3-dimensional characters are essential to any good story. Just don’t forget about the villain*.
When it comes to writing fiction that grabs the reader and catapults them into the world you’ve created, the most powerful tool in your arsenal is character work. Lots of character work.
I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of getting to know your characters as though they’re old friends you’ve known for half your life. Sure, your reader may never need to know that Molly the Magnificent, girl sorcerer of Weston-super-mare, has three older cousins in Scotland that she’s hasn’t seen since she was six months old, or that she can’t abide the smell of lavender, or even that her middle name is Agatha after her mother’s best friend in primary school. But all of those things have made Molly the person she is at the start of your novel, and the person she is at the start of your novel will dictate how she reacts to the obstacles that the narrative throws in her way, and those reactions will shape the course of the story.
So, while your reader may never need to know it… you, the author, definitely do.
And that applies just as much to your antagonist. Arguably even more so.
The thing about the antagonist is that they’re rarely – not never, but not often either – a point-of-view character, while the protagonist always** is. That makes the protagonist an obvious candidate for deep-dive character work – which is exactly the way it ought to be, of course, because a poorly developed main character is going to present challenges for reader engagement. Often, major secondary characters will get the same treatment, and again, that’s absolutely appropriate, particularly if they’re also POV characters, but even if not, they’re likely to shoulder a considerable amount of the narrative burden, so you’ll want to have a good grasp of what makes them tick. Characters who act in a certain way purely because the author needs them to move a plot point forward tend to feel hollow, half-written, and their motivations tend to be hard to believe – or even completely absent.
And so we come to the antagonist.
The key function of the antagonist is to obstruct the protagonist’s path towards their stated (or implicit) goal. Yes, they might do that because they’re moustache-twirling evil geniuses. For sure, they might be that. But have you ever met a moustache-twirling evil genius in real life? That prick who stole your parking space outside Sainsburys when you clearly had your indicator on – was he doing it out of black-hearted wickedness? Or was he on his fifteenth circuit of the car park and his absolutely last nerve? The co-worker who plagiarised half the report you spent weeks pulling together so that she could take the credit in front of your area manager – devil incarnate? Or just possessed of the sincere belief that her report-writing shortcomings aren’t relevant to her ability to shine at the next level of management and prepared to do what it takes to get to where she feels she ought to be?
The point is, everyone is the hero of their own story. Likely even when we’re the villain in somebody else’s.
We’ve all justified the angry phone call to customer service – when we know that the poor sod on the other end of the line isn’t responsible for whatever’s gone wrong – on the grounds that we are at the end of our tether and any reasonable person would be furious right now. I’ve worked in telephone customer support, and I can say with my hand on my heart that, as much as I understood why the caller was frustrated, they were the villain of that particular story for me. At the start of the pandemic, when – for reasons that continue to escape me – toilet roll was rare as hen’s teeth, grabbing an extra four packets when the supermarket managed to restock almost certainly meant that somebody else was going home empty handed. But it also meant that your family wasn’t going to run out before the next batch arrived, whenever that might be, and you needed to be the hero for them, even if that meant you were someone else’s villain.
The same is true of your antagonist. And that remains the case whether they’re Jill from next door who complained to the council about your character’s messy front garden or The Almighty Yungor, Supreme Dark Lord of the Galaxy, whose violent suppression of dissent has led to the death of your protagonist’s parents. Maybe Jill is allergic to grass pollen. Maybe she needs to sell her house to pay for her mother’s care home. Maybe she copes with an unacknowledged sense of personal inadequacy by striving for perfection in everything she does, and your character’s unkempt lawn is like nails on a chalkboard to her desperate need for order.
Maybe The Almighty Yungor has a crippling phobia of cats. That’s unlikely to ever make it into your epic space opera, I suspect, but it doesn’t really matter if it helps you to understand how he got himself onto his current evil trajectory.
And even if Jill’s heartbreaking backstory remains firmly subtextual as she obliges your character to do battle with the forces of governmental bureaucracy, it’s information that you, the writer, need to have. If you don’t understand what’s motivated Jill to act like a dick, she’s going to read as 1-dimensional: antagonistic solely for the purpose of injecting interpersonal conflict. You don’t need to rehabilitate her if the story needs her to remain difficult to the bitter end, and you don’t need to make her sympathetic if it doesn’t fit your character’s narrative arc. You can kill off The Almighty Yungor without ever having him acknowledge the error of his ways. Nobody’s claiming that an antagonist requires a redemption; sometimes (often) we just want them to be comfortably loathsome so that we can work off a bit of cathartic anger at this cruel world. Really, when it comes down to it, the only person who has to completely understand what motivates your antagonist is you.
But if you don’t, it’ll show. And your story world will never quite feel whole.
So, by all means do the deep-dive character work on your protagonist and key ancillary main characters. Factsheets can be enormously helpful. Freewriting also works, followed by data capture if you’re so inclined. Maybe you prefer to write little vignettes that sit outside the main story to help get a feel for who these folks are at heart.
Just make sure you include the antagonist in your character workups, whatever they look like. I promise you’ll be glad you did.
* Of course, your story may not have a primary antagonist, inasmuch as the conflict that drives the narrative may not be rooted in one specific person. It could be a wider societal ill or a natural disaster or similar. That’s fine too – just remember that you also need to ask “why” for those sorts of obstacles. A society that’s evil for the sake of being evil rings as hollow as the pantomime villain type – there’s always some kind of deep-seated sociological or politico-cultural reason why oppressive regimes are able to assume power. Volcanoes, on the other hand, are notoriously laissez-faire in their motivation, so you’re probably fine there.
** Even if I can’t conceive of how it would possibly work, I’m sure there are probably exceptions. But they’re vanishingly rare, if so.
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