The Ideal Antagonist – With help from Saladin Ahmed, Mary Robinette Kowal, Alastair Reynolds and more!


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This week on The Roundtable Podcast, wandering alchemist Ben Delano met with esteemed authors (Saladin Ahmed, Mary Robinette Kowal, Myke Cole, Peter V. Brett and others!) at ConFusion 2013 to discuss what they deem the ideal antagonist.

For those of you who can’t listen right now, I’ve transcribed the author responses below.

Want the audio? Tune into The Roundtable Podcast and feast your ears on the full episodes:

Wandering Around in CONFusion pt. 1
Wandering Around in CONFusion pt. 2

Saladin Ahmed: I’m a little out of fashion in that I like genuinely evil villains and my villains tend to be not terribly morally complex and just people who are doing horrible things that you want to stop. That’s just me. I like to read all sorts of kinds but that’s the kind that I write.

Peter V. Brett: I think the ideal antagonist is somebody who, from their perspective, is doing the right thing and considers themselves a hero, but due to conflicting world views comes into conflict with other characters.

I think that’s a lot more realistic than most of your cookie-cutter villains who are just evil for the sake of being evil. I like villains who are real, in-depth people who have their own wants and needs and desires that just come into conflict with other characters.

Myke Cole: My ideal antagonist is an antagonist who’s argument makes sense. I hate antagonists who are villains who are evil for the sake of being evil. Everyone thinks they are the good guy, especially the bad guy.

And more importantly, the insanity defense where the antagonist is evil just because their crazy doesn’t hold water for me, either. You have to make an argument, you have to explore the OTHER side of that argument, and you have to be able to address the fact that sometimes there is no right answer.

Carrie Harris: I would say that my ideal antagonist has to be unexpected. You can’t be able to see them coming from a million miles away.

However, it also needs to be someone who means something to the protagonist. If it’s some total stranger you’ve never seen before, it’s not going to have that same emotional impact.

If it’s someone that the protagonist has grown to know, love, and care about in some way and, just as importantly, the reader cares about, that’s the antagonist that will really turn a story on its heels.

Jim C. Hines: The antagonist needs to make sense. They need to be more than just a cardboard sort of villain. They need to have motivations, they need to have reasons for what they’re doing.

It’s fine if you think this person is scum and must be destroyed and we will all cheer when they get flung down the elevator shaft in book four. But you have to at least understand where they are coming from.

For me, if I can create an antagonist that, yes, you’re happy when the good guys win, but there’s some part of you that feels bad, then I figure, ‘Okay, I’ve done good here.’

Kat Howard: My ideal antagonist is someone who is very much aware that they are the hero of their own story. If we were telling this from the other perspective, they’d be the one winning. I want to make sure that I can convey that on my pages; that they are a full, complete character, that there’s a certain degree of sympathy for them and, my own personal quirk, I like them to have a good vocabulary.

Mary Robinette Kowal: To me the ideal antagonist depends on who the protagonist is because what I like to see with an antagonist is a way to show off what is specific and unique about the protagonist.

It’s almost a FOIL in a lot of ways because it is a way to create unique challenges that showcase the protagonist’s strengths. So an antagonist that will work really well for one protagonist is just going to look soft and fluffy for another one.

Alastair Reynolds: I don’t tend to go for the sort of black and white, good guys and bad guys thing. I always like to get into the heads of my characters and think, ‘Why would this person be acting in this way, given the circumstances?’

Because most people feel that they’re doing the right thing. If you look at the big villains of history, they probably felt totally justified in what they were doing. They didn’t feel like they were cartoon bad guys who are just being evil for the sake of it.

If I’m writing a science fiction novel where I have a hero and I want to put an antagonist up against the hero, I want to feel that this is a plausible situation. To some extent, I don’t really think in terms of antagonist and protagonists. I just think of people who maybe have different objectives and different views on how they’re going to get to a common goal.

One of the novels I wrote, about half-way through my career, was about two women who are in the command structure of a space craft in the relatively near future, and they are suddenly confronted with a situation where it’s not clear what the best course of action is. One of them feels obliged to toe the company line. She feels that this is going to be in the best interest of the group. The other one doesn’t want anything to do with it. She feels that they’re being asked to do something totally unreasonable that’s out of their contracts and they shouldn’t do it. This sets these two women on a collision course, even though they’re good friends.

I wrote alternating viewpoint chapters where I was in the head of one woman and then in the head of the other, and I always tried not to think of one of them as the antagonist. I was trying to root for both of them in a way to see how they could work this out.

Michael J. Sullivan: The most important thing I think you need to have is believability. The person has to be a real person with real motivations and not just someone who is naturally evil because he is an evil person, but rather someone who actually has reasons behind what they’re doing and in his mind is a good person. If you can create that in a character then you create someone who is in contrast to the protagonist; not just an invented obstacle, but a person who actually could have his own story written from a different perspective.

Sam Sykes: The ideal antagonist has to be understandable in some way and they have to connect with me, the reader, either emotionally or logically. I have to be able to know what he is doing and that it makes sense. I think a lot of authors, especially in fantasy, want to shoot for the biggest, baddest, world-killingest villain they possibly can, and that doesn’t really work because it’s too big for most people to imagine and they just don’t imagine it. They don’t relate.

The bigger the villain and the less scrutible his motives, the less of a threat he actually is because we can remove ourselves from the conflict.

If we think about a villain who connects with us emotionally, then we wonder if we’re doing the right thing or if the antagonist is doing the right thing. If we’re just stopping him from the doing the right thing then we’re no longer rooting for the protagonist, are we?

That’s not to say that every villain or antagonist has to have totally pure motives that are just somehow twisted. Some of them can be doing outright evil things but it needs to make sense from a logical standpoint.

Patrick S. Tomlinson: My ideal antagonist is realistic. I like for villains to make sense. I don’t want them to be mindlessly evil sends-out-plagues-just-to-destroy-humanity type of people. I want villains to have motivations that, even if you don’t agree with them, make some level of sense. I want villains who are, in some small measure, sympathetic, tragic characters.

My favorite up until this point has been Magneto because his priorities simply don’t align with the rest of mankind’s but you can understand where he’s coming from especially with his backstory. He’s a very sympathetic villain who is fighting for something he believes in very strongly, and it’s actually, in a lot of ways, hard to tell him he’s wrong.

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