30 Days of Tips for Character Development: Meet the Bad Guy

Antagonists toss road blocks in front of our protagonists. They're the most important source of story conflict. Jeanne Veillette Bowerman offers writing exercises to help elevate your antagonists and add more conflict to your stories.
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To read the full series of 30 Days of Tips for Character Development, click here. The post is updated with every new tip so you can keep track of all the character creation advice.

Everyone loves a bad guy. Why wouldn't we? They're complex, sometimes evil, and always a thorn in the side of our protagonists, tossing endless obstacles in their way. Plus, antagonists are just fun to write. 

The biggest mistake writers make is protecting their hero and giving the big, bad antagonist all the fun scenes and depth of character. But, I'll admit, creating those antagonists is fun! 

Just as the protagonist has an outer goal, so does the antagonist. Those goals typically clash, hence adding layers of conflict to your story. Their goal can't just be to stop the protagonist. There must be a reason the antagonist has an opposing goal. They must be steadfast and determined, maybe even more so.

For example, if the protagonist can only accomplish their goal if they face their inner wound, that makes us root for them to push past their fears. Yet, we aren't 100% certain they will. Something has to happen in the story to force them to face their fears. But we must be 100% confident the antagonist will do EVERYTHING IN THEIR POWER to achieve their goal. Everything.

Let's go back to Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal Lecter is not the antagonist. He's the mentor for Clarice. The true antagonist is Buffalo Bill, who murders young women to harvest their skin to make a "woman suit" for himself. At no point in the film do we EVER think he'll just stop pursuing that goal. Then there's Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, who follows his own moral code, albeit a twisted one. He has a concrete, internal reason for killing, and we know nothing will stop him, which only makes him more terrifying.

[Script Extra: Writing Movie Villains We Love to Hate]

But the protagonist and antagonist have more in common than many people realize. The antagonist's wounds often mirror those of the protagonist. Every human has some sort of emotional wound. We all simply make different choices on how we cope. Maybe both of their fathers left them at a young age. One used that pain to become a better father himself. The other, closed off their heart and lashed out at the world.

The combination of a strong and determined antagonist plus a clear inner wound for the protagonist allows for the maximum amount of story conflict. A compelling story will not exist without conflict. 

Screenwriter and professor Michael Tabb wrote a piece for Script, examining when a protagonist is also the antagonist. Even if that's not the type of story you're writing, read the piece. But for the purposes of today's lesson, we're going to stick to the classic protagonist/antagonist relationship.

DAY 9: Understanding the antagonist/protagonist relationship.

Go back to the professional screenplay you read on Day 5. If you missed that lesson and links on how to find a screenplay online, click here. Let's look at the relationship between the antagonist and the protagonist.

What is it about that antagonist that was similar to the main character. At first glance, you might think there's nothing. But keep looking. Try to find the film on a streaming service. Watch it while you have the script in hand, paying close attention to every scene the antagonist appears. Be hypersensitive to those moments the actor gives you a glimpse inside their character's psyche. Maybe it's just a facial expression in one scene that takes you inside their humanity.

Make a list of any similarities and differences. Explore each scene those two characters are together. How do they talk with each other. Do they ever try to understand their opponent or do they both push through, only focusing on their own goals? 

Look at how that professional screenwriter defined the relationship between the antagonist and protagonist. 

DAY 10: Find your antagonist's inner wound.

On Days 6 and 7, you discovered your protagonist's inner wound. Now, use those same lessons to find the wound of your antagonist. Here's the list of questions we asked of our protagonists.

  • How did they feel about their father/mother?
  • Were they raised in a family… adopted, orphaned, or maybe raised by wolves?
  • Describe the people they spent the most time with in childhood, friends and/or siblings. Maybe they didn't have either. That's important to know, too.
  • What was the most unforgettable experience in their life – good or bad?
  • Identify the worst thing someone did to them – bonus points if it was a parent or someone they trusted more than anyone.
  • Do they trust people? If not, why? If so, why?
  • How did that character learn coping skills? Read this post about a therapy session I had, answering that question, it might help.
  • What person had the most impact (positive or negative) on them and why?
  • If they knew no one was listening, how would they describe themselves?
  • What makes them cry? 

Again, don't go easy on them. Your characters have goals, but you do, too. You must make your characters unique, compelling, original and fascinating in their own ways. Every character in a Quentin Tarantino film is original. He didn't just whip them off. He dug deep.

DAY 11: Conflict. The name of the game. 

Story conflict makes Act II hum along. Most second acts drag because the writer hasn't found enough interesting ways to put up road blocks for their heroes. 

Time for a stream-of-consciousness writing sprint. I usually set the timer for 15 minutes because I like that sense of urgency. I can't overanalyze my ideas that way. My mind flows, unobstructed. We're going to do the timer exercise a few times to create two separate lists. Keep resetting the timer until you feel satisfied with the results.

1. Write down anything the antagonist could do to keep the protagonist from achieving their outer goal. If their goal is to rescue someone from captivity, list all the ways a person could stop someone from doing that. Don't worry about details, or even if your idea isn't possible. Write it down! 

2. List all the things the antagonist could do to poke the hornet’s nest of the protagonist and pick at their wound. This list is harder, because it's a psychological game. My favorite kind.

Save these lists. We'll use them in the outlining phase later. Or we won't. You may simply use them now as a way to learn more about your characters. Remember, nothing in the character development stages is written in stone or is wrong. Exploration brings knowledge. Everything may change as you get to know your characters better when you write the first draft. But the more you explore them in the early stages, the more you might realize how much you still don't know about them. And, once they open their mouths with dialogue, they might shock you with what comes out. 

Discovering our characters as we write is like a drug to writers. Those ah-ha moments that keep us coming back to the keyboard. Don't rush them. Enjoy the process of discovery.

Next up: Naming Your Characters

Read the full list of exercises of 30 Days of Tips for Developing Characters.

More articles by Jeanne Veillette Bowerman

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Essentials of Having a Complex Antagonist