For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton’s third law of motion could equally apply to fiction as well as physics. Creating a good story requires a protagonist, and for every protagonist, there needs to be an antagonist. A strong antagonist will not only elevate your plot, by providing conflict, tension and drama but also your protagonist: the central character in your story needs to stretch him or herself, grow, change, and summon inner resources to defeat the villain.
The key to creating a memorable antagonist is empathy. Of course, having empathy for all our characters is a requisite part of story-telling, but arguably, no more so than for the baddie. After all, few people think they are evil, nor believe they are acting heinously. Most of us are able to justify our actions to ourselves and others. So, put as much effort into creating an antagonist as into your protagonist. Know as much about them, what they want, what their motivation is and their background as possible. Walk a mile in everyone’s shoes, not just the good guys’!
Think creatively about your antagonist: an antagonist need not be a person, but could be a force, a concept, a trait or a psychological state. For instance, in 1984 the antagonist is ‘the Party’ given the human (or inhuman) face of ‘Big Brother’. In spy thrillers, there is often a conspiracy or a government cover up; in LA Confidential, the hero is battling his own alcoholism; in Sense of an Ending, the opponent is human nature – the anti-hero, Tony’s inherent character flaws; in Solar it’s global warming. There may be multiple antagonists. The antagonist may not be who they seem: the person your central character thinks of as their enemy could actually be their friend and, conversely, their friend may, in fact, be their enemy. In My Cousin Rachel, Rachel is a wife, a widow, a lover and the love interest to the male characters, as well as potentially being a murderous poisoner.