I've heard that a mistake that people often make is that they put 100% of their effort in building a character that they like and based on their own world views and philosophies and then end up writing an antagonist who is weak, one-dimensional and clearly evil.

Is this really a problem? Because you could say that Sauron is a weak, one-dimensional and clearly evil character to the point he's somewhat of a caricature of a character, and yet LOTR is considered a masterpiece. When is it ok to not write a strong antagonist with a strong belief, strong and who is not clearly evil?

  • 1
    great question! Jan 15, 2023 at 18:17
  • Be a bit careful with Tolkien as a yardstick. For one, some people accuse him of racism, and I've heard (a quote whose source now eludes me) that even he, himself was a bit troubled about his world's black-white-ness. I.e. Sauron is stereotypical and one-dimensional by design and Tolkien later wondered if that was the right way to go. (Or at least his critics did.)
    – Erk
    Jan 17, 2023 at 19:28

3 Answers 3


The Lord of the Rings is (IMO) not really about Sauron; it is a character story about people struggling to do what is right without becoming evil themselves.

When your story is about characters overcoming something, the antagonist doesn't even have to be personified; it can be cancer, or any other disease, or a natural catastrophe like a flood or earthquake, or some simple one-dimensional villain that takes courage and overcoming terror and self-doubt to defeat. It can even be a social quandary, like being a homosexual in society where everybody you know, and your own family, is homophobic.

I think LOTR is ultimately about the characters and how they develop and grow, for better or worse, their courage and cowardice, their successes and failures, in a well developed and superbly imagined fantasy world.

It is a fine quest, but ultimately very simple: Take the ring and dispose of it, and they do. The story is in how difficult this is for them, how much courage it takes, how much terror they must overcome. All the worse for being weak little hobbits! It would have been much less of a story if the main characters were all powerful wizards banding together; no the real heroes of the story had to be the size and strength of children!

If you are writing an adventure or detective novel (Sherlock) or an action series or superhero story (e.g. 007, Mission Impossible, Die Hard, Superman, Batman), there is very little character growth in those types of stories. Your protagonist is basically a superhero, so you want your villains to be a decent match for them; not weak or stupid or incompetent. It's not much fun for Superman to go up against dumb bank robbers, the outcome is too obvious. To be a story, there must be a believable chance that Superman will lose this fight, and the villain must be powerful enough to knock Superman back on his butt a few times, the villain has to win some rounds in this fight.

But if you are writing a character development story, the story is different. The protagonist is their own antagonist, they are struggling with their own fear and cowardice, and they "lose" when those win, and their ultimate success is when they find the courage to prevail.

In Die Hard, Bruce Willis has the courage to fight from the beginning, and never gives up. He is outmatched and out-thought from the start, he gets kicked in the face again and again, but keeps getting back to fight no matter what, until he finally catches a break and prevails. The same with Superman, or James Bond, or Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible.

That doesn't happen in character development stories, in these the character has weaknesses and struggles to overcome them. A nominal "antagonist" is more of a symbolic driver, like Sauron. The real antagonist is within; their personal weaknesses.


You usually want to create drama. The archetype source of drama is conflict. The canonical sources of conflict are: man vs man, man vs himself, man vs nature. In fantasy we add on magic under "nature." LOTR has just huge amounts of all of these.

As @Amadeus says, the antagonist in LOTR isn't really Sauron. Depending on the sub-story line it's Saruman, or it's Gollum, or it's one of the Ring Wraiths, and so on. These are actual characters that enter for some portion of the story, as opposed to Sauron, who is little more than a "special effect." Sauron does have a few lines in the movies, but he's not much of a character. Roughly the amount of character you could get by looking through a key hole and finding somebody looking back at you.

But characters such as Gollum are memorable. You don't have trouble recalling Saruman. The leader of the Orcs, even though you may not have been given his name, you will have no trouble remembering him. The Ring Wraiths suffered a little bit of the "it's a costume" syndrome. But you won't soon forget Worm Tongue.

The goal is to make your writing interesting. The way to do that is interesting characters and interesting drama. Making strong opponents is a way. But they must be interesting.


While they are frequently found embodied in the same character, it need not be the case that a villain and an Antagonist are not occupying the same space in a story. A villain is a character who represents a choice of moral evil in a story, while an antagonist is an element of the story that directly challenges the hero and his/her goals and stands as an obstacle to the hero's success.

As I have said in other answers, the Disney Film Mulan (1998) has the villain of Shan Yu, one of the weakest villains in the animated canon of Disney films, but he does not directly oppose Mulan, nor is his defeat a goal of hers. Rather, Mulan's stated goal is finding a place in her society, when her personality does not fit China's gender roles. Thus Shan-Yu's invasion is neither done by his motivation to defeat Mulan nor is her decision to hide that she is a woman to join the army motivated by a personal animosity to Shan Yu. I don't believe she even mentions his name until the Third Act of the film.

Rather, Mulan's antagonist is Chinese society as a whole, which freely admits she is a second class citizen because of her gender, and her victory over the antagonist is when she saves the Emperor only after Shan Yu kidnaps him. Shan Yu for his part, doesn't begrudge Mulan for her gender, but drops more valuable targets because Mulan is "The soldier from the mountains" who single handedly looked him in the eye and defeated his 1000s strong army. That is, he saw her as a threat to his present safety, and knew she was a dangerous tactician. He never once refers to her by her gender, something the very allies she saved held against her despite her quick thinking saving their asses. In fact, by the time she and Shan Yu face off, the Emperor's already safe.

In another example, in some works where the villain is the protagonist (Breaking Bad) the antagonist is the hero or a character who represents a choice of moral good in the story. In Breaking Bad, Walter White is the villain protagonist and and is ultimately confronted by Hank Schrader, who despite his personal flaws, is committed to stopping Walter's drug empire, making him a heroic antagonist.

In some stories, the line is further blurred. In A Christmas Carol where the character's are all concerned with Scrooge's salvation, Scrooge is our protagonist, and while he is clearly evil on the onset, the spirits mission is to show Scrooge that much of his pain is due to no one but himself: If he insists on blaming others in the past for his self-induced misery, and refuses to see goodness when others offer it to him despite his abrasiveness, he will die unloved and un-mourned. In this case, Scrooge is the protagonist, and his miserly and cruel personality in the beginning is his own antagonist the Ghosts are offering him a chance to see the error of his ways, but it's his own ego that he has to beat.

Still in other works, the "antagonist" is not evil at all and is merely doing what it does because it is in it's nature to do it. In the film, Homeward Bound, while the Dogs and Cat are clearly the protagonists of the film, their is no one who means them ill will and all "antagonists" are trying to help them if they are human and the animals do not understand this OR are environmental and doing what they would do. The Mountain Lion is hunting the dogs, but it's only doing so because, as a wild animal, it hunts for it's food. The river sweeps the cat away and injures her out of no malice. It behaves as a river would. In these cases, no villain exists, but the antagonist exists in the form of the neutrality of the environment. In these cases, the protaganists simple goal of "continue living" is opposed by nature doing what it does, and the hero must overcome by using his wits and skills and quick thinking to last while out of his element.

An antagonist doesn't need to have any personal agency in the story or have a strong reason to oppose the protagonist or even hate the antagonist. They don't have to be characters or personified. Only villain antagonist does need some reason to oppose the hero because it is their morally evil actions that provide a challenge for the hero to overcome.

  • Interesting! You're doing with the villain-antagonist what Dramatica did with the hero-protagonist-main character. I'd love to read sources.
    – Erk
    Jan 17, 2023 at 20:00
  • I've written this for numerous other questions asking about villains and antagonists. The terms refer to two different meta-role in a story, that need not be portrayed by the same elements of a story. A villain, a hero, and a protagonist must have some kind of human understanding of the morality of actions... An antagonist does not have these constraints... and I disagree with the article, as the antagonist is the prime mover of any story. The protagonist is a reactionary actor to the antagonists actions.
    – hszmv
    Jan 17, 2023 at 20:12
  • In my opinion, you're half right (writing.stackexchange.com/questions/46655/…) The protagonist starts out reactive but ends up proactive... call it western philosophy that a hero wins by taking action, but good stories IMHO end with the protagonist taking control of the events even so much as not just thwarting the antagonist's plans but actually making their own plans and/or playing a different game than the one the antagonist has presented. (Katniss comes to mind...)
    – Erk
    Jan 17, 2023 at 20:31

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