Creative writing exercise: crafting an antagonist who readers will REALLY hate

Bigging up the Bad Guy– or Gal

Creative writing: building a bad guy, antagonist or villain that readers will hate.
Writers’ notes on creating a Bad Guy/Gal/Antagonist/Villain

When I googled the question: how to make readers really hate my Bad Guy/Gal, antagonist, or villain, I got a range of suggestions, but no universally agreed single solution. In this blog post, I will take you through my journey of studying others’ advice, thinking about memorable guys/gals, and considering what makes them hateful.

Beware your antagonist doesn’t eclipse the main protagonist

There are lists of ‘top villains’. But some include bad guy/gal that film viewers love to hate, such as Darth Vader and Terminator. And herein, I saw a trap: make the bad guy/gal too interesting, and they eclipse the good guy/gal. Terminator was such a memorable baddie, he had to come back as the good guy/gal in Terminator 2. Kids don’t dress up as Luke Skywalker: they dress up as Darth Vader. But, assuming you have a great hero/protagonist/main character, how will you give them a worthy bad guy/gal/villain/antagonist?

There are things a bad guy/gal might do. They might:

Kick the cat/steal the kid’s lollipop

Be cruel

Be unfair

Be unpredictable

Murder someone

Have a warped motive: e.g. Hitler wanted to make Germany great again, but his actions destroyed many lives.

They might coerce the good guy/gal to do bad things, for instance say ‘you do my dirty work or I murder your daughter….’

But any of these things could happen, and you wouldn’t be filled with hate. How many cosy crime murderers do you really hate?

There needs to be something else. They need to be more real

What about making your bad guy/gal more real, more ‘three dimensional’? After all, despite all the booing, nobody really bothers to hate a pantomime baddie. He’s a cardboard cut-out, and we know it. If your bad guy/gal is more complex, more human, maybe they will be more believable, more worth hating. To make them more believable, you might consider:

What motivates their badness? Is it personal – do they have it in only for your protagonist, or do they hate/attack everybody, not caring who they are?

What are the bad guy/gal’s goals? Why/how do they conflict with the protagonist? iWhat are their methods to get there? Do they trample others on the way, or do they have scruples? What are they?

Give then a back story: a reason for being bad. Maybe they have bad asthma, caused by allergy to cats. We might have some sympathy. But their ‘solution’, to kill all pet cats, is horrific.

Make the Bad Guy/Gal’s acts relatable

The bad guy/gal’s bad acts hurt more if they are relatable to the reader’s experience: a pain they can share. For instance, when Uncle Ebenazar steals Aladdin’s lamp, that’s a pain we can’t share: we’ve never had a magic lamp. But if the Bad Guy/Gal steals a coffee cup, then leaves it unwashed up, that’s an insult we can understand

Do you hate the Bad Guy/Gal, or fear them, or both?

It’s worth clarifying whether you want readers to hate your Bad Guy/Gal, or fear him, or both. For instance, Harry Potter’s Bad Guy is Voldemort. Everyone’s frightened of Voldemort: they won’t even speak his name. But hate was engendered for another character, Lucius Malfoy, when he kicked Dobby, the House Elf. Why? Because JK Rowling had spent time building up Dobby as a well-meaning, downtrodden innocent. Hence, Lucius’ casual kick to Dobby engendered a strong emotional response of hatred. For fear, I think one of the finest examples is the movie Alien. The monster has a repulsive, parasitic lifestyle. But the real fear lies in the fact that, as it stalks the heroine through the spaceship, viewers never know when it will pop out again. That uncertainty builds tension, building on the fear that, if it gets her, she will die.

The Bad Guy/Gal exists in his relationship to the protagonist

The heart of the Bad Guy/Gal is that, in your story, he exists in his relationship to the protagonist. The Bad Guy/Gal exits as an opposite, a mirror image, an antagonist, to the protagonist. Therefore, readers will only hate the Bad Guy/Gal as far as they love – or empathise with – the protagonist. The key to hating the Bad Guy/Gal is to build reader engagement with the protagonist. Then, when the Bad Guy/Gal hurts the protagonist, never mind how, hatred in the reader is engendered. The extent of this hatred is an exact mirror image of how much the reader shares the protagonist’s pain. To feel this, they must engage with, empathise with, and identify with, the protagonist.

Hate the Bad Guy/Gal: love the Good Guy/Gal

For readers to hate the Bad Guy/Gal, they must love the protagonist. Their enemy must be believable, and hit them where it hurts. What and how that hit is, depends entirely on your protagonist. In a school rom-com, the baddie would spoil the protagonist’s hair on the night of the prom. In a thriller, the baddie would kill millions. Readers will care, only if they identify with the PROTAGONIST’S PAIN

Step by step tips, with worked example

1 Build engagement with the protagonist.

Give them something we all relate to.

Eg, Single Mum Liz is running late. The kid, 8yrs old Danny, lost his PE kit. He’s football mad and today he should be playing for the school team. She skips breakfast to find the kit. Danny’s gratitude gives her a warm glow. But now she’s running late and arrives at work flustered, thirsty, and in need of a boost.

2 Consider your bad guy/gal.

Give him a believable motive, that conflicts with the protagonist. Eg, Liz’ s co-worker, Adam, resents Liz. He believes that she was ‘teachers’ pet’ at school, and that she now has a higher grade than him because she’s a woman, and the company has a strong ‘equality’ agenda. He has a strong sense of entitlement, and hasn’t noticed that Liz has been more successful than him because she works harder than he does.

3 Set up the Stakes.

There’s a promotion going. But only Liz, or Adam, can get it, not both. Liz wants it because, with the extra money, she could buy a season ticket to take Danny to see his favourite team play. Adam wants it because he thinks it’s his rightful place to be senior to Liz.

4 Build the stakes

Liz’s meeting’s already started. Her promotion prospects will be judged by the presentation she’s about to make. She’s hungry, thirsty, in desperate need of a coffee, stops by the kettle and… No CUPS! Not even a glass for a sip of water.

5 Show the conflict.

Liz enters the meeting, flustered, apologising, as Adam is making his presentation. He smirks at her as he points to his charts, making meaningless platitudes about equality targets.

6 Raise the conflict.

Liz makes her presentation. Her throat is dry, she chokes. She reddens as Adam catches the boss’s eye and smirks. Let the reader share her distress as she looks bad in front of the boss, and realises that Adam is laughing, with the boss, at her.

7 Show the bad guy/gal hurt the protagonist.

As they leave the meeting, Liz spots her missing cup – on Adam’s desk. Blazing, she challenges him. How dare you steal my cup. Adam belittles her, says, it’s only a cup. She says, It’s MY cup. He says, then have it – and throws it at her. Surprised, she misses the catch and is grovelling on the floor picking up the pieces when the boss comes by. Adam completes his attack by saying, in loud voice to the boss, ‘PMT, makes her clumsy.’

8 Do you share Liz’s hate for Adam?

And it’s only a coffee cup…… Think what you can do with YOUR Bad Guy/Gal/Antagonist/Villain!


About Helen Johnson

Freelance writer specialising in Yorkshire's history and heritage.

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