR having them actively participate in the scene? If not, how might you add them.
3) Brainstorm a list of at least ten ways your villain might block your main character’s progress toward reaching their goal. You probably won’t use half of these ideas, but the process of brainstorming might take your story (and your villain) into great areas you hadn’t considered before.