A Story is Only as Good as its Villains: A Guide to Making Convincing Antagonists

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  1. A Story is Only as Good as its Villains: A Guide to Making Convincing Antagonists

    **For the duration of this article, I will be using the words “villain” and “antagonist”. Most of what I am discussing applies to both equally. For those who might not know, villain and antagonist are not necessarily the same thing. While “villain” implies evil or at least opposition to good, an antagonist merely opposes the main characters, or protagonists, whether directly or indirectly. This means it is possible to have a good aligned antagonist, especially if the main characters are evil. Think pirate stories. **

    I enjoy adventure stories. I love seeing heroes overcome obstacles, princesses win their loves, and good triumphing over evil time and again. For the longest time, I couldn't figure out why some stories and movies just fell flat. The heroes were well written, wonderful, and easy to like in some cases. The story was fast paced, the songs (when there were songs) were moving. So why did some tales miss the mark?

    It was years before I discovered the answer. Almost every adventure movie I love has one thing in common: a well written antagonist. This can mean they are fun, relatable, hate-able, or just have a good backstory of their own. Unfortunately, a flat or unmotivated villain often diminishes enjoyment of an otherwise wonderful story.

    Now, I'm not saying that every disposable minion with a dagger and an eyepatch needs to have a fully developed history (though it is good to have a few spare backstories in mind or be able to spin one on the fly, just in case someone is brought to the side of good), but any villain with a decent amount of face time needs to at least be convincing.

    At the same time, the story should never start to center around the antagonist. There is a careful balance, but you do not want your players to feel that they are being outshone by the “bad guy”, especially in an RP situation. Yes, the big bad should be tough, perhaps even tougher than your heroes at first. However, they should not be unstoppable, and should leave the spotlight hogging to a minimum. (There are exceptions to the unbeatable villain. Old serials are full of these. One example is Doctor Zin from Jonny Quest, who appeared to die several times but always showed up again later. Even in such cases, though, the heroes were usually able to save the day. If they weren't, it just meant there would be a cliffhanger or another installment.)

    With this information in mind, here are some guidelines for creating a convincing and enjoyable antagonist for your RP. You do not have to follow any or all of these suggestions, but I hope that they at least get you thinking about how nemeses enhance an adventure story.

    Know your genre's villain types and stereotypes. (And, additionally, know if you want to break the mold.)
    Most genres have certain types of villains and heroes, many of which are stereotyped. Take a moment to research and see the different sorts that appear often. From there, you can decide if you want to use a stereotypical antagonist, a typical antagonist with your own twist, or create something completely different. This information is important, because when you start to show a certain type to your players, they will react accordingly if they recognize the type. If the concept is muddled, you will have confused players. If the concept is twisted on purpose, this may be just what you want. However, if you are trying to play true to genre, you want players (not necessarily characters) to understand what you are going for. In contrast, if you are playing a completely innovative antagonist, you may be striving to create a sense of discomfort and a lack of solid ground for your players. This is a tactic often used when mixing the horror or mystery genre with your chosen genre, but sometimes is just done for fun.

    Have motivation for your arch antagonist.

    Motivation is often taken into account for player characters, but just as often forgotten for NPCs, especially antagonists. It isn't necessarily completely neglected, but is often underdeveloped or slightly campy. Your arch antagonist should have a good reason (at least in their mind) for doing what they are doing, be it greed, fear, lust, or mental illness that drives them. In addition, this reason should mesh with their emotional state. A sane villain is not going to go on a murderous rampage for the hell of it, and at the same time, an upstanding cop is not going to sell out his partner over a minor threat. However, a greedy pirate is very likely to betray an ally not of his crew, and that same upstanding cop mentioned before may sell out to a large threat of direct violence to his family. So, know their motivation, the degree of motivation, and how much that would have to diminish to stop them from continuing down their path. Would a larger offer of payment from the Player Characters be enough to buy your pirate off? Or would he take the money and doublecross them? Would a supposed ally killing the sane man's child be enough to drive him over the edge? Questions like these are important in establishing and testing the degree of motivation.

    Know recurring NPC's backstories.
    Once you have motivation, chances are you have part of the antagonist's background story. If you wish, you can develop this further, giving them a history. This will make reactions more realistic and deepen their motivation. Perhaps the pirate is greedy because he never had enough to eat as a child, or because she was spoiled and didn't like the prospect of being tied down in marriage. Perhaps the cop is upstanding because he was raised by a conservative, law abiding family. Once you have a backstory, you can recognize when the players are applying a pressure that might change your antagonist's thoughts or exacerbate a situation.
    (NOTE: some one time characters may actually become recurring characters. If your minor NPC shows up in more than four scenes, he isn't minor anymore and probably needs some fleshing out.)

    Make a short character profile for your antagonist.
    Sometimes making a character sheet or profile for your character is an absolute necessity. If you have a recurring arch antagonist, it becomes doubly so, but even minor recurring NPCs should have a few questions answered. Here is a short form of things you should know about anyone who is going to be going up against your players. Feel free to expand on this.

    Name: (Your NPC's name)
    Alias: (Any alias, or what the PCs might call him)
    Strengths: (What the NPC is good at.)
    Weaknesses: (What the NPC is bad at.)
    Encouragers: (These make your NPC stronger, faster, better, smarter.)
    Banes: (These weaken the NPC or otherwise diminish his strengths or play on his weaknesses.)
    Resources: (Money, fame, secret hideouts, weapons, minions, potions, artifacts, vehicles, etc.)

    Stick to a personality.
    One of the things almost all storytellers struggle with is keeping an antagonist true to personality. Make sure you have a solid idea of what you want your bad guy to be like and don't deviate from it unless they are undergoing a well thought personality shift. The reason this is so difficult is because it often seems to either give the players a major advantage or make things too hard for them. Instead of giving in to the urge to nerf, alter, or buff up your villain, find other ways to distract, trick, or aid your players. And if they win easily? Good for them. You will just have to try harder next time.

    Playtest your antagonist
    Do you find that playtesting your player character or a character you might write about helps you get into their headspace? Guess what? There's nothing wrong with doing the same for an antagonist. Get a friend, preferably one who won't be playing a PC in your game, to run you through a short session. Get a feel for how the antagonist reacts, what actions they take. Remember, practice sessions don't have lasting effects, so feel free to ask for whatever tests you need. If you don't have anyone to run you through a scene, writing a few drabbles or short stories may help. If you don't find that fun, try writing a handful of entries from your antagonist's diary or blog.

    The ideas above should help you make an antagonist who will enrich the story all around. If you want to spice the character up even more, here are a few closing suggestions to add just a bit of fun:

    -Give the character a partner who may betray them.
    -Make a story twist that impacts the antagonist as much as the players.
    -Give your antagonist a present, such as having them accidentally find a powerful artifact or one of the players' relative's secret government files.
    -Let your character have a moment's introspection, only to dismiss it and reaffirm their path in life.

    On a final note, remember that an arch antagonist should have some flexibility. While they should have a defined personality, allowing them to slowly grow and change just like a player character is often important. And remember, have fun, encourage your players to have fun, and happy RPing!
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  2. Very detailed and good suggestions. It is very important to know your villain/antagonist before you can know, in full, your own hero/protagonist.
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