Years ago when I began to study fiction, I heard the admonition to make all characters, even the antagonist realistic. Good advice, certainly, as far as it went. The problem was that the suggestions to make this pivotal character seem real sometimes backfired.
Let me explain.
The almost universal advice was to give the antagonist both good and bad qualities since people in real life are mixed bags. The secondary answer was to write in the antagonist’s point of view on occasion.
Of course that’s an option and many writers choose to do so, but I found in the books with chapters written from the opponent’s perspective, especially when those chapters revealed the antagonist’s tender side or the horrific circumstances that explained his evil, I didn’t care quite as much whether or not the hero won.
Was showing the good as well as the bad the only way to make an antagonist realistic? I’m afraid I stand against the tide of popular opinion on this one and say, No.
I arrived at this position in part because I write fantasy, and there are some unlovely characters in fantasy. If you’ve read The Hobbit, picture a goblin and see if you can recall a good trait. I may be forgetting something, but I can’t bring one to mind, and yet I had no problem believing Tolkien’s goblins. They were a serious and believable threat to Bilbo.
There are other examples in fantasy literature, so I have to conclude, if fantasy writers can make these darkly evil characters seem real and believable, then putting good qualities into the antagonist isn’t necessary for other writers either.
But what does make the antagonist seem real? Primarily, I believe it is motivation. The antagonist must want something logical, something that fits with his circumstances and character.
Golum, for example, in The Hobbit and in Lord of the Rings wants the ring Bilbo found because it had been his. He’d had it for years, and it was his precious. This desire was perfectly believable in the beginning, and as it developed in the trilogy became even more understandable.
If, however, Golum, who had been living away from people, deep in the goblin tunnels, wanted to kill Bilbo and take over his special home in Hobbition, the desire would not have fit the character or the circumstances. It would have been an unmotivated desire and therefore unbelievable.
The antagonist’s motivation, then, is the key, and his desire is the engine.
One writing professional, John Truby, author of The Anatomy of Story, says this about the antagonist, or opponent:
The opponent is the character who most wants to keep the hero from achieving his desire. The opponent should not merely be a block to the hero. That is mechanical.
Remember, the opponent should want the same thing as the hero. That means that the hero and the opponent must come into direct conflict throughout the story…
The relationship between the hero and the opponent is the single most important relationship in the story.
Mr. Truby goes on to say that the opponent does not need to be someone the hero hates. In fact he or she can be a friend, co-worker, spouse, brother. He can even be nicer or more moral, but in the end he needs to stand against the hero.
They both can’t get what they want. It is through this struggle, that the hero grows. But that also is a side issue to the central point — by giving the antagonist an important place in the story and setting him up with desires that collide with the hero’s desires, this character will become realistic and believable.
For a companion article on this topic, see “Develop Your Antagonist.”