I was reviewing my first draft and realized:

I need a better antagonist.

I have a flat, unspecified, weak organization with a stereotypically evil guy who are absolutely easy to defeat. I need an antagonist whom I love to hate (i.e., you'd rip him/her apart with your bare hands) and at the same time hate to love – a tragic, motivated character who has their own, plausible, honest/well-intentioned motives and reasons. A character who makes your heart ache while making you angry.


  • A separate antagonist and protagonist (they can't be the same character)
  • I'm willing to change the (evil) organization the antagonist belongs to and the (good) organization the protagonist belongs to
  • I'm willing to change the protagonist (but not the side characters.)

How can I develop an antagonist that fits these requirements?

  • 3
    Have you already applied the advice that the villain is the hero in his own world view? Given him a moment or two to expound on why his view is correct?
    – SFWriter
    Commented May 6, 2018 at 1:35
  • What's your question? I don't see a single question mark in your post, let alone an actual question. Could you please Edit your question to indicate what your actual question is? See how do I ask a good question? in the Help center, perhaps especially the point on being specific.
    – user
    Commented May 6, 2018 at 12:18
  • @MichaelKjörling: Ooops. I can't believe I forgot to add the question. Sorry about that. Just edited. Commented May 6, 2018 at 14:02
  • 1
    You seem to be saying you find nothing useful in what you already have, bar the secondary characters. That’s nots an impossible starting point if you were Ian Fleming or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, unhappy with first drafts of Bond or Holmes how could you possibly build future versions around Moneypenny or even Watson? Keep a place for them, but are they the point, or not? What could “I’m willing to change the protagonist (but not the side characters.)” really mean, other than “I got it wrong and now I’m quite sure I should be trying something different? Commented May 6, 2018 at 14:22

5 Answers 5


To create a plot, you have to ask three questions of your protagonist:

  1. What does the protagonist want?
  2. What is stopping the person from getting it?
  3. What will the person to do achieve his/her goal?

If you know what your protagonist wants, then your antagonist should be the obstacle to getting it.

Conversely, what does your antagonist want? How is the protagonist stopping him/her from getting it?

If you write your antagonist as having just as much stake and depth and desire for his/her goal as your protagonist, you have a much better chance of having a "sympathetic" villain.

For example, in Black Panther, the main antagonist is Erik Killmonger. Origin:

Erik is T'Challa's first cousin, who was abandoned in Oakland, California when T'Challa's father T'Chaka killed his own brother for betraying Wakanda and left behind his nephew, Erik, to survive alone.

Erik thinks that Wakanda should use its technology to help other people; specifically

he wants to arm black people and anyone of African descent who is living in poverty and subjugation around the world, so they can overthrow their oppressors and rule the world themselves.

But T'Challa has been taught that Wakanda needs to keep its tech secret from the world.

Erik's backstory gives his desire tremendous resonance and poignance. He's not wrong, despite the methods he uses to achieve his goal. He is one of the best antagonists in the MCU, because there is a lot of merit to his argument. If you want "someone who makes your heart ache while making you angry," there's your perfect example.

  • Thanos in the Infinity War is also a good example. What he wants to do is monstrous, but once you know his history then his motivations and character make a lot of sense. And the fact that he wants to find an efficient and humane way to do it and avoid suffering is something, even if there could be better ways to solve the problem.
    – AndyD273
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 15:23
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    @AndyD273 In the movies, at least, there's not enough about Thanos's background to "make your heart ache." He isn't lovable; he's a shortsighted genocidal jackass who latched onto ONE solution and refused to consider anything else, and thinks quick random slaughter is mercy for which the survivors should be grateful. His motivations may not be malevolent, but that doesn't make him a "hate to love" character. I don't know his comic arc. Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 16:08
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    Hmm, perhaps. I guess I think he makes sense, and the bit with Gamora gives him a bit more depth. Doesn't make him less of a jackass though. You are right that he was too focused on a single solution without looking for alternate solutions, but for that matter so was Killmonger. Given the amazing technology that he had available for the period he was king, was starting a race war the best plan? A lot of people including those of african descent would die, and if/when the attack was stopped the backlash would make the apartheid look like a weekend in the Hamptons.
    – AndyD273
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 17:55
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    It's not that either of them are wrong, they are just both focused on a goal, with a lot of baggage driving them forward, and with blinders keeping them from seeing other paths. But I also don't know if Thanos fits the love to hate, hate to love thing either, which of course means my whole point is wrong. I guess I mostly mean that he's given enough depth that I believe that he thinks he's right, and is logical enough that if it didn't come at such a high cost it might be worth following through with.
    – AndyD273
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 18:03
  • 1
    @AndyD273 Oh, I agree that Thanos has depth, and that his background makes his motivations understandable. There is a logic, however twisted, to his actions. It's just that his plan is utterly immoral. Killmonger's plan will also cause a lot of civilian deaths, but it's starting much closer to "self-defense" than Thanos's. Erik's point is valid enough that T'Challa and Nakia end up enacting some of it (sans the violence). Nobody is volunteering to jump on Thanos's grenade. Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 9:51

The problem you face is common for authors who identify with their protagonist. You look at your story from the eyes of your main character, and everyone else is just defined in relation to the protagonist's needs. If this were the real world, we would say that you objectify the other characters. You don't consider them indepentend thinking subjects, but merely tools for the story of your hero.

As an author, what you need to do is take on the perspective of each of your characters. No matter how small the role of a character is and how little screen time they get, for that short moment you have to stop looking at them from the hero's perspective and write their part of the story from theirs.

As others have mentioned, what you need to do now is develop your antagonist. And as he's the antagonist, you have to develop him to the same extent that you develop your protagonist – they have to be on equal terms for their conflict to be engaging, and they can only be that if you flesh them out equally.


Love to Hate:

To love to hate a villain, the villain must be clever, must outsmart the protagonist, and must usually (nearly always) win. They must be competent and difficult to defeat.

The audience must fear what the villain does next, not so much in terms of violence but the audience must think the villain will probably succeed at what he does next.

Hate to Love:

You must make your villain something that is not pure evil, but more like mentally disturbed into believing that what she is doing is done not for greed or wealth or even power, but for the good of others.

An anarchist may truly believe, for example, that big government is always and irrevocably and inevitably corrupt, and can show their proof of it, and is therefore the enemy of mankind to be destroyed. Sure, innocent lives are lost as in any war to save mankind: How many women, children and infants were lost in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? In the carpet bombing of Berlin and London?

An aspiring world-dictator might truly believe they know how to run the government for the betterment of the people, to make them happier, more free, and better off. After all, didn't the Founding Fathers of the USA think the same, and succeed, in winning independence from England? Didn't the leaders of the French Revolution do the same? Every happy monarchy in the Netherlands, consistently shown to have the happiest citizens on Earth, began with a conquering King. A dictator!

Many great villains are just greedy, ruthless psychopaths, but they are great villains because they (almost) never make a mistake. They may have setbacks but overcome them. They are hard to beat and the hero fails to beat them, time and again. They stay a step ahead.

For the "Hate to Love" variety, you can love a villain out of sympathy, pity for the undeserved events that broke them and made them who they are, and because they are sincere in their desire to change the world for the better. But the things they do in that pursuit are horrific, intentionally killing innocents, torturing the guilty, literally waging a war in which objectives outweigh any sense of morality and no price is too high for victory.

We can certainly recognize their mindset, with reference to actual wars; In WWII there are 15 million military deaths but 45 million civilian deaths; three times as many and tens of millions of non-combatants killed on both sides.

Did the ends (victory for the Allies in WWII) justify the means (wanton killing of innocent men, women and children born in dictatorial countries)?

Again, most of us believe winning WWII was worth the price, and if we admit that, can understand the villain even if we are repulsed by their brutality.

Now the villain does not require a grand cause like that. To make one up, say my villain is out to assassinate a single corrupt billionaire, a smart psychopathic CEO, for example. My villain's inciting incident is the death of his wife and only daughter, killed by pollution leak. The CEO is responsible, our villain has gone a bit crazy but he is right, and one way or another he is going to get to this well-protected CEO that put his profits above the lives of his wife and daughter and hundreds of others, and will again. No matter how many protectors and enablers he has to kill on the way, if he has to kill innocents he will because this is war and the CEO is the great threat and must be stopped, by stopping him he will save thousands of lives, perhaps millions because his investigations show this CEO is actively bribing politicians to pass legislation that will let him do even more harm.

Our hero? The ethical cop leading the team to try and stop him, but they keep getting outsmarted. (Hey, wait, I'm not even sure who should win.)

Back to the general case: To accomplish this (and it is not necessary for a great villain), your villain must not enjoy the killing of innocents or torturing of his enemy for information. (That kind of angry celebration/relief at a victory is fine, of course.) His goals must be pure and, in his twisted way, non-selfish. The audience can know in their heart he is both a sincere believer and wrong. Or that he aims to right a wrong no matter what the cost.


The villains I like best are the ones that are most memorable. Hannibal Lecter (from the movies) because he was the first villain I met that had a known moral code even if it was twisted. The Joker from the Dark Knight Trilogy because his anarchist crazy was so well portrayed by the actor. Luke from the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series because he had real motives and real flaws that we got to see. Moist Von Lipwig of the Discworld books because he is as much his own foil as the Patrician and circumstances are.

The ones that I don't like are those that don't stand out. They aren't interesting in any way and their motives tend to be boring. Voldemort just feared death and needed to stroke his ego, so he murdered untold many. (I liked it when Dumbledore and Grinwald talked of world domination for the good of muggles even though that path to power would have been almost identical to Voldy's.) Sauron and Sauromon from Lord of the Rings just wanted power, they had no other motives so far as I saw and were unlikable. (Don't confuse unlikable with unsympathetic).

Make your villain as round as your hero. As human in his own way. Give them flaws and foibles. An interesting affectation or mannerism. That will do what you need.


The best advice I've ever received on writing tragic/well-intentioned villains was in an online Q&A with a fantasy author. I don't recall her exact words but in essence she said to find seemingly reasonable things your villain wants, like what you have in common with your villain. Find the things you would want in their shoes.

For example, maybe your villain is a conniving aristocrat who wants more wealth. You'd love to be rich too, right? Most people would. Now from that, she said, find the moral line you would not cross to get there. To be wealthy, would you lie to someone? Probably. Step over a stranger? Maybe. Hurt a friend? Hmm, don't think so. Kill someone? No - there - or wherever on your scale you stop, that is the line the antagonist must cross.

But, by building up relatable wants and goals and decisions along the way, the antagonist becomes more likable even though readers know their means to the end are so wrong. It is kind of frustrating, if readers understand how they feel to a point, but also understand that they went too far. This strategy obviously doesn't work for every villain situation but it's one way to make them more plausible I think.

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