The secret to a great antagonist – character backstory – writing

You don’t really understand an antagonist until you understand why he’s a protagonist in his own version of the world ~ John Rogers

Everyone, good or bad, acts within the bounds of their personal belief system. Understanding that our antagonist sees his or her actions as justified, or even reasonable is a fascinating insight to have. Do they act to survive, be it financial or physical survival? Do they not know any better? secret

Character backstory is a vital collection of information we use to make decisions on how our characters act, and more importantly why. When we create a strong connection between our antagonist’s actions and their backstory we create a strong and believable antagonist.

When we write it is natural for the focus to be on the protagonist—it is their story after all. But I think the antagonist and their life journey is just as essential to producing a great book, and a believable source of conflict.

Few people are quintessentially bad; some are, but not many. Others are an eclectic mix of motivations that can drive them to risk their life to save an abused dog, only to stab a human victim without any seeming remorse.

Many are driven into the role through circumstance, situation, or the cards that they have been dealt. Perhaps they are hardened to cope with a hard world, unloved, or miss-understood. Perhaps they don’t know anything else.

Whatever wicked or cruel things we intend our antagonist to do, we should consider how it fits within their belief system. This belief system is established by their life journey and the events that can happen either before or during the book.

A childhood trauma:

  • Cruel parents
  • No parents
  • Violent neighborhood
  • Other abuse

It could be a survival instinct:

  • If there is only food for one
  • The last seat in the escape pod
  • The last shot of antidote

end of the world

It could be something physical:

  • A blow to the head that changes their personality
  • Drugs, alcohol and other addictions
  • A disease that wracks their body with pain and drives them mad
  • A deteriorating mental condition that is not noticed or goes untreated
  • A mental disorder such as psychopaths, sociopaths.

A traumatic event:

  • War
  • Famine, and other natural disasters
  • The loss of a loved one through violence or even through natural causes
  • Betrayal

natural disaster

Faith, religious or otherwise:

  • Event causing them to lose faith
  • Events causing them to gain faith
  • Losing faith in an important role model such as father-figure, priest, teacher, best friend
  • Faith in the wrong kind of mentor, such as organized crime
  • Faith in what seems like the right kind of mentor but who is underhand or misleading

Culture and Society

These can be considered whether in the modern world, historical fiction, or futuristic fiction. Anywhere cultures, worlds, or people collide the common belief of what is right or wrong could prove very different.

  • Societal: what may seem cruel now may have been considered normal and commonplace a hundred years ago
  • Cultural: corporal punishment for stealing is considered cruel in some cultures and normal in others.

You can also combine the causes.

  • For example not every psychopath is a killer—it’s a well known fact that many excel in the corporate world where their personality style allows them to make cold calculating decisions without any apparent remorse—and excellent antagonist material already. However, a psychopath who was abused as a child is much more likely to go on to become a killer.
  • What about a man who suffered childhood abuse, and then loses his beloved grandmother who was the only person keeping him on the straight.

Asking yourself why your antagonist is doing what he or she is doing—taking the time to really get inside their sullied head—will add depth to your story and create a believable backdrop for your hero to excel.

Another interesting consideration is that many of these life challenges can also provide a test for our protagonist, and overcoming them is what makes them so great.

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8 thoughts on “The secret to a great antagonist – character backstory – writing

  1. I think writing a believable antagonist is a real skill and it takes such work to make sure that your ‘baddie’ isn’t just a one-dimensional, bad-for-the-sake-of-it baddie. I had this problem with my current WIP and after talking it over with some friends, realised that doing the wrong things but for reasons which seemed justified and right to the antagonist made her a much deeper character, and also offered up an alternative to the protagonist — it offered up a different perspective, so that the reader can see that the hero’s way is not all sunshine and perfection. That the hero has flaws too.

    Great post 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, and really great points you make here. I think when you start a book it is only natural to focus on the protagonist, and the antagonist is just the person who makes their life hard. I have written my book from multiple POV and I actually love getting into my antagonist. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent post, Georgina. It’s actually not that hard to give a baddie depth with your list and it makes for a much deeper and interesting character. I just read a book that started with pages and pages of backstory about the bad guy. I think it’s helpful to point out that a book doesn’t need the backstory explained. What’s most important is that the author (and character) knows it. That knowledge will come through in the writing. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very true. Look at Inspector Javert. He clearly thinks he’s the hero of the story, and Valjean the cowardly villain, and then he can’t deal with the reality when he has to face it.

    “Few people are quintessentially bad; some are, but not many.”

    And those who are aren’t all that interesting to read about. 🙂

    Also, there are moral judgements (hero, villain, good guy, baddie) and storytelling conventions (protagonist, antagonist) and they’re not the same thing. The movie Prometheus is a good example, since it’s basically Moby Dick retold with Ahab as the protagonist. Being the protagonist doesn’t make you a hero.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nicely put Anthony 🙂 that fuzzy line is what makes it so interesting. I like your comment about the protagonist actually thinking himself a hero. So powerful in a story. My protagonist definitely doesn’t think he’s a hero, but he does feel very justified in what he does.

      Like

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