A protagonist and his/her story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.
Ooh, everyone loves a villain.
Voldemort, Jadis, Miss Trunchbull.
They come alive in children’s books and stay with us until we’re old and grey.
Well, the good ones do anyway.
But what makes an antagonist memorable? What makes them stay with us long after we’ve closed the book? How can we, as children’s writers, do them justice?
10 Ways to Create a Powerful Antagonist
While there is no magic formula to create a great antagonist, there are certain things you must include when creating yours. Without one, there is no story. Your antagonist is as important as your protagonist, so let’s look at the features you must include.
1. Opposition and Obstacles
Antagonists oppose your protagonist. They provide the obstacles that stop your main character (MC) from reaching their goal. Their main job is to literally antagonise your MC.
As the story moves forward, the obstacles and opposition become more challenging as the antagonist must throw down the gauntlett and see how your MC responds.
The obstacles become so tough that your protagonist is forced to wonder whether they’ll ever succeed and achieve their goal. Do they actually have what it takes?
Conflict lies at the heart of every story. It pushes the plot forward and forces your characters to change and to grow. Without it, there is no action and your reader will put your book down straight away. Conflict with an antagonist keeps the pace up and keeps those pages turning.
Children understand conflict. They face it every day in the form of arguments amongst friends or with siblings, at school and at home. If you’ve ever been in a nursery classroom and watched children try to ‘share’ the toys, you’ll know what I mean.
As writers then, we don’t need to shy away from it. We just need to handle it carefully and handle it well.
Obstacles and conflict don’t always come from the main antagonist/villain either. Sometimes it’s an ally that provides the opposition for a few scenes, e.g. Hermione Granger with Harry Potter.
3. Exploit Weaknesses
Antagonists love to exploit and use a protagonist’s weaknesses. Why? Because it makes them feel powerful and makes the hero feel useless. Quite often the villain will have qualities that your main character wants, e.g. confidence, family, wealth etc… This only adds insult to injury.
It does, in turn, give the protagonist a greater resolve to achieve their goal and end the conflict once and for all.
4. Provide Choices
“It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
If an antagonist provides the obstacles and the opposition, your protagonist is forced to make choices. Sometimes it is the hardest choice they’ll ever have to make.
By making these choices, the reader gets to see who and what the protagonist really cares about, particularly when they’re under pressure.
And who puts the pressure on? Who makes your hero decide on the seemingly impossible? You’re antagonist of course!
Choices reveal our main character’s true nature and their hero qualities. Thus making the reader love them even more.
5. Cat and Mouse
Being one step ahead of your protagonist is a game for your antagonist. It’s a bit like cat and mouse. Throughout the story, your villain always seems to know something your hero doesn’t or is able to get to a solution quicker than your hero can.
It’s this game that causes your protagonist to doubt their abilities and wonder how they’re ever going to win.
However, The Final Showdown happens when your hero has caught up with the antagonist and is able to play him at his own game.
It is common in children’s books for the antagonist and the protagonist to have the same goal. They both want the same thing but for very different reasons.
This is the reason conflict develops. This is the reason that you’re antagonist tries everything in their power to thwart your hero.
By competing for the same goal, your characters are in direct conflict over and over again and that keeps the readers captivated. They want to know how it’s all going to end. Which one of them is going to reach the goal first?
Just for a moment, your hero will look as though he’s going to lose and it will break your reader’s hearts. That’s the power of a shared goal.
7. Perfection doesn’t exist
As tempting as it is to make your villain as undefeatable as possible, you have to remember that they need weaknesses too.
They cannot be undefeatable. Ultimately it is their weaknesses that cause their downfall at the end during The Final Showdown. The tables have turned and the protagonist is able to exploit the villain’s weaknesses to end the conflict and achieve their goal.
Think back to your favourite villains from children’s literature. What weaknesses did they have? How did those weaknesses contribute to their downfall and defeat in the end?
Human antagonists feature a lot in children’s literature, but that’s not to say you can’t have villains in other forms.
Animal antagonists such as Shere Khan from the Jungle Book and the title character of The Enormous Crocodile from Roald Dahl’s classic show just how well this form of antagonism can be done.
Your hero may face an organisation, e.g. The Capitol in The Hunger Games or a natural disaster such as an avalanche, that stops them from reaching their goal.
Whatever or whoever your antagonist is, they must cause as many difficulties as possible for your hero.
You can also choose to have more than one antagonist, just as Roald Dahl does with the three farmers in Fantastic Mr Fox.
9. Looks and Personality
Your antagonist can look as ugly on the outside as they are on the inside. Some authors have done this extremely well, e.g. The Grand High Witch in The Witches by Roald Dahl. If you make their outer appearance match their personality, it will stay long in the memory of your reader.
You might, however, choose a more subtle antagonist. From the outside, Delores Umbridge looks like a sweet lady who wears pink and loves cats. On the inside, however, she is one of the worst villains in children’s literature. A little like Mrs Coulter in Northern Lights.
Sometimes their names sound terrible too, e.g. Miss Trunchbull or Lord Voldemort.
It’s your choice, but whatever you choose, you need to create a vivid image of your antagonist for your reader to relish.
10. Make Them Memorable
A challenge for all of us, I think you’ll agree.
But we owe it to our readers to provide them with antagonists that they’ll never forget. Antagonists that follow them into adulthood and are then shared with the next generation.
They become the stuff of legend.
Whatever awful things your antagonist does, make them worse. However hideous they look, make them uglier.
Your readers need to suspend disbelief and a powerful antagonist can help them do just that.
It’s our job as children’s writers to create characters children love. It is also our job to create characters they love to hate. Sometimes this is the most fun part of the job.
Don’t underestimate the power and the influence of a great antagonist.
Just make sure they get their just desserts.
When researching this blog post and video, I found the following articles and video that you might find helpful too. The YouTube video is fantastic and I thoroughly encourage you to take a peek.
- The Four Main Types of Epic Antagonists via Well-Storied.
- The 10 Worst Villains in Children’s Books of All Time via The Telegraph
- Female Heroes and Villains Outnumber Males via World Book Day
Who is your favourite antagonist in children’s literature? Why? What other qualities do you think they need to become memorable? Leave your comments below – I’d love to hear from you.