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On Antagonists and the Villainous Mastermind

August 22, 2012 by Kiersi

Yesterday I had one of those dreaded “duh” moments while talking plot with my good friend and co-conspirator, @eddyrivas.

Antagonists have a tendency to hide their faces. In my case, while working on The Aeronauts, one of Eddy’s best plot criticisms was that the evil Empire seemed “faceless.” Sure, we knew who the Emperor was by name and reputation, but it was hard for the reader to get a full and believable sense of his badness. As readers, we get that he’s a bad guy because everyone says he’s a bad guy–but where’s the proof? Where’s that gnarled, hawk-nosed face to go with it?

The problem is in novels where the villain is simply not physically present. We, as readers, are not privy to the villain’s narration. We don’t always know where he is, what he’s doing, or what he’s thinking–which is a great plot device, but if not done right, can leave the villain’s sheer villainy feeling a little flat.

What is your villain’s master plan? Before your protagonist came along and messed everything up, what was your antagonist’s vision of the future? How did he see the plot playing out before an unexpected hero stumbled onto the scene?

Write a brief outline of a different scenario, had your protagonist stayed out of it. What are the steps in his plan? What players are involved? What is the final result?

Keeping the master plan in mind as you routinely destroy it will help lend face to your antagonist. His outrage at being thwarted by your hero’s hijinks will come pre-scripted for you.

How does your villain try to get the plan back on track? If, like mine, your villain has this daunting “faceless” quality, give him some desperation. Write him a new plan, once his old one gets thrown out the window. Keep writing new plans as the hero changes the game. Events will unfold as the antagonist struggles to make things right again, and push along your plot.

Villainy ensues.

I put a picture of Jafar from Aladdin at the top of this article because he is a fabulous example of a villain with a master plan–and one who adapts even more villainously to each wrench that Aladdin throws into his schemes. Jafar not only fixes the problems Aladdin creates, but finds opportunities in Aladdin’s mistakes, such as leaving the genie’s lamp unguarded. When writing this type of antagonist, I find Disney movies–in all their standard archetypes and plot devices–can be a great help.

Edit: Someone mentioned a good point, which is that villains consider themselves the heroes of their own narratives. Not often do villains view themselves as the bad guys. Great to keep in mind while writing that realistic antagonist!


  1. I agree that the villain has to adapt as the hero changes the game. Villains are usually just as smart as they are evil. I think their intelligence is what makes them so scary.

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