Storytelling 101 states that an interesting story needs a good conflict. Great stories and great characters are defined by their struggles. This can come from a social issue or a force of nature (or something both powerful and mindless enough to essentially count as one), but the more versatile (and tricker) option is to bring in an antagonist. This week I’m going to ramble on about what I think makes for a good one, and while we’re at it we might as well make a few. They’ll be designed with tabletop RPGs in mind, but you could likely fit them into a novel just as easily.
Let’s tinker up five antagonists today. Different genres, different purposes, nice and diverse so we’ll have a lot of different parts to work with.
One will be a wizard, a classic archetypical fantasy villain.
One will be the leader of a band of modern-day insurgents, well-suited to be the focus of a peacekeeper squad.
One will be a sci-fi fleet commander, leading the war effort against the protagonists.
One will be a supercriminal, a good foil for a team of crimefighters.
One will be a legendary warrior, a straight up martial challenge.
Motivation is a big part of what gives an antagonist depth. Thankfully, few people get up in the morning and think ‘how can I be more evil today’. Your antagonist needs something to bring them into conflict with the protagonist to make them struggle for what they want. For some this may be a direct and specific desire to ruin the protagonist’s day. For others they may have a particular goal or certain methods that the protagonists just can’t abide.
The wizard wants power. If only I had more power, he thinks, I could fix everything. Haven’t we all thought the same at some point? From his point of view it seems like the neighboring kingdoms can barely go a whole month without going to war over some percieved injustice or bit of dishonorable conduct. Someone with enough power could force them to stop fighting and listen to reason. If that reason just happens to come from an all-powerful dictator, well, maybe that’s just how it’ll have to be.
The insurgent wants to remove what she sees as an unlawfully occupying military force. Some of the locals might be ready to just roll over and say the war is done but she won’t stand for it. You don’t just give up on your homeland. You do what your have to do so your people can live free, no matter the cost.
The commander wants to secure his government’s foothold in this sector. He’s a career soldier who believes in serving his nation. All those resources that make a utopian lifestyle possible for loyal citizens (such as his family) have to come from somewhere. Wiser planets have in the past agreed to acccept his government’s authority and reap the benefits peacefully. If they didn’t want to come willingly, well, that’s where his fleet came in.
The supercriminal wants to get rich. Robbing banks, stealing priceless artifacts, the whole nine yards. Way better pay than working 9-5, and more exciting to boot. Sure he might have to go on the run now and then, but that’s a small price to pay to have the money to do whatever whenever.
The warrior wants a good fight. The who and the why are unimportant so long as he finds the thrill of combat, testing himself against the strongest opponents and riding the razor’s edge. Soldiers, mercenaries, adventurers, anyone who can give him a good challenge.
So we know why they do what they do. What, then, do they do? This too is an important layer on which to divide the well thought out competition from the saturday morning cartoon villain. Remember, an antagonist doesn’t necessarily need to be evil; he just needs to make the protagonist struggle for his goals. Sometimes that goal might be ‘make the antagonist stop trying to reach his goals’.
The wizard will need a lot of power if he’s gonna take over the world. Best to start small and conquer some lesser towns first out on the outskirts, lest he get the king’s army on his doorstep too soon. Plus with a good bunch of minions under his command he can round up assorted magic items to increase his power for the eventual siezing of the throne.
The insurgent wants to come out of this with a clear conscience, though she accepts that this may not be possible. The way she sees it enemy soldiers are still enemy soldiers. A little assassination here, a little bombing there, and she and her compatriots will do whatever they have to in order to drive out the invaders. Hopefully they won’t have to deal with collaborators, but she’ll do what she has to do.
The commander prefers swift use of maximum appropriate force. It might not make him many friends among the locals but breaking up any potential resistance early means no long drawn out bloody conflict later. History might paint him as a villain but the future would be more prosperous for his actions.
The supercriminal sees himself as beyond the petty antics of lesser crooks. He carries a gun, but he uses it as more of a social contract than as a weapon. He also only robs from the rich, though that’s more a practical than ethical matter; the poor don’t have giant money vaults and million-dollar artifacts to pilfer.
The warrior does whatever will get him into the next good fight. Usually there’s a good war on somewhere, but if there isn’t one handy he might go start a few. If all else fails he might even just go knock over some caravans. That’ll get someone’s attention.
Now that we have a motive and means we need an opportunity. How does the protagonist get mixed up in the antagonist’s business? If you antagonist has a direct vendetta against the protagonist then the answer is obvious; Bob wants to ruin Frank’s day. For others you’ll need to find where the paths of protagonist and antagonist cross.
The wizard’s presence may first be felt in his organization of wandering monsters into organized camps and raiding parties. It may be several encounters before the party even knows the wizard is behind it all, and from there they’ll no doubt have to find out the location and defenses of his tower so they can try to take him down. A race for magical macguffins that can enhance and/or seal away his power are also reliable tropes.
The insurgent is likely to be fighting to displace the army the players are supporting, and may even be the soldiers targeted by her efforts. The party may first hear of some malfunctions and mysterious disappearances if she wants to keep things quiet, or she might go straight in and make the message loud and clear that the war is still on.
The commander is the easiest one to pit against the party if they’re remotely connected to the military; he’s commanding the soldiers opposing the party. They could be natives of the sector he wants to conquer, or perhaps an allied military force called in to help stop him. Either way, wherever the commander establishes a foothold the party will need to go in and uproot him.
The supercriminal, if he’s as smart as he thinks he is, would plan his crimes according to local resistance. If he’s aware of the party he may plot some crimes in the areas they patrol to put them on his trail for the added thrill of escaping them. If he’s the more subtle type you could give the party a longer investigation, putting together clues to figure out the supercriminal’s identity and next heist.
The warrior could just walk right up and pick a fight with the party, but this can make things a bit too open and shut if it’s a fair fight. You might have him first appear when he’s far too powerful for them, thrashing the group and leaving them alive so they’ll train up and come back later to give him a proper battle. If they’re already strong enough for him and he just needs to get their attention he might go harassing travellers to lure them out to a location of his choosing for a good fight.
So that’s framework done for five easy antagonists, ready to be garnished with personality traits and served up your next game night. A well designed antagonist makes the story shine all the more as the conflict deepens, letting the reader or players know what’s at stake and why. Just don’t forget to make good quality protagonists as well…
(I forget where I found this. Some old Star Wars webcomic back when Jedi Knight was big. I think the title was something about a Mynock? Like Drunken Mynock or Wandering Mynock or something. At any rate, it amuses me.)